Back from the drink

The drunker he got, the better he thought he worked. But when the director Karl Francis got his Hollywood break, he blew it, big time. He's back, and this time he's sober. By Peter Guttridge
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The Independent Culture
His name may not be widely known, but as a film-maker Karl Francis is up there with the big boys. At least on his own reckoning. "I could make films that Scorsese or Spielberg couldn't make, and frankly I could make some they have made a lot better," says the man who, when he worked at the BBC, called John Birt "a bloody cowboy" and threw him out of his cutting room. "When you're from the poor end of film-making, as I am, you learn technique. The one thing I know is how to make a film."

Certainly the two Americans might find it tricky exploring the socio- political fabric of the South Wales valleys, as Francis has done so powerfully over two decades in films like Above Us the Earth (1977), Ms Rhymney Valley (1985) and The Angry Earth (1989). He returns to his home village with Street Life, his grittily humorous but increasingly harrowing new film about a woman whose life unravels when she kills her newborn baby.

Francis, whose reputation for confronting serious issues in realistic drama rivals that of Ken Loach, has never suffered from false modesty. When he was drinking, as he was throughout the Seventies, his arrogance scuppered his chances of a career in Hollywood and rendered him unemployable in British film and television.

"The combination of my drunken ego and political talk got me blacklisted in the Seventies," he says ruefully. "I'd worked in television for four years, I'd won awards for my documentaries, produced Weekend World and the Melvyn Bragg programme that later became The South Bank Show. I'd won Bafta awards. But I couldn't get a job. My life basically crashed when I was about 33."

Now 52 and off the booze since the start of the Eighties, Francis is frank about those years. "I was impossible," he says simply. "I offended everybody. When I called John Birt a bloody cowboy and threw him out of an editing room I might well have been right at the time - but I was bloody rude, too."

The son of a politically committed South Wales colliery worker (who named him after Karls Marx and Liebknecht), he'd gone into television in the late Sixties after studying film at Hornsey Art College and the Slade. He was a radical like his father. "I've been on the edge of Christian Socialism all my life. But being, if you like, a sinner, being a bugger of a boy really, your dick got in the way of your beliefs a lot."

Over the next few years working in television, he developed a style of work he called "documentary narratives". His technique of re-creating events within a supposed documentary caused controversy among purists, but also won him several awards. However, his drinking and combativeness towards his employers made him persona non grata.

"For the next few years out in the cold I got drunk, blamed a lot of people, and wrote. I worked as a fitter's mate, fiddled the dole, got divorced. I couldn't see how my drunken behaviour was hurting people. But when you're drunk you can't see yourself at all. I was a socialist in thought but a fascist emotionally."

He got back into the industry with Above Us the Earth in 1977, an acclaimed fiction film set against the (real-life) closure of a colliery in his own community of Bedwas and Fochriw.

"I was still a pain. The head of BBC2 invited me in to meet the heads of all the departments because they were really impressed with this film. I arrived an hour late with a bottle of Polish vodka in my pocket and being rude to everybody."

He carried on drinking partly because he thought his creativity depended on it. "I made The Mouse and the Woman in 1980 when I was drunk, and it ended up in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes."

The then head of Paramount invited Francis to breakfast with major Hollywood players Don Simpson (producer of Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun and so on) and Jeffrey Katzenburg (now one of Stephen Spielberg's partners in his new studio venture).

"They were obviously wanting to offer me a job. So what did I do? I gave them a fucking Marxist lecture about Hollywood."

Francis joined Alcoholics Anonymous soon after. "I haven't drunk since and I haven't stopped working. I felt reawakened when I gave up - though I'm still a bugger of a boy. But I've learnt to be a creative artist without destroying people around me."

His most recent work has been directing Lynda La Plante's Civvies and the TV work of GF Newman. He was inspired to write Street Life for himself by a newspaper headline. "I saw a headline and a photo of a young policeman carrying a baby's coffin. Originally I was going to make Street Life about the policeman - I think a good policeman is the best person on earth and a bad policeman is the worst. But then the police played me the tape of a mother who had phoned in to report the death of her baby and it haunted me."

After doing highly politicised work for many years, Francis is pleased that he has been able to write about feelings. "It's been a very unusual period of emotional growth for me. Doing this film seems to have released an interest in my own emotional and sexual feelings. I think I've finally laid the female ghosts of my past and I'm brave enough to write about them."

These days his abrasiveness seems to have gone - he's a relaxed interviewee who seems at ease with himself. "I quote Thomas Merton: 'A tree serves God best by being a tree.' It's taken a few years, but I think I know what kind of oak I'm made of."

n 'Street Life' will be shown on BBC2 this Saturday at 9pm