Tessa Ross: The TV executive who is the mother of British film-making

'Slumdog Millionaire' and countless other films could not have happened if it weren't for Channel 4's Tessa Ross.

Ian Burrell
Monday 19 January 2009 01:00

When Danny Boyle and the rest of the Slumdog Millionaire team went up on stage to collect its four awards at the Golden Globes this month, there was one woman who, in spite of their insistence that she come into the spotlight, refused to come forward and remained rooted to her seat in the audience.

Yet Tessa Ross, more than anyone else, was responsible for making this remarkable film project happen. It was Ross who brought all the ingredients together and had the vision to imagine what might result: the originality of Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, combined with some warm-hearted screenwriting from The Full Monty's Simon Beaufoy and the electric energy of the director of Trainspotting. As Boyle himself says: "It's all to do with Tessa Ross."

She sits now in an office at Channel 4, having just learned that Film4's work has been nominated for 20 Baftas, including 11 for Slumdog, four for Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (which also won a Golden Globe), and three for Hunger, Steve McQueen's debut feature film based on the Bobby Sands story.

Ross is painfully shy and baulks at the idea of having a fresh photograph taken. Her trip to the Golden Globes was made with trepidation. "I was absolutely terrified because I'm not a dresser-upper in posh clothes, as you can probably tell, and I'm not very good at walking down red carpets."

That nervousness dissipated a little once she had sensed the warmth for Slumdog emanating from the Hollywood set. "The feeling in the room towards the film was so hugely generous. There was no cynicism and no back biting, which you can often feel in that competitive environment."

As the awards were being handed out, Ross was urged to her feet by colleagues – "Go! Your name is on the film" – but she wouldn't. "I said: 'No, please don't make me go.' That's not my thing, I'm much happier pushing other people. But it was fantastic to watch them and so wonderful to see them so happy."

Ross, 47, has become like a mother figure to Britain's film industry, nurturing new talent and nursing more established directors who might be feeling unloved. She is not uncomfortable with being seen in a maternal role. "I'd like that, I think that's the right way, isn't it?" she says. "It's all about nurturing. This should be a very cosy place, it should be the safe place. If you can't make mistakes here at home, where can you?"

Though she paints this picture of homely bliss, it's clear that there is a deep uncertainty within the walls of Film4, as the doubts around the future of Channel 4 itself threaten its role as a powerhouse in developing British movie making talent. Ross may have been beaming in Beverly Hills ("I couldn't stop smiling all evening, my cheeks burned like they hadn't since my wedding") but she is also wracked by doubts.

Like other senior Channel 4 executives (she is also responsible for Channel 4's drama output and has worked for the broadcaster for eight years), Ross nervously awaits the imminent release of Lord Stephen Carter's report on Digital Britain and the Government's own findings on the future of public service broadcasting. She says that investment in more ambitious Film4 projects has fallen off amid the fears. "We don't know what our future is and the important thing is to make sure that the work keeps happening somehow, somewhere, and make sure the public service work – which is entirely what Film4 does – is protected," she says.

"We definitely are feeling the squeeze, across the whole industry, so the important thing is to keep that whole family of film-makers that are working here safe and find the best way of growing new babies, if you like," she says, the real life mother-of-three continuing the mumsy theme.

Despite the financial worries, Ross has lined up a raft of exciting new projects. Ken Loach is finishing his new film Looking for Eric, about a postman who idolises Eric Cantona. The Film4 controller points out that the irascible genius of a French midfielder is actually participating in the movie. Shane Meadows continues his Film4 relationship with a new horror project. Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) is preparing a Scotland-based Roman epic, The Eagle of the Ninth, based on the Rosemary Sutcliff novel, a favourite with schoolboys. Mike Leigh, having seen lead actress Sally Hawkins pick up a Golden Globe for her irrepressibly optimistic performance in Happy-Go-Lucky, is working on a new Film4 production. "I don't know what Mike Leigh's new film is about, but I never do," says Ross. "I love the idea that those fantastic filmmakers who are the pride of British film-making can find a place to be protected and continue their work here while we can also discover new babies."

