Gilbert was a child actor. His first feature was for children, and his most appealing movie, The Greengage Summer, is a whimsy on adolescence that makes good use of Susannah York and jane Asher, while Friends and Paul and Michelle are further sticky studies of young love.
In the war, he was attached to the American Air Corps film unit and immediately afterwards he made documentaries. But there is precious little authenticity in his jingoistic war films: Reach for the Sky, the Douglas Bader story for audiences with wooden heads; Carve Her Name With Pride, with Virginia McKenna insisting on Englishness in the French Resistance; and Sink the Bismarck, with an exclamation mark. The Seventh Dawn harked back to the Malaya troubles, but H.M.S. Defiant went much further, to faded memories of Mutiny on the Bounty. Gilbert abandoned all in two tame James Bond films, the shameful Adventurers. and a coy romance about a navy Prince and a pretty Japanese.
But he made a comeback with the crowd-pleasing Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, clever variations on the idea that a middle-aged woman can still make a lot out of life—and both taken from plays by Willy Russell.
Married Hylda Henrietta Tafler Gilbert. 2 children.