ARTS : I was Sam Beckett's walker

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IF YOU are aware of him at all, it is probably for his candles. In My Night with Reg, they light every corner of the stage for the opening of the last act. In The Buddha of Suburbia - recently repeated on BBC2 - they are found on floors and floating in baths. "Wait till you see Persuasion," he says. "They're everywhere. We even used banks of them behind the camera to give more light!"

Roger Michell is one of the few directors who moves effortlessly between film and stage, and is equally successful in both. When I meet him at the National Theatre he is casting for his production of Under Milk Wood, due to open at the Olivier in April. Persuasion, a film adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, is being shown on BBC2 later this year. And Ready When You Are, Mr Patel, a documentary about the Indian actor Harish Patel, is due to be broadcast next month, as part of BBC1's Omnibus season.

Yet Michell has so far achieved surprisingly little recognition outside the industry, especially when you compare his standing with that of his university contemporary, Nicholas Hytner. As Kevin Loader, another Cambridge contemporary and the producer of Buddha, recalls: "The two of them were definitely the star [student] directors of those years". But whereas Hytner has gone on to make his name as the director of operas and spectacular productions such as Miss Saigon, Michell has remained committed to smaller- scale work.

He was born in 1956, the third child of a diplomat. The only reason he can see for his interest in theatre and film is "a childhood of watching my parents behaving artificially at social events". That, and an abiding interest in travel stemming from an upbringing in Damascus, Beirut and Prague. It has created, he says, an appetite for "exploring different artistic worlds".

Tbe image of an explorer is a fitting one and, like the best of them, Michell responds to the culture he visits rather than imposing his own upon it. Hanif Kureishi, the author of The Buddha of Suburbia, is one of many who are impressed by this sensitivity: "He's terrific. He really directs what [the author has] written." It's a versatility which makes it hard to tell a "Michell production" - except by its quality.

When you meet him, he is a large but modest presence. He considers questions carefully, and replies in a calm, intelligent way, constantly interjecting with questions of his own. A small heap of cigarette stubs in the ashtray, each with its filter broken off, is the only indication that this sense of ease is hard won. "They're Silk Cut," he explains, "I usually smoke Marlboro. My assistant gave them to me."

Michell started directing plays at Clifton College in Bristol at the age of eight. By the time he won an exhibition to read English at Queens' College, Cambridge, he knew that was what he wanted to do. He remembers a fellow undergraduate at the end of one of his drama productions coming up to him and insisting that the Footlights was the place to be. And he remembers replying he couldn't because there was an obscure "bit of Beckett" he wanted to do. The undergraduate was Jimmy Mulville.

But obscure plays stood him in good stead. In his second year, he took Edward Bond's Bingo to the National Student Drama Festival and won the Buzz Goodbody Award for Best Director. The following year he won a Fringe First for Private Dick, a play he co-wrote and later directed in the West End. In 1978, at the age of 22, he won a place on the Regional Director's Scheme at the Royal Court.

And so back to Beckett. "I couldn't believe it. I'd just written a dissertation about Samuel Beckett and here he was in the same room as me." Michell was assigned to assist the author on a production of Happy Days and, perhaps more significantly, to walk him back to his hotel each evening. One night the talk was Dante, the next, snooker. "He was very keen on watching snooker. He couldn't get it on his TV in Paris."

Three years as an assistant at the Royal Court led to work at the Lyric and the Young Vic, before six years at the RSC, first as an assistant, then as a director. I remember seeing his 1988 production of The Constant Couple three times. I was struck both by its confident sense of theatricality, and the nuances of its comedy. It is a sensibility Kevin Loader believes he brought to Buddha: "He somehow managcd to convey not just the comedy, but the pain underneath."

The break into television came via the three-month BBC Director's Course. Mike Crisp, who has been an instructor on the course for the past eight years, considers Michell to have been the best student they ever had. For a while Crisp showed his final drama-exercise film to subsequent courses as a way of demonstrating what could be done, "but no one else came close".

Part of Michell's secret may be his ability to adapt so quickly from one media to another, and to establish a rapport with actors. John Sessions, who is currently starring in My Night with Reg, talks of him as one of the most popular theatre directors in the business and, alongside Trevor Nunn, the best.

He inspires a loyalty from actors that reflects his own loyalty to them. He travelled all the way to Bombay to find the right person to play Changez, the bridegroom-to-be in Buddha. But once he has decided, he is committed, supporting his actors in every way he can: "If you cast someone, it's your fault if they're not brilliant."

Michell lives in London with his wife, the actress Kate Buffery, and Harry, their three-year-old son. It looks likely that his time of anonymity is about to end, but still he says his only hope is to "do more of what I'm doing at the moment: a play or a documentary or a film . . . I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing."

! `Ready When You Are, Mr Patel' is at 10.25pm on 14 March, BBC1. `My Night With Reg' is at the Criterion, WC2 (071-839 4488).