Published on: 02 August 2015 in Longform

Best Newcomer: what does it actually mean for your career?

Reading time: 7 minutes and 2 seconds

Entries closed in May for this year’s Grierson Award nominations. First introduced in 2001 the “Best Newcomer” award has been presented every year since.

In this article we speak to a couple of directors who have won the award over the past 14 years to explore the impact it has had (or not) on their careers and find out a little more about the films that won them the award.

Clare Richards won the Best Newcomer award in 2006 for her film, Disabled and Looking for Love and Patrick Collerton won the award in 2004 for The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off.

At what point did the film happen in your career?

Patrick Collerton: I was 34 and had progressed through documentary, drama and commercials to the point where I really knew what I wanted to say, and the rules I wanted to break with the film. I knew Jonny (Kennedy, the subject of the documentary) for six months before Simon Dickson took the brave step and commissioned it without a slot or strand for C4. The tipping point was me e-mailing him to say if he wanted to commission the life and death, rather than the latter, he'd better act. It was filmed very quickly, over a month, as Jonny was becoming very ill but he was a joy to film as there was a constant good natured game of wits between us both as well as the great people around him.

Clare Richards: It was the first film I'd ever made. I'd been working in the industry for only a couple of years prior to making it.

I started out in Manchester because I thought it would be easier to make my way without the pressures of a London rent. So my first ever job was as a researcher at Action Time, verifying the questions on Bob Monkhouse's Wipeout. I also made a couple of series of a day home improvement show, but I knew I really wanted to be making documentaries so I was very happy to find the documentary company Lambent Productions.

Lambent were a fantastic company as they were making really good single documentaries and were also supportive of new faces. They had a contract with Teachers' TV, and I'd made a series for them as an AP while I was developing the idea for the sensitive human interest film Disabled and Looking For Love for BBC’s Fresh Strand.

The Fresh strand is for first time Directors, and Emma Wakefield at the production company really liked the idea, so I did some preliminary development on it before we pitched.

The idea was to talk to people with disabilities about love and sex while they looked for partners. This was pre The Undateables and so it was a taboo subject,that was rarely openly discussed.

I'd discovered a wonderful organisation called The Outsiders which was set up by the inspiring Tuppy Owens, to help people with disabilities physical or more hidden ones like Aspergers to support them as they looked for partners and to give them a forum to talk about their sexuality.

This was a time before taster tapes, so it was a written document and I had a face to face interview before it got commissioned. My characters were signed off on the basis of a couple of paragraphs, which would be unheard of now.

Generally I was left to go and make the film, with Emma Exec Producing. There was very little input from the BBC after the commission and before the first viewing, which I've not experienced since.

Were you surprised to win the award?

PC: I was delighted, especially as it came with a £3k cash prize and was really the first official recognition…The film eventually won 13 prizes but the Griersons was a great surprise that affirmed that colleagues in the industry liked the film. I happily managed to share it with the crew who came on the night.

CR: I was very surprised but also ecstatic. As my first film, I had very little experience in the industry so this was something I’d not expected. I had felt as confident as I could while making the film, but to be honest was guided by my gut instinct. This was exciting, scary and a true baptism of fire, and to win an award for it was truly extraordinary for me and my contributors.

Do you think winning the award opened up any new avenues for you career-wise?

PC: I was lucky in that the film also won an International Emmy and BAFTA amongst other prizes. A friend said that people will now say they like you which means that you're now financeable. It was great advice. The next commission from C4, a documentary, was as a result of a short conversation in the pub with the commissioner rather than six months of going back and forward.

CR: I think it definitely helped as it gave me a stamp of approval winning such a respected award, but it didn’t guarantee jobs, it just got me through the door. In the immediate aftermath I was able to get lots of meetings with production companies who might not otherwise have met me. I had very little experience in the industry, and specifically in documentary. I'd only just started being an assistant producer and I hadn't worked with all those established production companies on the way to making my first film, I was totally unknown.

Almost 10 years on do you think winning the award has had a significant impact on your career?

PC: I've since been able to have the more-or-less the career I've wanted, skipping between drama, documentary, commercials and film in various roles which is mainly down to the film. The award, along with the others, made me recognisable as a director, especially within the documentary community, but you can't rest on your laurels, or still hark back to an award from ten years ago.

CR: I think it certainly did in the immediate aftermath, but having an award doesn't guarantee longevity or career development. It's still been a struggle, at times to get the jobs that I really want. I had a really difficult year two years after winning the award, when I found it hard to get work for quite a long time. But I have continued to directing broadcast documentaries ever since winning the award, and made films that have the same sensibility that Disabled and Looking for Love has, that I feel only I could have made.

If you could go back and give yourself some advice immediately after winning the award, what would it be?  

PC: At the time I was still grieving for Jonny, the subject of the film who died as part of the narrative so the awards and recognition were quite a strange time. I'd probably say lighten up and have a celebratory toast to Jonny as he would have been delighted at the recognition he gained through the film.

CR: Think about another career! I’m joking really. I don’t think I would have listened to that advice. I was hell-bent on making documentaries then, and I still am now. 

And last but not least, what are you currently working on? 

PC: I'm writing a feature film with the BFI that's a fiction film with elements of documentary.

CR: I've just had a full-on 18 months directing on The Met - Policing London for BBC1, and Series Directing a series for BBC 2 about The NatWest which starts TXing on the 23rd June for 3 weeks. So I've only just come up for air.

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