Among the new film-makers she is bringing on is the video artist Sam Taylor-Wood, whose debut short Love You More is Bafta-nominated. Taylor-Wood is currently "prepping" Nowhere Boy, based on the early years of John Lennon and written by Matt Greenhalgh, who made the Joy Division biopic Control. Then Taylor-Wood is developing Story of You, based on the Julie Myerson novel. Ross says that Film4's relationship with the artist from short film maker to feature film director is an "example of us getting a film making talent going, throwing money at short film-making, which is often the best and most liberating way of getting behind a camera."

One of Channel 4's best and most controversial comic talents, Chris Morris, is also working on a film project, which satirises a group of British jihadis in a movie provisionally titled Four Lions. At one time, funding of the project seemed in doubt and it was mooted that the money might need to be raised by a public appeal to Morris's many fans. Ross says though that the idea "has created a huge amount of interest among film financiers" and that she never had any doubts about the proposal, no matter how controversial. "I just felt it was our job to make it possible and actually Chris is the one who questions himself much more than those around him," she says. "He's an absolutely brilliant example of Channel 4 talent growing into film. Chris has stood for some of the most iconic moments on this channel over the past 20 years."

Then there is Unmade Beds, Alexis Dos Santos's warm-hearted but low budget tale about British slackers, which is just being launched at the Sundance Film Festival. Paul King, the director of Channel 4 comedy The Mighty Boosh, is completing his movie Bunny and the Bull, made by Film 4's low budget studio, Warp X. Never satisfied, Ross expresses her anxiety to work with other British directing talent, such as Joe Wright (Atonement) and Andrea Arnold (Red Road).

But it is Slumdog that everyone is talking about. Ross had the idea after reading Swarup's novel at the insistence of trusted book scout Kate Sinclair and Juliette Howell, who would become script editor on the film. "They chased me down and pitched me this book, which I read very quickly. I met the agent and optioned the book because I thought the idea was wonderful," says Ross. "I was having supper with Simon Beaufoy at the Union Club in Soho and I pitched the idea to him because I thought he would love it."

Boyle goes much further in praising Ross's dynamism. He points out that she took a novel – "I don't think it's a great book but Tessa gets it because she has a vision: a kid from the slums going on the biggest game show in the world" – and then brought in Beaufoy. As Boyle points out: "He's this guy from Yorkshire who is best known for The Full Monty, which was 12 years ago and what he's written since hasn't been anything like The Full Monty, but what she saw was the warmth and generosity that you get in The Full Monty was exactly what this film needed."

Though Boyle was not inclined to work on a show about reality television the sight of Beaufoy's name instantly drew him to the project. Beaufoy had radically overhauled Swarup's original, but Ross says she was not perturbed. "No, because the biggest pleasure for me is when somebody takes the bull by the horns approach, chews it up and spits it out again."

Then she had the imagination to realise that the film rights for the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? might be attainable, allying Film4 with Celador Films. "She went to the production company, Celador, who had made the show originally. She must have known that they kept the rights to making a film about it," says Boyle admiringly. "She knew to put it together with Celador, in the way that a good executive producer does."

During the making of Slumdog, Ross flew out to Mumbai to show support to the production team. "It's nice to see people from England coming out and getting covered in mosquito bites," says Boyle. The Trainspotting director describes Film4 as a "temple that has to be protected" and says Ross is one of the few production figures "who really understand how to make the business work".

So where will Ross go from here? She denies rumours that she has been courted by the BBC, but suggests that what the British film industry is really in desperate need of is some sort of champion. "The single biggest weakness we've got as an industry is probably our lack of pulling together at key moments, this big spokesperson who says to all of us: 'This is what we do, this is who we are, how can we look to the future and how can we protect our young and our old all at the same time?' That seems to me a huge thing that needs to happen," she says.

"If you look at the theatre, you can look at Nick Hytner or Michael Grandage, or to the arts at Nick Serota, and say: 'Aren't these men wonderful in the way that they stand for the whole of their community?' – I think it's important that that's created in this country for film. It's about vision, having a loud voice."

Shy though she says she is, that could be a future role for this matriarch of British film.

'Slumdog Millionaire' is out now; the Orange British Academy Film Awards will take place on 8 February.

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