Obituary: Antonia Bird, Television director with a flair for gritty realism

 

A tough, caring storyteller, Antonia Bird gave hope in the Nineties that the television play might still live on. She was excitingly brutal in her exposure of the dark corners of modern Britain, her shocks delivered with integrity and angry compassion, while her exercises in crime drama and romance showed her to be in a class of her own for peeling actors down to their most naturalistic layers of performance.

A clutch of films for the BBC – Safe, Care and Rehab – would have, in another time, sat in honourable positions within any season of Play for Today. Mistakenly compared with Ken Loach, however flattering the comparison was, Bird was really the post-millennial successor to John Mackenzie, an equally fine director who dealt in naturalism, who was a dab hand at social commentary but who, like Bird, was never a pamphleteer, rather a storyteller. Whether arguing for better care of the underprivileged or depicting London gangsters (their careers dovetail quite remarkably), both were bold and alarming on the surface, but with a strongly beating heart underneath.

Born in London in 1951, Bird dotted about on the fringe as an actress and stage manager with fabled troupes such as the 69 Theatre Company in Manchester in the early Seventies. She landed up at Lincoln Theatre Royal in 1974 as publicity officer, and made her directorial debut there, launching a series of free lunch-time plays that year. The fringe was bustling throughout the decade, and even if the plays weren’t always successful, Bird’s hard  work got the attention it deserved at the Soho Poly, the ICA, and at forgotten venues such as The King’s Head in Fulham, west London, and the Little Theatre Club in Garrick Yard, off St Martin’s Lane.

At the Phoenix, Leicester, in 1977, she directed a revival of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. She had always felt that the last line of the play was given to the wrong character, and after tracking down Orton’s original hand-written script and finding that she was correct, had the honour of finally putting it right eight years after the play’s West End opening.

Back on the fringe, Julian Garner’s Small Ads provided a shape of things to come. The play juxtaposed a pair of punk nihilists with two demure wallflowers all searching for meaning in their lives. The piece transferred from the noisy upstairs of a pub in Fulham to the Young Vic, and showed Bird’s work typically to be strong meat but as interested in tenderness as in trauma. She joined the Royal Court in 1980, directing early work by Hanif Kureshi,  and in 1985 directed Lulu in the transfer of Richard Eyre’s National Theatre Guys and Dolls. But no sooner had she arrived in the West End, than television beckoned.

EastEnders was in its first year and impressing critics and viewers with its mix of social conscience and breathless storytelling. It was an excellent place for Bird to learn about the small screen while still doing work that was close to her heart.

After EastEnders she worked on the first season of Casualty, which in its early incarnation was about as outspoken as Saturday evening television drama has ever been allowed to be. She channel-hopped to ITV for The Bill, then in its golden age of punchy half-hour playlets, thrillingly choreographing a cracking bank-raid episode, “Don’t Like Mondays” (1989).

Bird’s first major television success was The Men’s Room (1991). The serial certainly got tongues wagging, a sociological if soapy sexathon with Bill Nighy and Harriet Walter. She spent the next couple of years proving her versatility, from elegant crime drama, courtesy of Inspector Morse (1992) to sitcom, before delivering the ferocious single play Safe (1993). Shocking and heartbreaking, its depiction of London’s homeless featured an intimidating performance by Robert Carlyle, and landed Bird a Bafta.

A succession of awards followed for Jimmy McGovern’s Priest (1994), an excellent example of Bird’s ability to balance story and character with a crusading spirit, Linus Roache playing a man struggling with his sexuality, his faith and the burden of a secret shared with him during a confession.

Like so many directors whose natural home is television, Bird’s work for the big screen was often well-intentioned but disappointing. Face (1997) was a capable caper, a thoughtful script wearing a stocking mask, but it lacked the shameless intimacy of her television work and joined the ranks of mockney-gangster also-rans that were 10-a-penny at the time.

After a cannibalistic horror, Ravenous (1999), she returned to television to do work that really mattered, starting with Care (2000), a furious fictionalising of child abuse scandals. Capturing a career-best Steven Mackintosh moving from bottled-up survivor to suicidal victim, Bird’s film was an explicit attempt by the BBC to prove that their commitment to powerful and relevant drama was still strong. Broadcast on a Sunday evening on BBC1 and followed by a studio discussion, the bold scheduling was part of a wave of confidence that followed the arrival of Greg Dyke as director-general, the film winning Bird another Bafta.

Rehab (2003) was a semi-improvised piece that showed that success had smoothed none of Bird’s edges, its youthful cast (headed by Daniel Mays) every bit the equal of those in Safe a decade earlier.

Her 9/11 drama The Hamburg Cell (2004) deserved a wider audience, as did her crack at Hollywood (1995’s Mad Love with Drew Barrymore). Her swansong, The Village (2013), showed that with John Simm and Maxine Peake she had found again exactly the sort of actors that she had been enabling to  work with honesty and integrity for nearly 40 years.

With her death audiences have lost one of the last directors to have shown that they understand how much television is capable of, and also what audiences are capable of. Antonia Bird  was someone who was prepared to, in Dennis Potter’s words, “fight, kick and bite” to get a chance to prove that.

Antonia Bird FRSA, film producer and director: born London 27 May 1951; died 24 October 2013

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