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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