Interview: Gerry Fox

As a director on the flagship televsion arts programme, he filmed some of the most interesting cultural figures of the past 20 years. He reveals how finding a Jewish angle helped him bond with his subjects.


By Julia Weiner, December 2, 2010
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Fox won a Bafta for his documentary on artists Gilbert and George

Fox won a Bafta for his documentary on artists Gilbert and George

ITV's decision to drop The South Bank Show earlier this year was greeted with dismay by arts lovers who worried that British TV was in danger of becoming a culture-free zone. The good news is that the strand is to be revived on a satellite channel next year. The even better news is that fans can relive some of its greatest moments with a show at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The NPG is running Portaits of the Artists - screenings of South Bank documentaries made by Gerry Fox during his long stint as a director on the show. Fox, who was born in South Africa, made films about some of the most important cultural figures of the last 20 years - particularly contemporary artists - winning a Bafta award in the process.

"I had a lot of creative freedom on The South Bank Show, which I suspect will never happen again on British television because the length of time I had to spend with the artists is not really available to directors any more. So I was so keen to show my films at the NPG as it is the end of an era," he says.

Fox first came to Britain to attend Harrow School - he now lives and works in London. His father was a businessman and his mother a concert pianist, but he chose to go in an entirely different direction. "I've always made films as a sort of hobby and then I went from Harrow to Harvard where I studied documentary and the history of cinema," he says.

On leaving Harvard, he wrote to South Bank Show presenter Melvyn Bragg asking for a job. "He wrote back to say they were auditioning for a new team of researchers at that moment. I was incredibly lucky. There were about 5,000 people who had applied but I went through the whole process. You had to come up with an idea for a programme and I knew John Ogdon, the concert pianist, through my mother, so I started researching this idea of a programme about him through the interview process. Every time I was interviewed I had more ideas and more knowledge and my excitement and energy must have shown through. I was lucky enough to get a job on the programme. And we made the John Ogdon film which was amazing because he died just six months later."

Fox clearly relished working for The South Bank Show. "It was one of the best places to work in television," he enthuses. "It was one of those few places where you had the advantage of being able to take time to make a film. It was a period - the '90s - when the arts and cultural broadcasting was important in a way that I am not sure it is any more to mainstream television."

Back story

Born: South Africa in 1964. Mother a concert pianist, father a businessman
Education: Harrow School and Harvard
Career: Joined The South Bank Show as a researcher. Became a director and producer and made films on pianist John Ogden, and singers Annie Lennox and George Michael. Won a Bafta for his documentary on artists Gilbert and George

The first film Fox made on a contemporary artist was about French conceptual painter and sculptor Chistian Boltanski who is half Jewish. "I was fascinated by the Jewish angle," Fox says. "There seemed to be a wonderful sensibility there that I could tap into. Boltanski is a slightly depressed half-Jewish artist living in Paris - he was conceived under the floorboards when his Christian mother was hiding his Jewish father from the Nazis, born just after the liberation but with the legacy of the Holocaust weighing down on him. It just seemed so moving and haunting and powerful that I was instinctively drawn to him."

Another film in the series is about photographer and film-maker Robert Frank, who is also Jewish. "He reminded me of my father," Fox says. "Even though he had been a rebel and a difficult character I think that, as he got older, he realised how important his Jewishness was to him. That sense of belonging."

In addition, he has also made programmes about Amos Oz and Daniel Barenboim. "I think if Jewish themes come up it is quite powerful because it creates a bond. Also, a lot of Jewish artists have a great sense of humour and I am able to tap into that, which helps a huge amount. You make each other laugh, it becomes a really good
experience."

Perhaps the best known of his films is the one he made about Gilbert and George, for which he has his mother to thank.

"When we first went to see them, they were quite suspicious but then I told them they knew my mother. She went out with them the night they won the Turner Prize. She told me that as they were considered slightly on the right wing of the art world no-one was talking to them. When they won, she went out dancing with them till about four in the morning. They changed completely because of this and suddenly trusted me. As I was able to relax with them and also get to know them, they started revealing more and more of the creative process to me. That film was a highpoint - it won a BAFTA and did incredibly well."

He had quite a different experience working with Robert Frank however. "The relationship after the film was very tricky. He didn't want it to be seen. I am only allowed to show it three times a year. It's ironic because Frank once made a film about the Rolling Stones and they virtually banned him from showing it. It is strange that he revisited that on me."

Fox has managed to keep himself busy since the demise of The South Bank Show. For the past five years he has been working on a film about leading video artist Bill Viola, who is making an installation for St Paul's Cathedral. "It was supposed to take one year, then it became two years. It is actually going to take seven years as it will be finished in 2012. I filmed him in 2005 walking into St Paul's and I am going to end it in 2012 with the unveiling of the work."

Before that, he has the release of his first feature film to look forward to, an adaptation of his friend Edward St Aubyn's novel, Mother's Milk. "We had started talking about the idea of doing a South Bank Show about Edward," he says. "Then at a party I told him we wouldn't be able to do it after all because I had just heard that day that the South Bank Show was being axed. It was a double whammy because he came to the party with Antonia Fraser who had told him that Harold Pinter (her late husband) had said that one of the last things he wanted to do in his life was to write the screenplay for Mother's Milk. The next day I phoned Edward up and said: 'Why don't we write the screenplay together and make it?' And that is what we did."

Portraits of the Artists by Gerald Fox continues at the National Portrait Gallery on December 9. Entrance free. Details at www.npg.org.uk

    Last updated: 4:23pm, December 2 2010