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Parker, Alan (1944-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Parker, Alan (1944-)

Alan William Parker was born on 14 February 1944 in Islington, North London. He left school in 1962 and joined the advertising agency Collett Dickenson Pearce as a copywriter, where he worked alongside David Puttnam, Charles Saatchi, and Alan Marshall, among others. His screenplay for a schoolboy romance, S.W.A.L.K. ('sealed with a loving kiss'), was produced by David Puttnam, directed by Waris Hussein, and released as Melody in 1970, in which year he and Marshall went freelance, forming the Alan Parker Film Company. They made a string of highly successful and well-regarded commercials, including the Cinzano series with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins.

Parker then wrote and directed two short films, Our Cissy (1973) and Footsteps (1973), and a television play set in wartime London, No Hard Feelings (filmed 1974, BBC, tx. 13/3/1976). His first major success came with The Evacuees (BBC, tx. 5/3/1975), a television play written by Jack Rosenthal about the experiences of two Jewish boys evacuated from London during the Blitz, for which Parker won the BAFTA television award for Best Director.

Despite this success, Parker found the transition to features difficult. He failed to attract financing for a number of screenplays, which he described as "about things that were very close to me... very English, very London, very angry working class". They were considered too parochial; thus it was as a purely pragmatic exercise that he wrote Bugsy Malone (1976), a children's musical set in 1920s Chicago, as a pastiche of the conventions of the American gangster movie. Though the subject-matter was chosen with the aim of attracting American finance, the film was mainly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation and Rank.

Nevertheless, the success of Bugsy Malone led to the call from Hollywood, and Parker, frustrated with both the commercial and state-sponsored industry in Britain, has rarely worked here since. His first US venture was the critically-acclaimed story of a young American's harrowing experiences of the Turkish prison system, Midnight Express (US/UK, 1978). This was followed by the hugely-successful musical Fame (US, 1980), set in the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, and, in quick succession, the domestic drama Shoot the Moon (US, 1981), a film version of the Pink Floyd concept album The Wall (1982), and the post-Vietnam drama Birdy (US, 1984). Parker expressed his views on the state of the British film industry in his vitriolic television documentary, A Turnip-Head's Guide to the British Cinema (ITV, tx. 12/3/1986). Though he continued to live in England, all his subsequent films have been made with American backing. He has maintained a constant output, with thrillers such as Angel Heart (US, 1987) and The Life of David Gale (US/UK/Germany, 2003); dramas like Mississippi Burning (US, 1988), Come See the Paradise (US, 1990) and Angela's Ashes (US/UK, 1999); two very different musicals, The Commitments (UK/US, 1991) and Evita (US/UK, 1996); and a comedy, The Road to Wellville (US/UK, 1994). Surprisingly, given his well-known views on British film culture, Parker accepted the Chairmanship of the BFI in 1998, moving on to become the first Chairman of the UK Film Council in 1999.

Parker is a deeply paradoxical figure: a film-maker committed to popular, mainstream, narrative cinema, yet whose work is often challenging in theme and distinctive in look; a persistent critic of the British film establishment, yet a man who chaired two of the establishment's major institutions; a working class 'turnip-head' who was awarded the CBE in 1995 and a knighthood in 2002. Nevertheless, he has consistently pursued his own particular vision of film and film-making, and has always been prepared to put his reputation on the line, never taking refuge in whinging from the sidelines. A profile in The Face acutely defined him as 'an outsider with a superiority complex'.

'Dialogue on Film: Alan Parker', American Film, Jan/Feb. 1988, pp. 12-15
'The Film Brat', The Face, July 1985, pp. 46-51
Floyd, Nigel, 'Alan Parker', Direction, Oct. 1991, pp. 13-16
Hacker, Jonathan and David Price, Take Ten: Contemporary British Film Directors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)
Roddick, Nick, 'Alan Parker: From Bugsy to Birdy', Cinema Papers, July 1985, pp. 40-43

Martin Hunt, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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On movie stars, critics and executives

Selected credits

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Alan Parker's delightfully original children's gangster musical

Thumbnail image of Commitments, The (1991)Commitments, The (1991)

Lively, raucous tale of working-class Dublin teenagers forming a soul band

Thumbnail image of Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Alan Parker and Gerald Scarfe's visualisation of the epic concept album

Thumbnail image of Evacuees, The (1975)Evacuees, The (1975)

Jack Rosenthal WWII drama about two Jewish boys evacuated to Blackpool

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Song and dance on the big screen

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