Interview with Beryl Richards

Sarah Hurtes
Sarah Hurtes

 "The Clear Gender Gap in Today’s Film Industry"


Refreshing as it was to lay on the beach in Cannes and interview the one and only - British film director Beryl Richards, who embodies absolute class and a brilliant sense of straightforwardness - we began to discuss the serious and clear gender gap in the UK’s film industry. Beryl helped set up a women’s working group and was elected Vice chair of Directors UK, a collecting society and a membership organisation representing the majority of film and television directors in the UK. Directors UK recently produced a 2013 study examining a range of television programmes, providing a snapshot of employment patterns and practices on programmes transmitted up to December 2012. I was therefore delighted to have my questions answered with precision and clarity, enabling a hope of imminent change.

Can you tell me something you’d like to share about yourself?

Well I am a director and I’ve worked in television drama for quite a while now. I’ve been doing a lot of comedy and TV drama for teenage audiences and I make short films as well as having written a couple of features. At the moment I am working on a film where I am embedded in a teenage residential community. I am trying to make a feature film a bit like the film The Class directed by Laurent Cantet which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2008. It’s a compelling film which shows the experiences of a French language and literature teacher in a middle school in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It illuminates his struggles with the children. What I like is that these kids weren’t actors before. I’ve often worked with young untrained actors – it’s much better that way because quite frankly, if they do train then they often become rather mannered.

Has it been easy for you as a film director?

No I’d say I’ve always felt like an outsider. I found it very difficult to get into somewhere like the BBC and ended up working independently during the first eight years of my career. I set up a production company, ran it, and made about a 100 films and then eventually got into freelance television and film work. At the time I went into television I think it was an era when feminism had more presence. I discussed it with other members of the Directors UK Board of women, we’re all around the same age and we agreed how at the time we went in the industry, we felt a sense of entitlement. It took us longer than it should take to get in, but once we got there we felt like the mood and values of the time supported us - whereas I think that’s not happening at the moment.

Do you think that there are not many female aspiring directors trying it out, or do you think that it’s because when it comes to big budgets women directors tend to get cut out?

Well I think that women are right the way through the profession at all ages and all spheres but they tend to be driven into the lower levels of the industry. There is a real blockage out there because decisions on hiring are influenced by the perceived opinions of commissioners in a risk-averse culture that keeps hiring the same male directors. Besides beyond a trusted few, there is a lack of awareness of a large number of highly qualified and experienced female directors. Production executives responsible for hiring are also largely unaware of the low existing figures of women directors. And let’s face it, gender stereotyping is prevalent when hiring in this business. Another problem is that there is no uniform or consistent monitoring of the freelance workforce throughout the industry.

What do you think the UK can do to alter this?

I think that having looked at statistics which announce for example that 0% of women directors have ever worked on many popular dramas and entertainment shows in the UK, you can really see how the system is working against women who try to get into the industry. It really needs to be urgently adjusted. What our survey proposes is setting a minimum 30% target for women directors across all broadcasters’ programming output, to be achieved in 2017. I think that’s the most important. We also ask all production companies to monitor levels of freelance directors and to apply the same standards of fair selection to both freelance and permanent staff.

Do you think that those men on top will agree to have a 30% quota target?

I think that there are many men who really are on our side. For instance some of our director members in BBC Light entertainment, in some of the areas where there’s the least representation of women tell me how they can’t believe when they walk in studios, that it’s exactly like it use to be when they started working 40 years ago. And it drives them all nuts! They too find it so limiting. So you know there are plenty of men on our side, who really want it to change and who are fed up with the situation themselves.

So you think that men are equally involved in this initiative? I am saying this because when you go to workshops and conferences on gender mainstreaming the cinema industry or any industry for that matter, there often tends to be one or two men in a room full of women.

