Nigel Farrell: Documentary producer best known for 'The Village' and 'An Island Parish'
Monday 24 October 2011
Gentle, sometimes sad, often amusing stories of people living in rural communities were the trademark of the television producer, writer and presenter Nigel Farrell.
He would spend months in various locations getting to know the residents before recording his dramas of local life in series such as The Village and Island Parish. He was brave enough to turn the camera on himself too, making a series about his ill-starred attempts to start a new life abroad in A Place in France.
Farrell was a gregarious individual who hated to be the centre of attention, but his ready laugh – often at his own mistakes – drew people to him, making them relax and talk about their own problems. This ability to make people trust him was the linchpin of his work on TV, radio and in his books on everyday life in areas such as the Scilly Isles and remote parts of Scotland.
Farrell was born in London in 1953; his father, Roland, was a medical student and former RAF officer. Roland died when Nigel was young, leaving his wife, Pamela, to bring up two sons. Awarded RAF scholarships to study at Christ's Hospital school, Nigel and his older brother chose to follow their father by studying medicine at his old hospital, but this came to an end nine months later after Farrell developed a fear of blood and a love of the good life.
He spent the next year as a crew member on a boat sailing around the Mediterranean. On his return he stayed with his mother, who had moved to the New Forest in Hampshire, and found a job on a local paper. From there he moved into local radio, then became a reporter for BBC South in Southampton where, covering the more quirky stories, he was bitten by a pig, fell off a penny farthing and was attacked by ferrets.
He joined the BBC Breakfast rogramme in 1983 as a medical reporter, but in 1985 went freelance, workingon radio programmes including Loose Ends. In 1990 The Village, aboutBentley in Hampshire, which would form the template for his future TV successes, was broadcast on Radio 4. In 1992 it was turned into a long-running television series and was the first programme he made with the production company Tiger Aspect. Some 100 episodes were shown in all on Meridian and the BBC.
A Place in France (2002), made for Channel 4, followed his attempts with his friend Nippi to convert a wrecked farmhouse. Farrell didn't hesitate to show the problems, often emotional ones – having recently divorced, he was often lonely – that he and Nippi faced as they dealt with a different culture in a foreign language and work that ended up costing far more than planned for.
One unexpected consequence came when, having filmed his unsuccessful attempts to snare a French girlfriend, he was approached by a beautiful blonde in a theatre on a trip back to England. Sally Ann Fitt was to remain with Farrell for the rest of his life.
Attempts to set up a curry restaurant in France with the London Indian restaurant owner Reza Mohammed formed the basis of the next series. Launched in 2003, the restaurantwas initially successful but wentbust when they tried to keep it open throughout the winter. Farrell ended facing financial hardship and mounting debts. Nigel's Place in France (2005), dealt with him fighting to save theoriginal house, which was finally placed on the market.
He returned to England where he had begun production of the series that were to establish his reputation as a documentary maker. Country House, about Woburn Abbey and its owners, and Seaside Parish, about the life of a vicar in Boscastle in Cornwall, and subsequently a series about the Bishop of Truro, all shown on BBC2, were instant successes, raising awareness about the lives of people dealing with the responsibility of running large estates or with the day-to-day tribulations of life in small communities. He was to return to film in Boscastle after it was flooded.
Four million people tuned in to see Island Parish, based on the life of the Scilly islanders. Some were critical of the storylines and what they felt was intrusion. A book accompanied the series, and he was credited, and praised by other residents for encouraging an increase in visitors. A further series followed, focusing on the priest and inhabitants of the island of Barra.
"Nigel and I made over 300 programmes together and spending time with him was enjoyable in every sense," Paul Sommers, co-founder of Tiger Aspect, said. "When asked for a few words to sum up what Nigel meant to me, I came up with, 'the nicest bloke I ever worked with.' Simple but true." In 2010, while filming Island Parish, Farrell was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and typically, went into print to describe it and to try to give hope to those suffering from a similar experience.
Nigel Farrell, writer and television producer and presenter: born London 22 January 1953; married Alison (Moe) Smith 1977 (divorced 2002; one son, two daughters); partner to Sally Ann Fitt; died London 24 September 2011.
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