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

Life and Style
Social media users in Mexico who commented on cartel violence have been killed in the past
techTweets not showing up or loading this morning, users say
Sport
premier leagueLive: All the latest news and scores from today's matches
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker