Arts genius who has become the job inbetweener


Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at Tessa Ross's Friday night dinner last week. Chances are the BBC arts editor, Will Gompertz, was harnessed to a lamppost on her Camden street in order to get wind of the "real" story behind her departure from the National Theatre as chief executive. No doubt others rifled through discarded paperwork in bins on the South Bank or confronted confused scene shifters emerging from the stage door. But so far there is only Tessa's rather bland statement to go on and that is unlikely to change. No doubt speculation beyond the facts will irk Ms Ross, 54, as she is a private person who dislikes being photographed or appearing on television and as for red carpets...

Yet this Oxford-educated Jewish woman of Eastern European heritage has dedicated a significant chunk of her working life to laying down red carpet opportunities for others - notably writers, directors and actors - who got the chance to make the films they wanted to make because she believed in them. That was how Tessa operated as head of Film4, where she would nurture and develop projects that other more conventionally-inclined producers would turn down. Why bother with a safe story or a predictable pitch when you can read an unpublished manuscript set around an Indian game show and decide it's worth doing. The resulting Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle, which picked up copious awards, proved how reliable Tessa's instincts were, and she did it time and again with films and television programmes at Channel 4 where she greenlit, The Inbetweeners, Shameless, The Iron Lady and even Chris Morris's controversial British jihadi comedy Four Lions.

The real challenge is to find a British movie of recent years that doesn't have the name Tessa Ross in the credits, be it something from the camp of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh or Kevin Macdonald, or new broom as Sam Taylor-Wood was when Tessa encouraged her to go from video maker to directing the John Lennon biopic, Nowhere Boy.

No wonder US Style bible W Magazine dubbed Tessa the "queen of the British movie industry", though they were quick to note the modest size of her office back then and referred to it as a "cubicle". Even more surprising to them and anyone else who was privy to the numbers was the miniscule size of the budgets Tessa, a mother of three grown-up children, was given to make these brilliant films. "$13 million to make eight films annually," balked W, but Tessa was smart and sought co-funding from bigger, richer studios, only to see them pick up the lion's share of the profits. Not that she minded and admitted as much when she said that "commercial success is not what I'm most aiming at".

For her it was more about being mother to a stream of creative types and helping them realise their dreams, which is what you would expect from a nice Jewish girl who grew up in a traditional nurturing family. With a lawyer for a father and a mother who went from teacher to homemaker while raising money for charity, Tessa had all the "producer" basics.

Picking up a Bafta for outstanding contribution to cinema in 2013 forced Tessa on to the podium and into the spotlight she always avoids, and the recipients of her belief and sound judgment were there cheering her on. It was about time, as she refused to join Danny Boyle and the Slumdog crew on stage at the Oscars and I don't think anyone remembers seeing her when Steve McQueen collected his for 12 Years A Slave, also a "Tessa".

Such self-effacing behaviour would suggest that sharing the leadership of the National Theatre as chief executive with artistic director Rufus Norris would not be a problem for Tessa Ross. Whether it was or wasn't we only have the official "structure didn't work" statement to go on for now, but odds are the name Tessa (currently in between high-profile roles) Ross will be appearing at a cinema near you soon.

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