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Kosminsky, Peter (1956-)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Kosminsky, Peter (1956-)

Peter Kosminsky's work confronts difficult subjects including war, terrorism, child abuse and political spin, seeking to ask "awkward questions" of "people in positions of power". Making potent use of drama documentary techniques, Kosminsky tells individual stories rooted in thorough research, combining dramatic and journalistic skills to reconstruct major events or dramatise the human impact of institutional failings. Although widely acclaimed, his techniques as director (more recently writer-director) are sometimes challenged by drama documentary's critics.

Kosminsky was born in London on 18 December 1956. After studying Chemistry at Oxford University, he became a BBC trainee in 1980. He worked as researcher on programmes including Nationwide (1969-84) - on which he began directing, for insert items - and This Week, Next Week (1984-88). His BBC prospects seemed to diminish after his involvement in the 1985 Real Lives strike.

Award-winning work on Yorkshire TV's First Tuesday (ITV, 1983-93) built his reputation as a documentary filmmaker on pieces like 'A Home for Laura' (ITV, tx. 3/11/1987) about family housing for children with special needs, 'Cambodia: Children of the Killing Fields' (ITV, tx. 5/4/1988) about life in a refugee camp, 'Afghantsi' (ITV, tx. 4/10/1988) about the Red Army's withdrawal from Afghanistan, and 'The Falklands War - The Untold Story' (ITV, tx. 1/4/1987). His subsequent dramas returned to such themes of institutional responsibility for children and concern both for soldiers and war's civilian victims.

His first drama documentary, Shoot to Kill (ITV, 1990) covered the mid-1980s Stalker Inquiry into contested RUC shootings in 1982. His use of 'faction' seemed surprising: he told the press he 'hated' this 'evil form'. However, unable to make a conventional documentary, he found "the only way to tell a story that we thought journalistically needed telling was to dramatise it". An accompanying discussion programme presented Kosminsky's first defence of his techniques: many others would follow. Calling Shoot to Kill his 'big break', he would continue to give documentary research the emotional impact and audience reach of drama.

Deviating from this path to make his cinema debut proved to be what he called "the biggest mistake of my life": although some reviewers praised Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1992) for its stark atmosphere and faithfulness as adaptation, others criticised its casting and production detail. Despite less fraught cinema experience on another adaptation, White Oleander (2002), Kosminsky has mostly worked in television.

The Dying of the Light (tx. 16/11/1994), written by Hossein Amini, covered the murder of aid worker Sean Devereux in Somalia in 1993 following his criticism of arms sales. Several pieces explored institutions' conduct towards children. Scripted by Jeremy Brock, 15: The Life and Death of Philip Knight (ITV, tx. 18/8/1993) was about a young offender's death in adult prison in 1990. Innocents (Channel 4, tx. 1/10/2000), written by Neil McKay, tackled Bristol Royal Infirmary's recent experimental surgery on young children. Walking on The Moon (ITV, tx. 30/8/1999), written by Martin Sadofski, covered bullying, and was subsequently used in schools, while No Child of Mine (ITV, tx. 25/2/1997), from a script by Guy Hibbert, dramatised the horrific "conveyor belt abuse" of a girl within her family, the care system and ultimately as a child prostitute. Social services attacked the programme on familiar drama documentary grounds of dramatic compression, and some worried about the 12-year-old Brooke Kinsella performing such shocking material, which Kinsella has always strongly defended.

Written by Leigh Jackson, the two-part Warriors (BBC, 1999) showed British soldiers acting as UN peacekeepers during the Bosnian war (1992-95) who were powerless to intervene as Bosnian Muslim civilians became the victims of ethnic cleansing. Numerous scenes demonstrated Kosminsky's ability to powerfully render researched detail and complex events, using a seemingly spontaneous visual style and a narrative organised around characters with whom we observe and experience situations.

Jackson and Kosminsky used similar identification techniques on political drama The Project (BBC, 2002). The two parts, 'Opposition' and 'Government', moved from the Labour Party's 1992 election defeat to New Labour's second election victory in 2001, dramatising the New Labour project's impact on Labour values through the disillusioning experiences of young activists in a heavily-researched fiction. Characters were integrated with news stories and policy formation, with real figures like Tony Blair appearing in archive footage.

By contrast, Blair and others were portrayed by actors in The Government Inspector (Channel 4, tx. 17/3/2005). Although New Labour advised officials not to cooperate, the production drew on testimony regarding the Government's handling of the Iraq/WMD issue, its dispute with the BBC and the 2003 death of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. The scripting of scenes for which no record existed led to literal-minded complaints: Kosminsky defended showing Blair playing guitar during a conversation with Alastair Campbell because it gave an "accurate impression" of some conversations (if not that specific one) and served a dramatic purpose. Kosminsky aimed to "be honest with the audience and hope that they'll trust me". His first time as writer-director, The Government Inspector won a writing BAFTA, which Kosminsky called a 'high point'.

He was also writer-director of Britz (C4, 2007), which argued that anti-terror legislation targeted British Muslims and created more terrorism than it prevented. Hypothesising legislation's impact on a fictional brother and sister, Britz's two-part structure revisited scenes considering different motives: in 'Sohail's Story', Sohail was recruited to MI5 and investigated his own community; in 'Nasima's Story', Nasima was recruited as a suicide bomber, radicalised by experience of repressive legislation. Sohail's overcompensating Britishness and Nasima's disaffected radicalism also dramatised a split Kosminsky felt within himself as the son of a Jewish immigrant.

The Promise (Channel 4, 2011) examined the Israel-Palestine conflict, Britain's role, and terrorism through an initially apathetic modern British teenager discovering her grandfather's 1940s army service and starting to consider history's relationship with the present. The four-parter's ambitious scale, long gestation and challenging Israeli filming made this Kosminsky's "toughest assignment" yet.

In addition to winning many international awards and being profiled by The South Bank Show (ITV, tx. 24/5/2009), it is fitting that Kosminsky won BAFTA's Alan Clarke Award for outstanding creative contribution to television in 1999. Not only did radical filmmakers like Clarke and Ken Loach inspire him, but he belongs in their lineage, with his combination of social passion and cinematic technique. Indeed, Kosminsky's work demonstrates that radical drama documentary is one form through which contemporary television remains capable of presenting genuinely challenging programmes.

Dave Rolinson

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Government Inspector, The (2005)Government Inspector, The (2005)

Controversial dramadoc about New Labour and the David Kelly affair

Thumbnail image of Project, The (2002)Project, The (2002)

Sharp drama charting New Labour's journey from opposition to government

Thumbnail image of Shoot to Kill (1990)Shoot to Kill (1990)

Drama-doc about an investigation into Northern Ireland policing

Thumbnail image of Warriors (1999)Warriors (1999)

Powerful, horrific dramadoc about the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia

Related collections

Thumbnail image of TV Drama in the 2000sTV Drama in the 2000s

A decade of restless change for small-screen drama

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