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Francis, Karl (1942- )

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Francis, Karl (1942- )

Throughout his career, Welsh writer-director Karl Francis, born in Bedwas on 1 April 1942, has tended to make partisan films seeking to illuminate aspects of proletarian life and achieve social and political change. His works have generally been set in the (now erstwhile) South Wales mining communities, and for more than two decades he has been the most significant English language filmmaker in Wales. Francis's features and drama-documentaries are sometimes too promiscuous, trying to stress too many social ills at the expense of establishing inner dramatic and psychological cohesion, but his best work has raw emotional power.

A former TV documentary and current affairs director, Francis made an impressive feature debut in 1977 with Above Us the Earth, which used amateur and professional actors to explore the community impact of a Rhymney Valley pit closure. Critical of the National Coal Board and the trade unions, the film lingered rewardingly on fractious interactions between politicians and union leaders, and Francis teased out the forces creating a schism in the community.

He drew on his media experiences to make Giro City (1982), one of the first crop of films made by Channel 4. Glenda Jackson and Jon Finch star as television reporters compellingly enmeshed in Northern Ireland political intrigue and South Wales local government corruption. Francis's mining concerns surfaced again in Ms Rhymney Valley (BBC Wales, 1985), which humorously observed sexual politics in the 1984 Miners' Strike.

Francis attracted both praise and opprobrium for Boy Soldier (1986) an S4C Welsh language film with English subtitles, which obtained a London West End cinema premiere. An unemployed South Wales valleys youth, made a scapegoat through political machinations after a tragic incident on Army patrol in Northern Ireland, discovers more affinities with the Irish than with his English superiors. Overheated scenes of military prison violence attracted criticism, but the film is a fascinating examination of national identity and class warfare.

The Angry Earth (S4C, 1989), charting South Wales coalfield history through the life of a fictional 110 year old woman, proved schematic and simplistic, but Francis hit his stride again with Streetlife (BBC, 1994). Despite being well received at the Edinburgh Film Festival, it gained only a limited and belated cinema release. Centred on a jilted single mum on a drug-ridden council housing estate, the drama, strident and unconvincing at times, contained effective scenes and a superb central performance from Helen McCrory.

Francis endured an unsatisfactory two years as the improbably radical head of BBC Drama, Wales but later made the cinema biopic One of the Hollywood 10 (2000), a tribute to US director Herbert Biberman, blacklisted with his Oscar-winning actress wife Gale Sondergaard in the anti-Communist Hollywood purges of the 1940s and '50s. Francis's feature, yet to obtain US or British cinema release, contained graphic recreations of FBI-inspired arson and thuggery on the location of Biberman's celebrated film of a strike by Mexican-American zinc miners, Salt of the Earth (US, 1953).

Berry, David, Wales and Cinema: The First 100 Years (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994)
Freer, Steve, Karl Francis: A Sense of Direction (Cardiff: HTV booklet, 1990)

Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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