Filmmaker Susan Kemp introduces Bird’s career and describes how she made the feature documentary Antonia Bird: From EastEnders to Hollywood.
Early in discussions it became obvious that one of the reasons Antonia Bird was not as visible a presence in the landscape of British cinema and television as she deserved to be was because her story was not at all straightforward. The complexity made it difficult to place her and so she was being lost. The idea for a documentary to make sense of it all made sense. Since there was no big book of Antonia Bird to go to the best place to start was in gathering testimony from the many friends and colleagues who knew her and her work. Whilst filming those interviews I discovered certain themes which gave the film structure and pace. When filming around her home in Shoreditch and trying to put the pieces together it occurred to me that London could be considered to be a kind of muse; one that had an impact on her politics and motivation, and which was present in many of her films and TV drama.
She’d first been an extraordinarily successful theatre director, moving easily between mainstream and radical new writing, before moving into television and breaking new territory with the massively popular EastEnders and Casualty and from there onto a wide range of episodic drama. She’d consistently challenged the status quo and when it came to directing her first singe feature ‘Safe’ she exploded into the world of cinema, as Mark Cousins’s says of the film itself, ‘like a volcano hurls lava’.
From there she directed Jimmy McGovern’s insightful and prescient script, ‘Priest’, which criticised the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church with an unyielding honesty. She was the only director producer George Faber considered capable of doing justice to such a subject and the film was an international success, being bought by Miramax for distribution in America and beyond. She was headhunted by Harvey Weinstein but whilst getting to Hollywood and directing her first studio feature film was an achievement in itself the film, ‘Mad Love’ suffered from the studio process. As much as they thought they wanted the raw ‘reality seeking missile’ (Mark Cousins, 2015) that was Antonia Bird, they actually wanted something much safer and easy.
Ronan Bennett had a screenplay with an edge to it, ‘Face’, and whilst Antonia was in America he could not find a director who could grasp the political subtext. Luckily for him Antonia left Hollywood to its own devices and returned just in time. After that she did return to the studio system at an emergency request from long term friend and collaborator, Robert Carlyle, who was involved in a comedy, cannibal caper, ‘Ravenous’ which was going badly wrong. She turned the production round on a knife edge and the result is undoubtedly one of her best films.
She returned to BBC drama in the late 90s to direct the astonishing ‘Care’, about abuse in a children’s home. Once again ahead of her time the film, according to executive producer Pippa Harris, was ‘one of the most important films the BBC had made’. She followed this with ‘Rehab’, a film about the consequences of drug addiction and in which she took a different tack – using improvisation to spark the scrip by Rhona Munro.
In addition to these successes, Mark and Antonia had long been developing their own ideas for feature films, along with Robert Carlryle and Irvine Welsh, as part of 4way Pictures but for many complex and complicated reasons, and although they had very many near misses, none of the films ever got off the ground. Ronan Bennett had another difficult project on the go – the story of the suicide bombers behind the 9/11 attacks. There was only one director who could tackle this project in the manner with which he intended and although it was a tough film to make the result is remarkable.
Antonia continued to make dramas, even scoring one more Bafta for her first ever documentary. ‘Off By Heart’, but her ambition to make another feature film through 4Way Pictures was, sadly, never achieved. Whilst working on ‘The Village’ she was diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later.
Because there is so many different aspects of Antonia it was felt that a documentary could set the context and make it easier for the world to understand and value her work. Whilst raising money for this the BFI agreed to do a retrospective, and this support was crucial in gaining the first foothold in what was an uphill struggle. With the support of Pippa Harris, Adam Dawtrey and Mary Bell eventually secured funding for the documentary, and I began filming.
The documentary launched the retrospective on May 12 and the ball is definitely now rolling. As we were making the film the debate about women in film began to simmer and then boiled over just as the film was sent out for advance publicity. With the Directors UK publishing Cut Out of the Picture: A study of gender inequality among film directors in the UK film industry and also Calling The Shots: Women and contemporary film culture in the UK the timing was serendipitous.
Whilst making the documentary, the complexities of Antonia Bird’s career became its strength. She was an extraordinary director: passionate and intelligent and, in the best tradition of artists, she could turn her hand to anything. The documentary will air on BBC Four on May 22, 2016 at 9pm.