Roger Michell – Film, television and theatre director
Roger Michell, who has died aged 65, was a film, television and theatre director, best known to many for Notting Hill (1999). The Richard Curtis scripted rom-com brought Hugh Grant with Julia Roberts together in a frothy yarn about a bookshop owner and an actress finding true love. The film tapped into its era’s very British sense of optimism, and was a hit, winning a BAFTA, and becoming the biggest ever box office success for a British film.
This was one of many highlights for Michell, whose work on stage and screen was marked with warmth, intelligence and starry ensemble casts. This was as evident in his early stage work as it was in Nothing Like a Dame (2018), a documentary that brought together Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith to talk about their lives and careers.
The film reflected Michell’s own theatrical roots, and it was only after a regime change at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was a resident director for six years, left him somewhat sidelined, that he embarked on a three-month BBC directors’ course. This was designed to enable theatre directors to work with cameras, and Michell adapted well.
He made his small screen debut with three-part mini-series, Downtown Lagos (1992), before overseeing Hanif Kureishi’s four-part adaptation of his novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1993). Set largely in multi-racial London, the series took in punk and a 1970s theatre scene Michell and Kureishi knew well. The two men had been contemporaries at the Royal Court Theatre, and went on to work together again on The Mother (2003), Venus (2006), and Le Weekend 2013). For The Buddah of Suburbia, Michell also directed the video for David Bowie’s theme song to the series.
Michell went on to direct Nick Dear’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion (1995), starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. He followed this with My Night with Reg (1997), adapted by Kevin Elyot from his play about London’s gay community in the 1980s. Michell had directed the play at the Royal Court, and took it to the West End. Prior to Notting Hill, Michell directed Titanic Town (1998), which starred Julie Walters and Hinds in Mary Costello and Anne Devlin’s story set in Belfast during the Troubles.
Despite his move into film, Michell never left the theatre, and he continued to direct at the Royal National Theatre, The Almeida, the Donmar and Hampstead Theatre. He cast Andrew Lincoln and Bill Nighy in Joe Penhall’s play, Blue/Orange (2000), oversaw a revival of Rope, by Patrick Hamilton, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 2009; and directed his then wife Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin in Consent (2017), by Nina Raine.
Throughout all this, Michell never imposed any kind of directorial number on his work, but let it speak for itself through his actors. His enabling presence allowed his productions to breathe, and there was an understated confidence in everything he produced.
Roger Harry Michell was born in Pretoria, South Africa, to Jillian (nee Green) and HD Michell. His father was a British diplomat, and while born in South Africa, he also lived in Lebanon, Syria and Czechoslovakia, before embarking to boarding school at Clifton College, Bristol. It was here he started writing and directing short plays. He went on to study at Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he immersed himself in student drama.
He won an award in Edinburgh for his Festival Fringe play, Private Dick, co-written with Richard Maher. The play later ran at the Lyric Hammersmith, and transferred to the West End, where Robert Powell starred. Michell joined Brighton Actors Workshop, before becoming an assistant director at the Royal Court. He joined the RSC in 1985, and his productions included Hamlet, with Philip Franks in the title role. He also directed plays by Nick Darke, Edward Bond and American playwright Richard Nelson.
Following the success of Notting Hill, Michell’s films included Changing Lanes (2002), with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson, The Mother (2003), starring Anne Reid and Daniel Craig, Enduring Love (2004), adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel by Joe Penhall, and Venus (2006), with Peter O’Toole.
Michell was courted to direct the James Bond film that became Quantum of Solace, but eventually dropped out due to a lack of a script. He went on to make Morning Glory (2010), starring Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford, and directed Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012). After Le Weekend, Michell won his second BAFTA for Peter Morgan’s two-part TV drama, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (2014), based on the true story of a retired schoolteacher wrongly accused of murder. The fact that Jefferies had taught Michell gave things a personal element.
Michell went on to direct my Cousin Rachel (2017), his own adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel, starring Rachel Weisz. What turned out to be his final film, The Duke (2020), starred Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent, and premiered to great acclaim at the Venice Film Festival. The film is a fitting bookend to a brilliant career that saw Michell stay out of the spotlight, while letting his impressive body of work to shine.
He is survived by four children, Rosanna, and Harry, to his first wife, Kate Buffery; and Maggie and Nancy, to his second wife, Anna Maxwell Martin.
The Herald, October 2nd 2021