Ian Whittaker’s obituary

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Set designer Ian Whittaker, who died of prostate cancer at the age of 94, won an Oscar (shared with his longtime collaborator, production designer Luciana Arrighi) for the 1992 film version of EM’s Howards End Forster. This was among the best in a series of literary adaptations directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant and scripted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Whittaker was in the running for another Oscar for the same team film as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1993), though his career wasn’t limited to costume drama. “Public houses, stately homes, spaceships, I’ve done them all,” he said.

His first nomination was for Ridley Scott’s intergalactic horror film Alien (1979). To build the futuristic interior of the Nostromo spacecraft, where most of the action takes place, he assembled pieces of old washing machines: “We just pinned them to the wall and sprayed them white.”

He described his craft as “how to create an iceberg. Only 10% of what you do is actually seen and 90% is hidden, but it’s important to create an atmosphere for the actors. “Ten percent might be too optimistic at times. For a 1990 TV adaptation of The Old Man and Ernest Hemingway’s Seaside with Anthony Quinn, private jets transported material from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands, though none of Whittaker’s decorated sets ended up on screen.

He was born in London to Hugh Whittaker, a stage manager who later became personal assistant to actor George Arliss, and to Hettie (née Wilson), a musical theater artist. When World War II broke out, the family moved to Hayling Island in Hampshire, where they had a holiday home. Ian was educated at Portsmouth High School before another evacuation took him 50 miles to Bournemouth.

With the ambition of becoming an actor, he enrolled in the Rada in London, where his classmates included Roger Moore, Miriam Karlin and Yootha Joyce. He made his debut as an extra as an extra in the Old Vic company at the New Theater in London. In the famous 1945 production of Oedipus Rex, starring Laurence Olivier in the title role and Ralph Richardson in the role of Tiresias, it was Whittaker who led Olivier to the stage every night after Oedipus went blind.

Bette Davis, left, and Kyle Richards in The Watcher in the Woods, 1980. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

He was drafted into the army at the age of 18 and seconded to Trieste after requesting a transfer to the Broadcasting Services of the Armed Forces. Upon his return to civilian life, his youthful appearance allowed him to play youthful roles for many years. He starred in the London stage production of Cosh Boy and was also in Lewis Gilbert’s 1953 film version. The director cast him in the role of a nauseated nurse in The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954). In The Silent Enemy (1958), a thriller about underwater commando Lionel “Buster” Crabb (Laurence Harvey), Whittaker played the only member of Crabb’s team who couldn’t swim.

Small parts followed on television and in film, including uncredited appearances in Sink the Bismarck! (1960) and Billy Budd (1962). After integrating his acting work with painting and decoration, Whittaker sought a job in the art department and ended up in Catch Us If You Can (1965), John Boorman’s film with the Dave Clark Five. His duties included transforming a disused church in East London into the band’s quarters.

From this point on, he was never unemployed as a set designer, art director or set decorator. Assignments in the previous role included Charlie Chaplin-Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), he said, “he didn’t know how to use the vast sets he was given. [and] hid in a corner ”- as did The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

Among his 13 collaborations with director Ken Russell was The Devils (1971), with sets by budding director Derek Jarman. For Russell Tommy’s rock opera (1975), in which actor Ann-Margret writhes between baked beans and chocolate, it was Whittaker’s idea to hang white curtains that could easily be replaced when the set inevitably was splattered with goo. In Walt Disney’s live-action ghost story The Watcher in the Woods (1980), he worked closely with her star Bette Davis, familiarizing her with her cottage and character props. “She wasn’t so great that she wouldn’t let me help her get it right,” she remarked.

He collaborated again with Boorman on The Emerald Forest (1985), for which he spent six months in Brazil looking for props. He was the decorator of the Prince musical Under the Cherry Moon and the fantasy adventure Highlander (both 1986) and Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility (1995). Anna and the King (1999), a version of The King and I with Jodie Foster, asked Whittaker to build mansions on Malaysian golf courses.

His latest work, which also marked his fifteenth collaboration with Arrighi, was in From Time to Time (2009), set in an enchanted manor and directed by Julian Fellowes.

Whittaker leaves his partner Michael Hickman, whom he met in 1999 and entered into a civil partnership 10 years later, as well as seven grandchildren.

• Ian Roy Whittaker, set designer, born on 13 July 1928; died on October 16, 2022

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