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Hill, Brian (1955-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Hill, Brian (1955-)

Brian Hill has been responsible for some of the most excitingly inventive documentary making of our times, yet his name remains much less familiar than it should be.

Through his production company Century Films, the director and producer has made films mainly for Channel 4 and BBC2 transmission, routinely commended by TV critics and peers on their premiere showings. But it seems likely that an American or French counterpart, denied so sympathetic a broadcasting environment, would have produced them for theatrical release and repertory circulation - and would, as a result, have secured a significant profile and fanbase.

One of the very strengths of Hill's work is his confident fusion of televisual with cinematic aesthetics, breaking the bond between realism and naturalism. The films' verité elements, born of a faith in the power of the camera and microphone to observe and give voice to everyday or marginal experience, unusually sit alongside a calculated and flamboyant stylisation able to bring other, deeper truths about his subjects to the surface.

A sociology graduate, Hill began his working life not in media but in social work. His professional roots repeatedly show in his films' interest in individual psychologies and their social contexts, and the director's skill in gaining the trust of programme participants. Hill took a sideways and initially unplanned route into television as a consultant and then researcher on BBC community education programmes. His directing debut was on the series Class Rule (BBC, 1991), a history of British social class presented by Michael Cockerell, but he broke through to top-rank documentary making as co-director, with Kate Woods, of Sylvania Waters (BBC, 1992), under producer Paul Watson. This BBC collaboration with the Australian Broadcasting Company involved a film crew intensively observing a family in a well-to-do Sydney suburb (Hill, incidentally, would return to Australia for Channel 4's 1997 series Pommies). Controversial 'event' television, the series is often cited as an important milestone on the way to Reality TV. From the perspective of Hill's own later work, its importance lay in its willingness to push the boundaries of fly-on-the-wall conventions while mixing and matching them with other forms.

Hill's characteristic crossbreed documentary style reached maturity in a series of increasingly audacious late 1990s and early 2000s films, many of them first broadcast in prestige documentary slots: Channel 4's Cutting Edge and True Stories, and BBC2's Modern Times. The director's most celebrated creative partnership has been with Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage. Their debut collaboration was the Modern Times film 'Saturday Night' (tx. 3/4/1996), evoking weekend nightlife in Leeds. Armitage's verse voiceover transforms a fine example of documentary impressionism into a more poised and memorable statement. The pair's follow-up for the same slot, Drinking for England (BBC, 10/11/1998), went further by having the verse spoken to camera by the film's protagonists, a cross section of prodigiously heavy drinkers.

This intoxicating item remains a favourite among Hill's fans, but its impact was eclipsed by the BAFTA-winning Feltham Sings (Channel 4, tx. 17/12/2002). Executive produced by Roger Graef, this was a full-on 'docu-musical', performed by inmates of a young offenders institution. Songbirds (Channel 4, 15/12/2005) winningly applied the same formula to a women's prison. Pornography: The Musical (Channel 4, 21/10/2003) was more controversial, while the poignant The Not Dead (Channel 4, 12/11/07) returned to the use of spoken rather than sung verse to explore the experiences of army veterans living with post-traumatic stress.

Hill and Armitage's most singular and eccentric collaboration of all, meanwhile, was the unique Killing Time (Channel 4, 1/1/2000). Incorporating drama as well as documentary within a complex, allusive structure, Hill's feature length visualisation of Armitage's eponymous epic poem was transmitted on the first day of the new millennium. The collaborators also have under their belt a theatrically released FilmFour fiction short, The Tyre (2001), and two brief, touchingly effective charity films, More Precious than Gold (2003) and The Gift (2008), both made for Unicef UK. Their most recent collaboration is Climate of Change (2010), the most expansive of HillÂ’s films and his one theatrically released feature (and that only in the USA).

Hill has made plenty of significant films away from Armitage. Nobody Someday (2002) is an absorbing curio: a theatrically released Robbie Williams rockumentary, far graver and more objective than the average concert movie. Slaughterhouse: The Task of Blood (BBC, 4/7/2005), a bone-chilling piece of TV 'art-house', much of it shot in monochrome, stands out as one of Hill's finest. The director's unflinching account of abattoir operation is worthy of Georges Franju's Le Sang des Bêtes (France, 1949) - Hill having already touched on some aspects of this theme in It's a Cow's Life (Channel 4, 20/3/2002). Threaded through this was a kaleidoscopic, frequently bleak portrait of multi-racial working-class life and attitudes. In recent years Hill has also increasingly crossed over into fully fictional, if socially engaged, drama, as with his self-penned Bella and the Boys (BBC, 15/2/2004), a nuanced, surprisingly optimistic rites-of-passage story set in residential care, told partly in flashback and finely performed by Billie Piper and others.

Since 1994, all of Hill's films have been made at his independent company Century Films, of which he is managing director, working closely with programmes head and executive producer Katie Bailiff. As well as Hill's own films, the company has produced excellent work by other directors. Notable documentaries include Jonathan Smith's Make Me Normal (Channel 4, 2/6/2005), Morgan Matthews' Taxidermy: Stuff the World (BBC2, 22/8/2005), Peter Gordon's Looking for England (More4, 23/4/07), Daisy Asquith's The Oldest People in the World (Channel 4, 20/8/2007) and Ashley Gething's Would You Save a Stranger? (Channel 4, 2/4/2009). The company has also provided opportunities for up-and-coming directors to flex their muscles on mini-docs for Channel 4's Alt.TV and 3 Minute Wonder slots. In 2012, Hill co-produced (with another individualistic documentary director, Joseph Bullman) the excellent, acclaimed Century/BBC series, The Secret History of our Streets.

Patrick Russell

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Thumbnail image of Drinking for England (1998)Drinking for England (1998)

Innovative, poignant 'docu-musical' in which alcoholics recite their stories

Thumbnail image of Feltham Sings (2002)Feltham Sings (2002)

Innovative documentary in which young offenders sing of their experiences

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