Going the distance

If `Born to Run', the BBC's new Sunday-night drama, looks like a winner before the off, that's probably because its director is Jean Stewart. Interview by David Benedict

Fourteen minutes into the BBC's cracking new series Born to Run, blustering businessman Terence Rigby stands up at a party he's thrown and thunders into a karaoke version of the theme song from Fame. "I'm gonna live for ever," he threatens... and keels over with a heart attack. You find yourself gawping at the screen as this family drama lurches into black farce.

The great strength of Debbie Horsfield's funny, sharp-toothed six-parter is that her sinewy, slippery script defies categorisation. It plunges straight into the story of Keith Allen, second-in-command at his father's garage, who is cheating on his dowdy wife Marian McLaughlin - "she's neither use nor ornament" - with marathon-runner Linda Henry. Just when you think you're in a Northern Bouquet of Barbed Wire, we're suddenly into Chariots of Fire meets Shirley Valentine as not-so-grieving, almost-widow Billie Whitelaw returns from Tenerife and starts causing uproar. Plus a high- comedy King Lear sister-act and Tiffany, the spunky garage receptionist with dreams of stardom who sings Eurythmics songs and catfood commercials over the tannoy. A script as bold, emotionally powerful and downright wacky as this needs a director with a very wide range. The smart move the BBC made was to hire Jean Stewart.

"I just stared at the script and thought, `What are these people doing? Who are they?' It treads a very fine line but there's an emotional honesty underpinning everything so you keep on being interested despite the outrageousness." She saw her role as being about marrying the broad comedy with the detailed exploration of the lives of a tight-knit group of people, but admits to having been frightened by the prospect. "I thought, `You could go really wrong with this'." At the time she was being offered a lot of American films for much better money, but the scripts didn't interest her. "I think I'm fairly picky about what I do. My agent tried hard to persuade me not to do it, saying `It's a year of your life' and `Are you sure you want this at this point?' but I just loved Debbie's scripts."

There's a calm, quiet determination about this warm, confident woman who jettisoned a lecturing career, after pursuing a PhD, and broke into film by acting in a video project. "I was lousy at being a student," she jokes, "it was so lonely... I couldn't sit in that library day in, day out and not talk to anyone!" She realised she wasn't going to be an actress but became completely intrigued by film. At a time when women technicians were in vogue, she worked as a camera operator on Channel 4 documentaries and then went to the National Film School.

Armed with two graduation films, including one by rising screenwriter Philip Myall, she walked straight into EastEnders. "The night before my first studio I couldn't speak I was so terrified, but it was very exciting. I'd advise anyone to do it. You learn to think very quickly and it teaches you so much about pacing and rhythm: that's what you're manipulating all the time." From there, she whipped through the genres, doing the police on The Bill, hospitals on Medics and then Men of the Month, Rona Munro's semi-improvised drama about men and sex - "only partially successful," she concedes, although it led to the notorious Cracker trilogy about a rapist which challenged all the ideas surrounding representations of black people and violence towards women.

She thought long and hard before accepting it and then shot the rapes from the victims' point of view to remove the erroneous equation of rape with sex. For logistical reasons the first attack had to be shot at night. "We were in this huge, empty swimming-pool at three in the morning re- enacting a rape and some of the crew got very upset. Standing back and looking at what we were doing, I thought, `What the hell am I doing?', but they came up to me afterwards and said it was worth it."

She credits writer Jimmy McGovern for his skill at weaving between all the issues, adding that she hopes that what she gave it was emotional truth. Despite a public demonstration by Women Against Rape, she received masses of letters, nearly all of them positive. "One woman wrote that she had been very badly raped and never wanted to go out or see anything on the subject but she had steeled herself to watch it and found it a kind of therapy and said it had strengthened her. My biggest worry was that it had frightened women into their homes, but I don't think it did."

Stewart displayed a similarly sure, empathetic approach to emotional intensity on the funny, tough, gay love story Nervous Energy, which the BBC chose to show on World Aids Day, but, bizarrely, despite countless ovations at film festivals around the world, has never repeated. Writer Howard Schuman is convinced that her input strengthened his script. "Slowly and discreetly, she pared away things that were excessive, releasing the spine of the material." Having watched her shooting a memory sequence of the lovers' relationship, he cut six others that he realised were no longer needed. "She was the same with the actors, simplifying over-complex emotions. Her scenes were conceived very simply but she knew exactly when to pull out the emotional shots. She was inside my head to an astonishing degree."

An unflashy director, Stewart is at a loss when asked to define her style. "I like to move the camera a lot... I'm told there is a fluidity about the way I shoot. And I think I'm quite brave about allowing actors enough space to move within a scene. I hate tying them down. I do push. I keep going with them until I get what I think is right." Which is why actors of the calibre of Marian McLoughlin and John McArdle keep returning to her as they do to such moving effect in Born to Run.

The series is cantilevered around Keith Allen's adultery and the truth of the character of his fitness-obsessed lover. Stewart was determined to cast Linda Henry, the feisty mother in the film of Beautiful Thing, despite her having the wrong accent, the wrong shape and the wrong hair. "We got her a personal trainer and about three weeks into her fitness regime she said, `I don't understand. You want me to change my hair, change my voice, change my shape, why do you want me for this part?'" Her character's immovable view of life could easily have seemed implausible but as Stewart says, "Linda just made you feel it." Which is exactly what Stewart's direction does. Emotional recognition is, after all, what it's all about.

`Born to Run' is on Sundays, BBC1, 9pm

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935