Brian Mills

'Coronation Street' director

Thursday 22 September 2011 07:51

Brian Arthur Mills, television director: born Manchester 25 October 1933; married first Hilda Miller (one adopted son; marriage dissolved), second 1976 Brigit Forsyth (one son, one daughter); died Manchester 3 June 2006.

As someone who spent all of his career making programmes for Granada Television, Brian Mills had the distinction of being the only director to work on Coronation Street in all of its five decades, from 1968, when Elsie Tanner's son Dennis married Jenny Sutton and the serial's first outdoor set was built, to 2000, the year that saw Mike Baldwin marry for a fourth time and Sarah Platt give birth at the age of 13.

In the middle of his run on Britain's top soap, he directed some of the most memorable 1983 Ken-Deirdre-Mike love-triangle episodes, which made newspaper front pages in a way that was then rare for such serials. As the story reached its explosive climax, with Ken Barlow finally finding out about his wife Deirdre's affair with Mike Baldwin and all hell breaking loose, Mills instituted a style of shooting scenes in the Barlow household from above to heighten the drama.

He also used an element of surprise that shocked at least one of those taking part and combined with the enthusiasm of William Roache, who plays Ken, to produce a memorable piece of television.

After a rehearsal for the scene in which Mike (Johnny Briggs) arrived at the Barlows' door, following the confession by Deirdre (Anne Kirkbride), Mills said he was concerned that it was lacking in passion, but Roache assured him that it would come to life when they started recording. As a result, Mills put his faith in the actors, with Roache adamant that Briggs would not enter the Barlows' house, as in the script, because he did not consider that Ken would allow him to. As Kirkbride opened the door, Roache threw himself full-bloodedly into Ken's rage, grabbed her, slammed her against the door, which closed on Briggs, and then put his hands around her throat. Kirkbride appeared to be still in shock when she related the story to me some years later. "It was quite frightening and I hadn't expected it," she said:

He [Roache] had worked it out with the director, Brian Mills, so that it was totally realistic. I was very upset at the time and just ran into the living-room and sat down with my head in my hands - and Brian had a camera there, waiting to film me!

Born in Manchester in 1933, the son of a toolmaker, Brian Mills served in the Army after giving up training as an accountant, which he decided was not the career for him. Then, he landed a job delivering newspapers for the Daily Express in Manchester, before a friend heard about work available in the sound department at Granada Television's studios in the city. Mills started by putting records on a turntable during the television company's early days and worked his way up to become head of sound. Determined to become a director, but without the qualifications, he sought wider experience by joining the lighting department and, again, began at the bottom, before eventually taking charge of it.

Finally, Mills persuaded Granada to train him as a director and, in between his stints on Coronation Street (1968-2000), he worked on many of its programmes for ITV. He directed both series of Devenish (1977-78), an office-based sitcom written by Anthony Couch and starring Dinsdale Landen as the chief games deviser for Universal Pastimes Ltd who had an over-inflated sense of self- importance and irritated his colleagues. Mills also made episodes in the second and third series (1976-77) of The Cuckoo Waltz, Geoffrey Lancashire's comedy about a happy but poor newly married couple (played by David Roper and Diane Keen) taking in a caddish, well-off lodger (Lewis Collins).

Among the many dramas he worked on were the Jack Rosenthal play Well, Thank You Thursday (1976), set in a register office, and episodes of Crown Court, as well as Strangers (1978-82), The Mallens (1979), The Spoils of War (1980), Cribb (1980), Bulman (1985, 1987) and First Among Equals (1986). He directed two stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes series (1988), and made a two-hour special, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988) - maintaining the tradition established by Granada for mounting handsome productions while remaining faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories, with Jeremy Brett capturing the dark side of the Baker Street sleuth.

Half of Mills's career as a director came after he had technically left Granada in 1983, when staff were offered early retirement, but he returned as a freelance.

The director met his second wife, the actress Brigit Forsyth, when she played the younger daughter in Adam Smith (1972), broadcast in ITV's Sunday-evening religious slot and starring Andrew Keir as a small Scottish border village's minister. "I'm a little psychic and got a funny feeling about him at the read-through," recalled Forsyth:

"I remember looking at his face, which was always a very sad face, and thought, "What that man needs is children. That's something I could do for him." I hadn't even spoken to him at that point!"

Mills subsequently directed Forsyth in the title role of the six-part psychological thriller Holly (1972). The couple married and had two children and, although they separated seven years ago, remained good friends.

Anthony Hayward

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