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Bird, Antonia Janefree

(1951–2013)
  • Sarah Hill

Antonia Jane Bird (1951–2013)

by Andrew Buurman, 1999

Bird, Antonia Jane (1951–2013), television and film director, was born on 27 May 1951 at the Princess Beatrice Hospital, Old Brompton Road, Kensington, London, the only child of Ernest Michael Bayley (William) Bird (1914–1986), actor, and his wife, Rosemary Gordon, née Marriott (b. 1921). At the time of her birth, her parents lived at 27 Elvaston Place, Kensington. She initially followed her father into acting. She left school at fifteen, running away from home to join the Coventry Repertory Theatre 'because there was something in me that wanted to prove it was worth it' (The Guardian, 9 Sept 1997). But she found acting humiliating and by 1968, aged seventeen, she was stage manager. She progressed to directing at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester and became resident director at the Royal Court in 1978. She was the assistant director on Richard Eyre's revival of Guys and Dolls (1982) and later took over as director when it transferred to the West End, casting Clarke Peters as the first black actor to play Sky Masterson. Despite this success, she decided to focus on television, directing fifteen episodes of the first series of EastEnders (1985) before moving on to the BBC's new medical drama, Casualty (1986). In 1991 she directed The Men's Room for BBC2. The series was based on the novel of the same name by the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley, and starred Bill Nighy and Amanda Redman.

Bird's reputation as a director whose work, as she said, 'screams about injustice, inequality and inhumanity' (The Guardian, 12 Dec 1994) was cemented in the 1990s. Her first film for the BBC, Safe (1993), was a hard-hitting drama about homeless teenagers. A review in The Times proclaimed: 'Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, do not rest on your laurels … this film brought me to my knees' (quoted in Sight and Sound, 12 Feb 2014). The film went on to win numerous awards, including a television BAFTA.

Safe also marked the first of Bird's many collaborations with the actor Robert Carlyle. This was followed by Priest (1994), in which a gay Catholic priest encounters a more radical colleague who encourages him to question his position. Bird's work was all the more impressive given how few women directors were working in British film and television at this time.

Hollywood called in 1995 and Bird made Mad Love with Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell for Miramax. Although working within the Hollywood system left her frustrated, she stuck to her principles, not least when she demanded union conditions for her crew after discovering they were employed on a non-union rate basis; she succeeded, perhaps not surprisingly for a director whose favourite phrase was 'digging my heels in' (The Herald [Glasgow], 18 March 1995). When she turned her attention to the gangster film with Face (1997), starring Britpop star of the moment Damon Albarn and Robert Carlyle, she prevented the film from becoming just one of many British gangster films being pushed out by the film industry at the time by choosing to bring her female characters, including those played by Lena Headey and Sue Johnston, to the fore while other films left them marginalized. She followed this with another collaboration with Robert Carlyle, a horror film about cannibalism, Ravenous (1999).

In 2000 Bird directed the BAFTA award-winning Care for the BBC, a fictionalized account of sexual abuse in a children's home starring Steven Mackintosh. In 2002 she established the production company 4Way Pictures with Robert Carlyle, the film-maker Mark Cousins, and the novelist Irvine Welsh. Their first production was the television film Rehab (2003), about a young man who is released from prison to attend a drugs rehabilitation programme. The following year, Bird directed The Hamburg Cell (2004) for Channel 4, a typically unflinching examination of extremism centred around the terrorist group that plotted the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. In 2009 Bird won another BAFTA: a Children's BAFTA for Off By Heart, a documentary about a children's poetry competition. Her final piece of work was as principal director on the first series of the BBC's The Village in 2013, starring John Simm and Maxine Peake, which focused on life in a Derbyshire village in the early twentieth century.

Antonia Bird was a fearless and passionate director, whose films gave a voice to those who were disenfranchised and marginalized within society. She was twice married. On 9 July 1976 she married the actor Hessel (otherwise Harry or Harold Norman) Saks. The marriage was short-lived, and on 20 January 2000 she married her long-term partner, Ian William Ilett (b. 1952), also from the film industry, and son of William Ellis Ilett, building worker. Having been diagnosed with the rare and aggressive anaplastic thyroid cancer in 2013, she died on 24 October 2013 in Aldringham, Suffolk. She was survived by her husband. With her death, British cinema lost one of its most distinguished film-makers, who had blazed a trail for women directors in an industry in which at the time of her death they still represented a minority.

Sources

  • J. Stone, Eye on the world: conversations with international filmmakers (1997), 280–82
  • The Herald [Glasgow] (18 March 1995)
  • Daily Telegraph (29 Oct 2013)
  • The Times (31 Oct 2013)
  • The Observer (15 Dec 2013)
  • Sight and Sound (12 Feb 2014)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, interview footage
  • ‘From EastEnders to Hollywood: Antonia Bird’, BBC Four, 22 May 2016

Likenesses

  • A. Buurman, photograph, 1999, Rex Features, London [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1999, AF Archive
  • photograph, 2004, Allstar Picture Library
  • obituary photographs
  • photograph, Moviestore Collection