Sunday 18 February 2018

The disco diva who has taken the business of drama to a whole new leve

Belfast's Anne Morrison is the chair of Bafta and a key player in the global entertainment world. She spoke to Dearbhail McDonald

Anne Morrison by Jon Berkeley
Anne Morrison by Jon Berkeley

In the wee small hours of tomorrow morning, one woman will still be dancing at 3am when the lights come up on the dance floor following the 2016 British Academy Television Awards at London's Royal Festival Hall.

By her own admission, that woman will be Anne Morrison - the Belfast-born outgoing chair of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta).

Morrison is one of the UK and Ireland's most influential figures in the global entertainment and media market whose value is expected to reach a worth of just over two trillion US dollars by the end of this year.

Sipping Earl Grey tea at 195 Piccadilly - Bafta's headquarters in the heart of London's West End - Morrison breaks into one of her trademark peals of infectious laughter when she admits that she loves the red carpet, the frocks and all the celebrity chaos that descends on London during Bafta's annual awards season.

"I'm superficial enough to enjoy that part of it as well," says Morrison, adding that she brings "a tremendous energy" to everything she does - including the disco dancing.

Morisson's self-deprecation is alluring, if deceptive. Holding forth with ease in the coveted members' bar at 195 Piccadilly, her witty quips are interspersed with serious observations on the charges of elitism, sexism and discrimination that plague the entertainment industry.

The racial discrimination row that overshadowed the 2016 Oscars - and which gave birth to the #OscarsSoWhite debacle - is less likely to afflict the Baftas, whose 2016 film awards nominees included Oscar-snubbed actors Idris Elba and Benico Del Toro.

Morrison proudly points me in the direction of a recent London Times headline which proclaimed 'Black and White Baftas put Oscars to shame'.

But Morrison, who says it is her mission to try and get the most talented people into the industry - rather than the most privileged or best connected - is under no illusions about the diversity challenges facing the creative sector.

"If you are doing well, I don't think there is anything better than the creative industries. It is completely absorbing," says Morrison. "But let's face it, even if you are privileged, it is quite a hard industry to get into. The rewards are great - but there are risks and dangers, particularly on the diversity front."

As one of the few women to rise to the top in the entertainment industry (a recent survey of royalty payments by Directors UK found that women directed only 8pc of comedy and entertainment programmes and 13pc of drama episodes on UK TV in the two years to the end of 2012), Morrison has faced her own diversity battles.

Resilient is perhaps a better description for the former controller of documentaries and contemporary factual at the BBC. With responsibility for more than 1,000 staff and a budget of £120m programmes budget, Morrison says the diversity issues were "enormous" in 1981 when she first joined a then "very male" BBC.

Along with diversity, she has endured her own adversity obstacles too. She faced down an internal heave when the features and formats department she ran at the BBC was merged with documentaries, prompting some angry staff to sign a petition against the change.

You suspect that the petition, which Morrison describes as "a fairly tough time" - one that felt like a personal onslaught - still rankles at some level.

But Morrison, who oversaw the dramatic growth of the BBC's regional output in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, was by then familiar with tough choices, having overseen successive rounds of redundancies as the independent TV sector made inroads to the hegemony once enjoyed by the broadcaster.

Under her leadership of the BBC's factual TV production department, Morrison made programmes as diverse as Dunkirk, The Secret Policeman, Crimewatch, Rough Justice, Taking Liberties and The Queen's Golden Jubilee.

Morrison also relaunched Top Gear - the broadcaster's former cash cow - long before its lead presenter Jeremy Clarkson was dropped by the BBC after punching his Irish producer Oisin Tymon in the face.

From the random act of being among six out of 6,000 applicants to be accepted onto a BBC trainee programme, Morrison's flair for developing new talent and taking calculated risks, led to her taking on the role of director of the BBC Academy - the broadcaster's mammoth centre for training, housing its colleges of journalism, production, leadership and technology.

It was a role nurturing talent and relentlessly pursuing a diversity agenda that in turn catapulted Morrison into the heart of Bafta, where she chaired its new talent committee - and the UK's creative economy.

It is an economy that boasts staggering statistics.

The UK's creative industries, from music and fashion to the arts and film, are worth £84.1bn to the British economy, according to the creative industries economic estimates by the UK's department for culture, media and sport.

The gross value added (GVA) of the creative sector accounted for 5.2pc of the UK economy in 2014 alone.

It is a success inspired in part by Irish initiatives to support its artistic community, according to Morrison, a married mother of one whose 22-year-old daughter Alice looks set to follow her mother's footsteps with a media career.

