Obituary: Antonia Bird, film and television director

Born: 27 May, 1951, in London. Died: 24 October, 2013, in London, aged 62.

Antonia Bird with Robert Carlyle, who starred in her awardwinning Safe. Picture: PA

ANTONIA Bird commanded huge audiences directing early episodes of EastEnders and Casualty in the 1980s, but it was her films and one-off dramas that marked her out as an important British director in much the same social-realist mould as Ken Loach.

They could be hard-going, tackling subjects such as homelessness and child abuse. Even when she went to Hollywood in the 1990s to make a film for Disney called Mad Love, with Drew Barrymore, the romance was complicated by the lead character’s mental health issues.

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She made her mark with the one-hour BBC drama Safe at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1993. Mark Cousins was responsible the New British Films section and bent the rules to accommodate Safe when he received a video rough cut after the formal deadline had passed.

Safe went on to win the festival’s Chaplin Award for best debut feature film, even though it was not really a feature film and Bird had been working as a television director for years. The drama, which starred Robert Carlyle as a violent homeless man in London, later won a Bafta award for best single drama.

Edinburgh Film Festival played an important role in raising Bird’s profile, providing her with a platform in 1994 to show Priest as a “work in progress”. Linus Roache played a young Roman Catholic clergyman and Carlyle was the man he picks up in a bar. It was written by Jimmy McGovern and released by Miramax in the US, where it was the centre of a major controversy.

Carlyle and Bird went on to make another two feature films together before the 1990s were over, Face, a gangster film with political overtones that also starred Ray Winstone and Damon Albarn, and Ravenous, which was inspired by the Donner Pass incident in which 19th century settlers were snowbound in the American wilderness and ended up eating each other.

The original director Milcho Manchevski fell out with 20th Century-Fox after filming began. The studio brought in Raja Gosnell, whose only previous film was Home Alone 3, and Carlyle effectively led a strike before the studio bowed to his demands to hire Bird.

In 1999 Bird, Carlyle and Cousins launched 4Way Pictures and they developed a lot of ambitious projects, including a “Scottish western”, which was pitched as “Braveheart meets Dances with Wolves”. Robert Carlyle was to play a Scottish pioneer in 18th century America. But only a few smaller-scale television dramas ever made it beyond the script.

Antonia Jane Bird was born in London, in 1951, though reference books and other sources have consistently given her year of birth as 1959 – which would have had her working in theatre stage management before she was ten. Her father was an actor and he called her Antonia because he was playing Antonio in The Merchant of Venice at the time.

She went straight from school to working in English regional theatre, initially as an actress, then administration and directing. In London, she was involved in staging plays by new writers, including Jim Cartwright and Hanif Kureishi, and she was a resident director at the Royal Court in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1985, she joined the East-Enders team and the following year she helped get Casualty going. She also worked on The Bill, Inspector Morse and Peak Practice. But directors are rarely noticed in television series and it was Safe that marked her out as a distinctive voice, an auteur, within British film and television. In casting Carlyle as Nosty, a dreadlocked, knife-wielding Scot who extorts money from other homeless people and cuts himself to get admitted to hospital and get a bed for the night, she was actually casting against type. Until that point, Carlyle had played mainly sympathetic, gentler types. Begbie and Trainspotting were still a year or two away.

In the 2000s, Bird worked mainly in television, often on tough dramas. Care was about sexual abuse in a children’s home and was another Bafta-winner. The Hamburg Cell was a docudrama about the 9/11 terrorists. One 4Ways project that did get made was Faith, a BBC drama set during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, which Bird produced but did not direct.

She also directed episodes of the hit series Spooks and a feature-length special of Cracker in 2006, in which Robbie Coltrane’s psychologist returns after a decade off-screen, during which he has supposedly been in Australia. It reunited her with writer Jimmy McGovern.

Most recently, she directed the opening episodes of The Village, the BBC’s bleak portrait of life in a Derbyshire village in the early 20th century, broadcast a few months ago and starring John Simm and Maxine Peake.

The New York Times said: “Dedicated to the understanding of the human condition, British director Antonia Bird examines the harrowing pain caused by the neglect of human need. Whether the subject is a homeless teenager or a homosexual clergyman, Bird’s emphasis on basic human rights is fundamentally the same. Her resulting cinematic approach is realist, aggressive and visceral, she confronts each scene directly and unforgivingly, distilling the action to extract its pure emotional essence.”

She is survived by her husband Ian Ilett.