Monday, 23 May 2016

Antonia Bird: From EastEnders To Hollywood


At last, three years after her premature demise from cancer at the age of just 62 and following on from a BFI retrospective earlier this month, Antonia Bird gets the tribute and recognition she deserves with this superb documentary, From EastEnders To Hollywood from Susan Kemp.

It's hard to work out why Antonia Bird is so overlooked; certainly the number of awards and plaudits her work gained would suggest she should be as fondly remembered as Alan Clarke and the like, but that is sadly not the case. Kemp's film places gender at the heart of Bird's story, suggesting that the lack of appreciation points the way to a much wider issue concerning gender inequality in film and television, a claim which is very much asserted by Bird's good friend, the actor and director Kate Hardie.

Kemp’s documentary - shown on BBC4 last night alongside a 1986 episode of EastEnders directed by Bird, and her 2000 film Care - is both extremely detailed regarding Bird's impressive and groundbreaking career, as well as being firmly in keeping with Bird's own beliefs and political stance. I love that the film chose not to follow the usual linear structure of early days to final days, to instead hit the ground running with an exploration of one of Bird's finest works, Safe; a 1993 BBC2 film concerning the plight of the homeless on the streets of London. In choosing this as her starting point, Kemp is not only paying tribute to one of Bird's most satisfying and important signature pieces, she is also addressing the inequality that remains at the heart of our society in the same manner that Bird did. Homelessness has risen once again since David Cameron entered Number 10 six years ago and is showing no sign of decreasing. This pressing problem is neatly paralleled here, especially with the inclusion of archive footage from parliament which shows present Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn haranguing the then PM Margaret Thatcher from the backbenches regarding this extreme poverty. It's meaning is clear; the problem continues and therefore the fight must do also. But worryingly, we do not have many filmmakers of Bird's calibre with a voice in primetime mainstream television any more. Much has been made recently of the desperate need to protect the BBC from Tory pressures, but the BBC lost its independent spirit a long time ago and is already gagged by government. It's telling that whilst it was commonplace to see such a polemical drama as Safe at 9pm on BBC2 in the early 90s, no such programme could be made now - or indeed, screened; BBC4's tribute to Bird last night neglected to show this film, after all.

Equally, it's worth pointing out that whilst the programmes Bird helped shape and create - EastEnders and Casualty - still exist some thirty years later, they do so in a very watered down, bland and acceptable state, devoid of the politics and anger that originally made them the success they were. Witness Casualty creator Paul Unwin discuss the 'Socialist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-Tory' roots of the medical drama and compare them to the vapid, kiss-among-the cubicles soap it is now and despair at how far down the road we've reached, and how a director like Bird would never even get a break today. 

The documentary, as the title implies, takes us through the entirety of Bird's career from her days at the Royal Court staging plays by Hanif Kureishi and Jim Cartwright, to '80s and early '90s TV and into feature films, including an unhappy, hampered stint in Hollywood with 1995's Mad Love, and back to TV again.  Kemp gains testaments from friends and colleagues such as Kate Hardie, Robert Carlyle, Mark Cousins, Irvine Welsh, Ruth Caleb, Paul Unwin and Ronan Bennett, with Hardie and Carlyle perhaps providing the most insightful comments, speaking with great fondness for their friend and frustration at the lack of widespread appreciation afforded her now and the many lost projects; most notably the Burke and Hare-inspired The Meat Trade, starring Carlyle with a screenplay by Welsh remains the most tantalising missed opportunity. Carlyle's appreciation of her talent is at its height when he discusses the film Ravenous, marvelling at how, when the original director left, Bird arrived (at his behest) to prep the film in just one week, commencing shooting almost instantly.

Overall, there is some suggestion that Bird's reputation as a political filmmaker may have seen her lose work as the industry became more toothless in the face of late New Labour and ConDem manipulation, whilst others address the difficulties facing female directors. Kemp herself raises the question that Bird's work was often uniquely masculine, and Carlyle confesses it has occurred to him but he is unable to provide an answer as to why, whilst Hardie believes she simply had to go where the work was, citing the projects that failed to get developed. 

If I had to make one criticism of this film it is that very little light is shed on Bird's private life, the focus is very much on the professional. However, there's no denying that the Antonia Bird Kemp presents us with is a truly admirable figure with an idealism and principles all too rare in the industry she found herself blazing a trail in.

She remains much missed.

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