"I think Ireland was a bit of trailblazer," says Morrison reflecting on the "enlightened" introduction of tax breaks for the TV and film sector in Ireland, later emulated by the British.

"They're not identical obviously. It's not exactly the same model. But take the principle of tax breaks - they must have looked to Ireland in devising the current ones. I think it has had a gigantic impact on film first of all, but then spreading out to TV, animation and games, which is a huge industry in and of itself."

Morisson said the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was a major celebration of the creative industries.

"The sector has become increasingly highlighted and supported through things like tax breaks which have been hugely important, particularly in driving inward investment into the UK and Ireland.

"Britain and Ireland both punch above their weight when it comes to the development of talent, both on and off screen".

A fascination with screens big and small are the thread that runs through the rich tapestry of Morrison's life.

Born in Belfast, she grew up during the Troubles, leaving Northern Ireland aged 19 in 1978.

That was the year when 12 people were killed and 23 badly injured when an incendiary bomb exploded at the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel Belfast. It was also the year of dirty protests by Republican prisoners in the Maze prison.

"TV was very important in my upbringing, because it was quite hard to go out," said Morrison, an only child who adored cinema and who read English Lit at Churchill College in Cambridge.

"There weren't many bands who came to visit us. They were putting bombs in restaurants and cafes and bars, it was a time of random bombing. So TV was more important than it is to most people growing up. It was my medium, it was absolutely central".

During her gap year, Morrison carried out work experience for the BBC and at Ulster Tatler and also interned at Fortnight, the political magazine - where she met her future husband Richard, its then assistant editor.

"It was a very productive year, everything from finding my future husband to finding my future employer," she laughs, adding that her continued success is due in large part to a decision by her husband to quit work entirely when their daughter Alice was born.

Life is busy for the 56-year-old. As well as chairing Bafta, Morrison is a governor of University of the Arts, London, a board member of London & Partners (the official promotional company for London) and is a trustee of the Charleston Trust.

Like many leaders in the UK with Irish roots, Morrison refuses to be drawn on her views on the forthcoming Brexit referendum. But she has recently teamed up with the Irish International Business Network - the London-based organisation that connects Irish entrepreneurs with global business - and is passionate about the tourism and jobs potential on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Morrison, who chills out by watching box sets, says Ireland is enjoying a golden age in film and TV, with output including films Brooklyn and Room as well as TV dramas The Fall - and of course Game of Thrones.

"Game of Thrones has had a giant impact on Northern Ireland's film and television industries. As of last year, the show has contributed an estimated £110m to its economy since it started," says Morrison, whose broad Belfast lilt has not been tempered by three decades of living in England.

"By developing local talent, it has established Northern Ireland and indeed the whole of Ireland as a world-class location for film and TV production".

She lauds the "immense talent" here, noting that, unlike her, artists and producers are able to stay at home now and forge an international career as well as attracting jobs and tourism revenue.

"Ireland has always been a tremendous cultural centre. We haven't always been able to shout about that - but we can now".

As well as tax breaks, Morrison supports what she calls "intelligent" intervention to stimulate local businesses competing on the international stage. Diversity of financial investment is also required, she says, for producers to cope with the challenges posed by massive disruption - through platforms such as Netflix and YouTube - that are blurring the lines between big studio feature films and TV drama or short film production.

"There is less of a difference now between film and high-end TV drama in terms of budget," says Morrison, noting that Amazon Studios earned its first nomination this year with the American TV series Transparent.

"The way audience is consuming media is utterly different, across so many devices," she says, nodding sympathetically when I admit I watched an entire season of Netflix's House of Cards TV drama on my mobile phone whilst waiting for broadband to be installed at home, before erupting into another one of her epic peals of laughter.

As for the future? It could be anything, including disco.

"You never know," says Morrison. "I wouldn't rule anything out".

The British Academy Television Awards Show is on BBC One tonight, starting at 8pm

'My puritanical upbringing stays with me'

The best piece of career advice I ever received was... "In order to be resilient in these tough jobs, you need to diversify the sources of your self-esteem."

My attitude to money makes me... "a saver - my puritanical upbringing stays with me, however much I might try to leave it behind!"

I was at my most skint when I was... "trying to survive as a BBC trainee when I first came to London was tough on less than £7,000 a year."

My proudest achievement is... "our daughter Alice - 22, brilliant, kind, passionate, hilarious and with a highly developed social conscience."

The last good meal I ate was... "at home - my husband Robert is an excellent cook."

At the moment I am reading... "Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar. I've had a lifelong interest in the Bloomsbury group and am a trustee of the house Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant lived in in East Sussex."

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