I know it’s a real shame - maybe we have to trick them - get them in the room and then trap them! But in all seriousness I think that’s right, discussing gender equality in the film industry is often considered a women’s issue. Many men think that it doesn’t affect them and therefore feel no interest in attending these events. Clearly though, this is a problem that affects everyone. But I think the main issue here, is that there is a real lack of awareness amongst men about the current situation and statistics. The other thing I find frustrating is that on the European Audiovisual Observatory’s Cannes event for example, you’ll hear panelists giving one or if you’re lucky, two examples of women who’ve done really well in the cinema industry and that’s all the women directors they’ve ever heard of. For them, that’s enough to demonstrate that women can be and have been successful in this business. I’m sort of tempted to say – can you name me eight other women that might have been successful or that you’ve even heard of? And they probably can’t - so the debate tends to get a bit funneled when it’s always anecdotally about one woman. This is why I am so keen on doing this survey because then you can talk about all women across a huge sample of indicators – not just one or two.

Yes these debates are often so promising but I often leave the room feeling slightly frustrated. I don’t exactly know why that is…

Well they’re all a bit predictable aren’t they! I know, and a lot of these conversations I’ve had with people in broadcasting companies usually go that way. The question is what are we going to do to sort it? That’s why I really believe you have to put management targets in place, it will make a big difference. Besides we’ve seen in the past that they do work, as broadcasters have chosen to use this technique before. They have implemented a regional quota so for example lots of films and TV series are shot in Wales and Scotland; they implemented quotas for women in senior management positions in the BBC, and there have also been quotas for ethnic minorities in some casting for some drama series. I mean it’s not something I’ve personally done before, but it feels like it’s such a poor situation which is getting worst so you have to do something about it!

Is it getting worst?

Definitely it is getting worst, it’s shown in our most recent statistics. For example our survey shows that there has been a drop in drama genres such as science fiction and fantasy directed by women over the last few years. It’s falling and there’s nothing out there at the moment that would stop that from getting worse. It’s a downward slope.

I’ve often been told the importance of creating women’s networks or attending women’s film festivals. Do you think that will help to unravel the trends?

Networking, mentoring and training all have their place but I think it’s a side issue really. What you want is to create a level playing field, and then all that stuff kicks in afterwards. And anyway creating women networks is good, but how efficient can they be if women don’t actually have their place in the industry or their voices heard to begin with? Also the worry with women’s networks is that it tends to suggest that that’s all you’ve got to do – change your behavior slightly, bond, and everything will work out. It’s harder than that.

Getting the numbers of women directors up is one thing, but don’t you think it’s equally important to tackle the film industry’s sexist screen portrayals?

That’s an interesting comment. But I think you have to get the numbers up first if you want to have a sort of tipping point where women’s voices are heard in general. There’s an argument out there for a pot of money to fund specifically women’s films, but that makes it sound like a minority interest. I don’t think that creates sustainable careers. Besides there are already quite a few shows made in television, in drama, that do now have a women’s view point and they are enormously successful. I really believe that you just have to put more voices in there then it will also just naturally happen. I also think that it’s a case of directing all subject matters, not just women’s subject matters - both men and women need to have their take and both their voices and visions need to be heard.

I interviewed a young film director who told me that she changed one of her movie characters from a male to a female to pass the Bechdel test. Do you ever think of approaching your films with a certain gender sensitivity?

That’s interesting because I have written largely about men, and that’s partly because I’ve got a husband and a son. So I am outnumbered at home and I watch their behavior a lot, even though I think I’ve probably got a female perspective on the creation of my movies’ male characters. But that seems quite hard sometimes because some funders seem to think I should have the lead character as a women and I think to myself – well do I have to, just because I am a woman! And then on another occasion I’d been told for this script that nearly did go ahead, that in fact it was too much for a woman’s audience, and that was considered a problem. So you’re always getting cursed in some way with the fact that you’re not the dominant gender that makes films. What I would like to see is an environment that is gender neutral.

Can that really exist?

Yes it can! Our women’s group drawn from the Directors UK board talk about this. We feel our best and most enjoyable work has been when our gender has not been in play. That has happened for all of us and certainly it is possible. I know that the main thing is, if people really put their mind to it, then it can and will happen.