The tradition of tough, gritty, street-level storytelling in the British film industry is a bold and powerful one, stretching back to the “kitchen sink realism” of classics like Look Back In Anger, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and others, through the early, ground-breaking work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan White up to more contemporary work by Andrea Arnold, John Mackenzie, Andrew Haigh and others. A truly fine and gifted proponent of this brutally honest school of British filmmaking was the late Antonia Bird, who sadly passed away in 2013 at the age of just 62 from anaplastic thyroid cancer, leaving behind a relatively small but utterly fascinating body of big screen work. “If you choose to go out on a limb and make films about social injustices you tend to be very unfashionable, very unemployable,” Bird once said, while also proving this theory wrong through her own impressive career.
Born in 1951, Antonia Bird entered the entertainment industry at the age of just seventeen, when she began working as an assistant stage manager at The Coventry Rep Theatre, from where she worked her way up the ladder by doing a variety of jobs, including acting, stage management, publicity, theatre administration and directing in repertory and regional theatres. Bird directed a season of plays at The Studio at Chester Theatre and later joined Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre as a director. Bird was eventually named resident director at The Royal Court Theatre in 1978 and artistic director of The Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs.
Bird’s success and experience in the theatre saw her tapped to direct the BBC’s 1983 television production of the play Submariners, which she had previously staged at The Royal Court. Bird’s very obvious talents as a director were instantly recognised by the major players at the BBC, and she was brought in to direct episodes of some of Britain’s most beloved TV programmes, including EastEnders and Casualty (on which Bird directed some of the earliest, establishing instalments), Thin Air, Saracen, Peak Practice and Inspector Morse. Bird also directed the Bill Nighy-starring 1991 infidelity-themed mini-series The Men’s Room and the 1992 telemovie thriller A Masculine Ending, starring Janet McTeer and Imelda Staunton.
Bird received the first great notices of her screen career, however, with 1993’s Safe, a feature length instalment of the anthology series Screenplay. Starring Aidan Gillen, Kate Hardie and the great Robert Carlyle, this tough, violent and utterly uncompromising look at homelessness and desperate crime on England’s mean streets received a plethora of critical plaudits and major award recognition, and announced Antonia Bird as another gifted player in Britain’s history of realist, socially driven filmmaking. “I get lumped together with Ken Loach,” Bird once said, “which is very fine because I think he’s great. He’s a hero of mine for what he’s stuck with through the years. But I don’t think you do yourself any favours making films like this.”
After the critical, career-making success of Safe, Bird delivered an even more striking and well-received film with 1994’s truly superb Priest. Written by the great Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, The Street, Accused) and boasting a wrenching lead performance from Linus Roache in his first major role, the film wades right into the middle of a swirling caterwaul of big issues in telling the story of a gay priest wrestling with the Confessional-derived knowledge that one of his young parishioners is being sexually abused by her father. Extraordinarily moving and often heart-breaking, Priest is a truly stunning work, and the uniting of two wonderfully like-minded talents in Bird and McGovern. “I’m interested globally in inequality and injustice,” Bird replied to Bomb when asked what attracted her to the material. “This film deals with those things, specifically with one person’s life, personal dilemmas, pain, and guilt. What touched me when I read the script was that Father Greg as a gay priest goes through the same thing I’ve been through as a woman director in this industry. It’s very similar. You are marginalised, labelled. It’s torturous.”
The near masterpiece status of Priest unsurprisingly saw Bird courted by Hollywood, which reaped slightly underwhelming rewards in the form of 1995’s Mad Love, a road romance starring Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell. Though dealing sensitively with issues around mental health and identity, the film is a surprisingly soft-pedalled work for the gutsy Antonia Bird, who far less surprisingly revealed that the film had been bowdlerised by its backers. “Miramax was owned by Disney at the time, and I was in post-production with a nice Disney teen film, which was quite edgy originally,” the director has explained of the film. “We always thought we were making a film for fifteen-year-olds and up, and suddenly we had to make it for PG, which meant that I had to take the heart of the film out. That was quite a lesson. You’re not in charge, it’s not your money, it’s someone else’s, and you’ve basically got to do what you’re told.”
Obviously turned off by the experience, Bird returned to England and never really worked in Hollywood-proper again. Her next film was 1997’s grimly inventive and brilliantly confrontational crime flick Face, which saw a near-untouchable, Guy Ritchie-level cast of legendary UK hardmen (Robert Carlyle, Ray Winstone, Steve Sweeney, Phil Davis, and, um, Damon Albarn) knuckling up and brilliantly talking tough. Face is a tightly controlled and highly entertaining piece of UK genre filmmaking, and showed that Bird was equally as adept at action and tension as she was with realism and authenticity.
If Face was slightly out of character for the director, her next film was a total left turn. A bizarre horror-western, 1999’s Ravenous was an extraordinary rescue job for Bird, who was brought in during production on the suggestion of star Robert Carlyle to replace director Milcho Manchevski (Before The Rain), who walked out after a series of bitter arguments with backing studio 20th Century Fox. Bird also warred with the studio, but more importantly, she ultimately crafted a film of staggering, demented genius, filled with unforgettable set pieces and boasting a soundtrack-for-the-ages courtesy of her Face star Damon Albarn and Michael Nye. Set in the 1840s, Ravenous follows a traumatised Army Captain (Guy Pearce in great form) immersed in a nightmare of backwoods cannibalism and Robert Carlyle’s terrifying maniac. The film is inventive, bloody, blackly comic horror at its best, and Ravenous is literally screaming out for rediscovery.
Disappointingly, the inspired madness of Ravenous didn’t lead to more wonderfully louche projects for Antonia Bird, but instead stands as her final true big screen feature. As well as helming episodes for TV series like Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker, MI-5 and The Village, Bird also continued to create incendiary and on-the-button material for the small screen in the shape of a series of fiery, powerful, emotionally resonant television films with 2000’s Care (about a young man dealing with the after-effects of his abuse in a children’s home); 2003’s drug-themed drama Rehab; 2004’s The Hamburg Cell (a fictionalised take on the September 11 terrorists); and the 2010 docu-series A Passionate Woman.
Tragically passing away at the age of just 62, Antonia Bird rightfully should have had the opportunity to create many, many more wonderful films (just like her now 85-year-old hero Ken Loach), but what she has left film audiences with is a tough, diamond-hard collection of film and TV work that should be cherished and celebrated at every possible turn.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.