Life & Culture

The director who beat The Promise to a Bafta

Award-winner Michael Samuels reveals his respect for the controversial drama about Israel


By now, Michael Samuels will have just about climbed down from cloud nine. That is where the director has spent most of the week after winning two awards for his TV adaptation of William Boyd's acclaimed novel, Any Human Heart, at the Baftas on Sunday.

The series, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last year and starred Jim Broadbent and Gillian Anderson, won in the best drama serial and original music catagories. For Samuels, the victory came as a complete surprise.

"There had been rumours circulating that it had been one of the other shows that had won in our category," he says. "We all had convinced ourselves that we weren't going to win, which was great because I didn't have to worry about learning a speech. So it was such a shock when we won, but obviously a fantastic shock."

Samuels worked closely with Boyd who adapted the book - about the life of a novelist from 1920s Paris to 1980s London, featuring many real-life figures - into an acclaimed television drama. "You'd imagine that some writers would be quite protective of adapting their work but one of the many things that I loved about working with William was that he was very excited about the fact that the story was going into a new medium," he says.

The north London-born director says that he was interested in making films from a young age. He describes himself as "one of those irritating teenagers that used to destroy my parent's home by making films. My holiday activity was to get my friends together and make a home movie".

After studying history at Manchester University he went to the BBC and started directing films for the Holiday programme. He then moved into documentaries and subsequently onto working on Brookside and EastEnders, a period he describes as "invaluable".

"The Falklands Play [Samuels's hit TV film about events leading up to the Falklands war] was shot in eight days. I wouldn't have had the confidence to do that if I hadn't had the experience of soaps, where you have to shoot a lot of material in a day."

Since then he has directed a range of drama - rather than specialising in a particular genre, he is interested in "what makes people tick. It could be a historical piece, science fiction or thrillers. What matters is substance".

He believes that he is drawn to characters who are "not black and white, who are more complex and real. Sometimes there can be a tendency - in television as well as in film - to over simplify. But as a director it's that complexity of character which is fascinating to explore".

This perspective is born out in the film, Mrs Mandela (aired on BBC Four), which Samuels both wrote and directed. He says that he was attracted to doing a drama about Winnie Mandela because of the fact "that you have someone who does extraordinary things, things that you applaud and celebrate, but who can also be absolutely terrifying".

He believes that writers have a particular duty when writing a script based on a real person. "You have a responsibility to research that character. Although you are depicting something that is obviously an interpretation of history and you need that interpretation otherwise the story is incredibly dull, but it has to be rooted in fact."

He is unequivocal when it comes to the question of how faithful television should be in relation to its portrayal of actual historical events. "If you make a drama, particularly if it's set more recently, you have a responsibility to portray things accurately; to research things as thoroughly as possible."

However, he insists a filmmaker should have a point of view, be it in a drama or a documentary, "otherwise it does become an interminable list".

Referring to The Promise, Peter Kosminsky's controversial drama about Israel which Any Human Heart pipped for the drama Bafta, Samuels says: "I respect it for having a point of view. You have to have that, otherwise you are not writing".

Asked if he would be interested in exploring work with a Jewish theme Samuels replies, "absolutely". In fact, he reveals that he is currently exploring something with "a profoundly Jewish theme".

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