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Downton Abbey director was 'inspired' by time in Wrexham

August 6 2013

Downton Abbey director Brian Percival says his time studying in Wrexham ‘inspired’ him to BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning success.

A former student at Glyndwr University’s North Wales School of Art and Design, Brian is now recognised as one of the top directors in the UK having steered the ITV soap opera to global popularity.

The Liverpudlian is currently preparing for the release of new movie The Book Thief with Academy award-winner Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, having previously helmed some of the most critically-acclaimed short films and TV dramas in recent years, including Pleasureland, North & South, and About a Girl.

However, winning the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Mini-Series, Movie or Dramatic Special in 2011 – a prize earlier picked-up by the likes of Tom Hanks and Mike Nichols – was the pinnacle of his career, a career that began in North Wales more than 30 years ago.

His memories of Wrexham are vivid and pleasant; it was a happy time and one he remembers fondly.

“I was very happy, after being in full time employment for a couple of years I completely embraced this new and creative world I was stepping into,” said Brian.

“It was a wonderful experience, learning to see the world in a completely different way. It was like someone opening a book for me for the first time and I loved it. I was inspired.”

He added: “Basically studying in Wrexham helped me to see the world in a different way. I was intrigued by the technical side of things and I was determined to master it, but more crucially my mind was opened up to thinking in a new, creative and visual way, something I had not experienced before.

“My best friend Karol Cioma, whom I met at Wrexham, is still very much part of my life. When we were at Wrexham he started a film club showing 16mm prints of Art House and Indie movies not usually available in mainstream cinemas.

“It was an inspiration, and when I first realised I wanted to direct films. I have him to thank for opening my eyes to the beauty of cinema.”

But it wasn’t easy to make his mark. Television and film were far less complicated mediums than the ones we see today, though there were still few entry points for up-and-coming directors.

“It was very different,” said Brian.

“Television was closed to top level entry by the then, all powerful unions, not necessarily a bad thing, but lousy if you were on the outside.

“This changed with the advent of music videos and TV advertising. I was directing my first TV spots on 35mm within a couple years of leaving education.

“Now, with work in the media becoming more glamorised and fashionable the sheer numbers of people wanting to get in make it even more difficult than ever.”

So what of the current crop of art, design and film students at Glyndwr University, studying in new facilities such as the £5million Centre for the Creative Industries.

Is Brian envious at the amount of new equipment and techniques open to wannabe filmmakers in 2013?

“Whilst facilities are incredibly important, and probably now more so than ever, it is great tutors that inspire,” said Brian.

“I certainly experienced that at Wrexham. I attribute much of my success to my time studying there. My time there changed the way I saw the world and helped form the person I am today.

“I had a tutor called Simon Collinge who drove me absolutely nuts, he pushed me further than anyone has done either before or since. I was doing my best ever work and it was never good enough.

“He knew exactly what he was doing. It doesn't work for everyone but it did for me: I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Even though he infuriated me, I owe him a lot.”

Little did he know, but Brian’s “best work” was yet to come.

When the producers of new period drama Downton Abbey came knocking they already knew his work and were keen to get him on board.

That said he could never have imagined it would grow to become one of the planet’s most watched television programmes and a critical success.

“I had worked for the producers before and they were aware of my previous work: I already had two BAFTAs,” said Brian.

“I think my modest, working class background proved to be a vital counterpoint to Julian Fellowes' writing. The contrast in our backgrounds mirrored that of the show.

“It was great fun but very hard work. Advanced planning was crucial to the execution, with such a huge cast and an eye for historic detail so important nothing could be left to chance and everything had to be thought out in great depth.

“I still remain very good friends with most of the cast and crew. It’s been a very happy time and never in a million years did we expect even a tenth of what it has achieved so far.”

Keeping things new and interesting is another challenge he faces, and being the recipient of so many awards means certain standards have to be maintained.

“It becomes increasingly difficult to keep it fresh and find new ways to shoot things. That is the problem with every returning series, particularly for a director, as it's easy to become complacent,” said Brian.

“However, it's just been nominated for another 12 Emmys so they must be doing something right!”

Brian’s own Emmy was dedicated to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. A lifelong Reds fan, the ceremony was emotional for many reasons.

“I had Julian Fellowes’ words ringing in my ears as I walked up the carpet. He said that winning the Oscar for Gosford Park changed his life, and so far the Emmy has done that for me too, although I would never be complacent enough to expect it to continue without the same dedication and hard work that I have always invested,” said Brian.

“It can go just as quickly as it arrived so I never, ever take anything for granted.”

He added: “Hillsborough has always been important to me and at the time the families were still fighting for justice. I was fortunate to have my 15 minutes of fame and I thought 'How can I best use this? Who could benefit most from this publicity?' I decided justice for the families was more important than massaging my own ego.” 

His latest project is World War Two thriller The Book Thief, which tells the story of Liesel Meminger from the time she is taken at age nine to live with a foster family in a German working-class neighbourhood.  Michael Petroni (The Rite) penned the adaptation

“The film is based on an international best-selling novel about a teenage girl growing up in Nazi Germany,” said Brian.

“She is fostered by an older couple who hide a young Jewish man in their basement. It is basically a story about human spirit and how it can succeed in the face of all adversity. The aspect which makes this story different is that it is narrated by ‘Death’.”

 “We shot for three months in Berlin in Winter and Spring 2013. It has to be one of the most fantastic and memorable experiences of my life, I absolutely loved every minute of it. It was produced by 20th Century Fox for a budget of approximately €26 million.”

He added:  “This is the next step for my career. I never rule anything out but yes, feature films are my main goal at present. However, I never underestimate the power of television and the sizes of audience good television reaches.”


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