TOP DOCUMENTARY MAKER ON INTERVIEWING HARRY & WILL AND JOKING WITH THE QUEEN
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
When did you move here?
2009, just after my daughter was born.
Askewine, Laveli, Princess Victoria, and Ravenscourt Park.
I like the Queen. She's funny
Where did you grow up?
Ilkeston, an old mining town in Derbyshire.
What inspired your career choice?
Watching lots of telly in the 70s with my dad. Programmes like The World At War sowed a seed. As a child, I was mesmerized. Those documentaries were epic, global stories told for ordinary people. I've always felt TV can communicate sophisticated ideas to a mass audience.
Are your parents creative?
Not officially. My mother was a bookkeeper for a truck company and my father worked in a factory as a painter and decorator. But they’re my inspiration.
Where did you train?
I studied history at Oxford and became a BBC reporter at 23, working for local TV and radio. I presented on Radio 4 and Country File with John Craven. I did all sorts of jobs all over the place, even the Australian outback, before I moved to London when I was 30 and focused on documentaries.
Last year you interviewed the royal princes to mark the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death, the first time they spoke publically about their mother. How did you persuade them?
When I made a film about the Queen, I filmed Prince Harry in Soweto in South Africa, and interviewed Prince William who was working as a pilot for the Air Ambulance. I also interviewed Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge – it was her first TV interview. We established a relationship of trust and when the anniversary approached, they felt it was appropriate to talk once, and only once, about their mother.
They came across as very normal. Were they?
I think they're remarkable to have survived the unique environment in which they have to live. It's a tribute to their characters and their parents that they're as normal and positive and engaging as they are. When you meet them, you know they want to make the world a better place. They take their responsibilities, but not themselves, seriously. Whatever their parents did gave them the tools to be balanced people.
Did you like them?
Making Our Queen At Ninety in 2016, did you like her?
I did like her. She's funny. We filmed a huge reception in Buckingham Palace. Hundreds of diplomats and envoys in full ethnic garb were waiting to see her. We were with her as she waited to walk into the glittering scene, and she turned and said in a comic aside: “Do you think if we open the doors there will be anyone on the other side?” She knew exactly who was waiting for her. We even saw her riding a horse – at ninety, which is pretty cool. Being in close proximity to the Queen can leave you slightly speechless. She's charismatic.
Are you a royalist?
I'm a romantic and I love history. For me, the monarchy is not about the person, it's about how to locate a love of country.
Do you listen to the Queen's speech?
I don't. I'm a bit Queened out these days. But I did as a kid. My parents made me watch every Christmas. Our family was working class and patriotic. I'm aware middle-class London can be a bit skeptical, but my hometown identifies with Queen and country.
Do you find yourself defending her at dinner parties?
I don't feel a need to defend any of them. I think most people can make up their own mind. The royals get up every morning and try to be useful. I've been to homeless shelters with Prince William and I know he wants to make a difference. I admire that. You don’t get that from a lot of our politicians.
Ian Hislop fronted your Olden Days (about a national obsession with the past). What's he like in person?
Delightful, funny, ironic, dry, clever. He's fun to be with. He has a gigantic fan club. He's Elvis Presley for the over 60s.
You did a film about Richard III with David Starkey. What's he like?
The consummate storyteller. I was on the edge of my seat interviewing him. Phenomenally clever, laser mind. And he's incredibly well dressed.
You also worked with Simon Schama on the recent Civilisations series. Was he civilised?
He's one of my favourite people on the planet. In the age of Trump, he gives me hope the world can be a better place. He's brilliant. And a real foodie. He's great fun to be around, especially if red wine is involved.
Of them all, who'd be the best king?
I don't know. If Ian Hislop was king, state visits would be a lot of fun. I'd like to see him hosting a visit from Trump.
Do you have a dream subject you want to film?
Not really. The joy of my job is it changes every 6 months. It's always TV, but it could be history or art or natural history. The cast and country change all the time. I'm freelance so I can choose. I don't want to be pigeonholed.
Documentaries continue to enjoy a renaissance. Why?
The truth is compelling. When I was a kid, I thought documentaries were like going up in a rocket to outer space; they gave you an opportunity to see fascinating people living in strange and exotic places. They’re a window on the universe.
Would you rather be making Hollywood movies?
No. Obviously I love drama and films, but reality is best.
Do you have a favourite interview?
A few years ago I was making a film about the Coventry Blitz and I asked one lady who was a child during the war what it was like. She closed her eyes and had a flashback for 10 minutes or so, describing everything she saw and heard in incredible detail. It was hypnotic, harrowing and incredibly moving.
With so much vlogging and Youtube, is it harder to get a commission now?
I don't think so. There are more outlets now, with Amazon and Netflix et cetera.
What's your best advice for someone starting out?
Don't – give – up!
If you weren't doing this, what would be your dream job?
Dry stone walling in Yorkshire with a Land Rover and my dog, Molly.
What are you working on next?
A programme about (ex-BBC Breakfast host) Bill Turnbull, an inspiring man diagnosed with prostate cancer. It's a lovely film about love and life and how cancer can remind you of what is truly important.
How do you relax?
Going on long walks. I love the Pennines, and I've walked the Coast to Coast, and the West Highland Way. I love a long, long, long walk.
Thank you, Ashley. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed Nov 2018