Charles McDougall: Hit man on both sides of the Pond

From 'Cracker' to 'Desperate Housewives', Charles McDougall is a leading director over here and over there. He talks to Michael Park

There can't be many people who arrive for lunch in Beverly Hills via Manchester's gay village, the rainy streets of Derry, and Wisteria Lane, but that is exactly the route taken by Liverpudlian Charles McDougall.

Over the past decade, the unassuming McDougall has directed some of the biggest television hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Before moving to America, the 43-year-old had a CV listing such memorable shows as Between The Lines, Cracker and Queer As Folk, as well as both of Jimmy McGovern's award-winning single dramas, Hillsborough and Sunday.

"I felt I could have stayed in England and done similar types of productions at a similar level to Hillsborough and Queer As Folk, but I just wanted to see how badly I could fail over here," McDougall says, over corn beef and eggs in a bustling restaurant, a stretch limo's length from Rodeo Drive.

"It maintains my interest and my sense of fear. Every time I start a production here, I am terrified, because I regard it as one step away from my career ending. The moment you take a job, it could be your last."

McDougall may be racked by the level of insecurity that one might expect from an aging actress, but a look at his list of credits in America shows you he is entitled to the confidence of young prizefighter. Not only did he direct episodes of Sex and the City for three years, but he also oversaw the pilot of Desperate Housewives and recently finished working on two episodes of the American version of The Office - where he found himself on set with a visiting Ricky Gervais. "It was like sitting by the right hand of God," he says. "It was very intimidating and my vocal chords stopped working."

It's all a long way from the decrepit downtown boarding hotel McDougall stayed in when he first moved to LA. As the recipient of an American-sponsored Fulbright scholarship, McDougall accepted a place at the graduate film school of the University of Southern California and, unable to drive, spent two years travelling by bus. "People said I was crazy but I saw a lot of things I would never have seen otherwise."

When his two years of paid-for study ended, he returned to England to attend the National Film and Television School, in Beaconsfield, where, as his final project, he made the controversial World Cup-based drama Arrivederci, Millwall. The BBC bought it and McDougall's career was born.

"The first job I did after that was Casualty which was very good for learning how to deal with a schedule - which you never really do at film school. If a director is starting out now, they should do series television."

McDougall, still smitten with America, returned to LA and was just starting to get work when legendary British producer Tony Garnett asked him to come back to work on a new series he was developing in the UK. "He was a hero of mine," McDougall says. "And he offered me the chance to direct the first episode of Between The Lines - which allowed me to be involved in casting it and setting up the style of it. That was fantastic because it was an ambivalent world we were trying to create, with morally dubious characters who were not always sympathetic and that's what I really go for."

McDougall feels that Garnett brings an "edge and a boldness and a nonconformism" that is lacking in America. "In America there is such a fear of upsetting regulators or the audience or the networks that people second-guess how bold things should be and consequently things become very bland."

After working with Garnett, McDougall directed episodes of Cracker and three other Jimmy McGovern projects. "McGovern has this rare combination of integrity, anger and humour. I don't know anyone else who has got that." He says Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies are the other writers he most admires and reveals he is working with Abbott on the American version of Shameless. He also says it was on the back of directing Davies' series Queer As Folk that he started to get serious job offers when he returned to America.

"You do have to be here to get a career going here," he says. "You can't do it by telephone or short visits. A lot of directors and actors come and they are forgotten the moment they leave the office. It is a town with a revolving door of newcomers every day and they are all bright, young hopefuls. Unless you stick around, you're not going to be at the forefront of everyone's mind."

He discovered that people in LA were circulating bootleg tapes of Queer As Folk and he was soon offered the chance to direct two episodes of Sex and the City, which was just starting to take off when McDougall came on board. "You learn what it's like to be in the eye of a storm," he says. "It was amazing to shoot in NY and have 5,000 people watch you work, which is what happens when you shoot a scene on Fifth Avenue with Kyle MacLachlan and Kristin Davis outside Tiffany. But the most important thing for me was learning how to shoot comedy." The secret is to make it "as dynamic and as emotionally involving as possible," McDougall says - but he was also learning that the role of a director is somewhat different in America from in Britain.

"It's a job that in America requires humility because you're not the boss and you have to be selectively deaf because of these hundred voices that surround you. There are always at least 10 producers on a production, maybe 10 writers too, and you have to somehow negotiate between 20 opinions and that doesn't include the studio or the network which also have a legion of decision-makers."

After Sex and the City, McDougall was offered countless romantic comedy scripts but turned all of them down. "Having some kind of instinct about scripts is important." When he was offered the initial script for Desperate Housewives, he knew he wanted to direct it.

"It was a smart move by the writer [Marc Cherry] to create something that a female audience would respond to, because the mainstream female audience had been completely neglected in America," says McDougall. Although he won an Emmy for Desperate Housewives ("Liverpool winning the Champions League was still more important to me that year," he says), the immediate effect of directing such a globally successful show was that McDougall got offered the chance to direct lots of films about the American suburbs. "Americans like to limit their risk but I have such a low attention span that I always want to keep trying different things."

He has gone on to direct two episodes of The Office in America (shown in the UK on BBC Three), as well as two episodes of HBO's new polygamist drama, Big Love, which begins this evening on Five. Although he wants to keep living in America, he says he hasn't ruled out a return to the UK for work.

"I would be very keen to film another Jimmy McGovern script or something that was radical or new for me in England," he says. "Some of the best people I've worked with are in Britain. Two producers, Gub Neal [of Box TV] and Nicky Schindler [of Red Productions] are probably better than any producers I've worked with in America."

In the meantime, McDougall reveals the price that he pays for working in LA is the sometimes ridiculous excesses that some actors expect to get away with. "I have had one actor who wouldn't allow any close-ups to be shot, and I have had one actress who wouldn't come out of her trailer because she was having intercourse with her boyfriend. There's very rarely a dull moment."

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