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Obituary: Alan Parker

Oscar-nominated director of hit movies such as 'The Commitments' and 'Fame' was more loved by audiences than critics


ADORED: Audiences loved Alan Parker’s ability to stir emotions

ADORED: Audiences loved Alan Parker’s ability to stir emotions

Getty Images

ADORED: Audiences loved Alan Parker’s ability to stir emotions

Alan Parker, the director who has died aged 76, broke his way into film-making with the children's gangster spoof Bugsy Malone and went on to make more than a dozen full-length feature films, ranging from the intense marital breakdown drama Shoot the Moon (1982) to the over-the-top theatrics of Evita (1996) and the musical mayhem of The Commitments (1991).

The 1991 adaptation of Roddy Doyle's novel about working-class Dubliners who form a soul band was his own personal favourite. "It was the only film I ever did where I woke up every morning and couldn't wait to get there," he recalled.

In contrast, the making of Evita was like "riding bareback on a crazed elephant strapped to a jet engine, whilst Madonna combs your hair with a razor blade".

Along his cinematic journey, he outraged the Turkish tourist board with his brutal prison drama Midnight Express (1978), which won him an Oscar nomination for best director, ushered in a craze for leg-warmers with Fame (1980), and helped to right a notorious American civil rights injustice with Mississippi Burning (1988), which won him a second Oscar nomination.

Never one to be typecast (he once expressed his desire to make at least one film in every cinematic genre), he also directed the experimental rock musical Pink Floyd - The Wall (1982), featuring Bob Geldof as a troubled rock star, and the anarchic colonic irrigation comedy The Road to Wellville (1994), with Anthony Hopkins.

Barry Norman, an old friend of Parker's, once described him as "the perfectly balanced man in that he has a chip on each shoulder, both chips clearly labelled 'film critic'." There were good reasons for this. Parker's films, on the whole, were critical failures, reviewers finding them "meretricious" and "manipulative", while newspaper profiles tended to be littered with words like "bruiser" and "barrow boy".

It was not just reviewers who objected. The unremittingly negative portrayal of Turkish culture in Midnight Express brought accusations of racism, while black activists complained that Mississippi Burning concentrated too hard on white civil rights activists at their expense. Meanwhile, the casting of Madonna in the title role in Evita brought death threats from Argentina.

Yet audiences loved Parker's films for exactly the same qualities that reviewers and interest groups disliked them: their ability to stir emotions.

An only child, Alan William Parker was born in Islington, north London, on February 14, 1944, and grew up in a flat on a council estate. His mother was a dressmaker; his father painted railings for the London Electricity Board. Alan won a place at the local grammar school, but let slip the opportunity to go to university in order to work in the post room at a London advertising agency, Collett Dickinson Pearce (CDP).

He was soon promoted to junior copywriter, penning lines for poster campaigns, and caught the eye of one of CDP's account executives, David Puttnam, with whom he began shooting short commercials. His rise was swift, and by the mid-1970s he was one of the best-known names in the business, responsible for Leonard Rossiter slinging a glass of Cinzano over Joan Collins's decolletage.

Parker's advertising career ran almost parallel to Ridley Scott's, and their later rivalry stemmed from this time. While Scott was famous for his visual stylings, Parker became known for his dialogue and realism.

"If a script said, 'we see a beautiful girl walking along a sun-kissed beach in Barbados' Ridley Scott did that,'' Parker recalled. "And if it said, 'we see an overweight family in a Shepherd's Bush kitchen', I did those."

At one point, the two men discussed the idea of forming a film production company together: "We had lunch and Ridley said that it's going to be called RSA [Ridley Scott Associates]," Parker recalled. "Of course, I said, 'no, it's not'. He said, 'well, maybe it should be called Scott Parker' and I said, 'no, mate, I think Parker Scott sounds better'. We didn't get past that."

It was Parker's eldest son who first had the idea for Bugsy Malone. A fan of black-and-white gangster movies starring James Cagney or Edward G Robinson, he suggested his father should make a Runyonesque spoof, using child performers instead of adults.

When Parker touted the idea to film executives, most were incredulous, and in the end Parker and his CDP colleague Alan Marshall, the film's producer, had to plough their own money into the film.

However, with its catchy 1920s-style tunes, and pint-sized guys and dolls riding around in pedal-powered cars and slugging it out with custard pies and "splurge guns", Bugsy Malone was an instant hit. It went on to win 15 award nominations from the Golden Globes, an Oscar nod for Best Original Song Score and a nomination for the Golden Palm at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.

It was such a success that Parker then wrote the novel of the film, followed by a stage show. "I was sick when I found out that he had got a film,'' Ridley Scott recalled. "I didn't sleep for a week.''

In later life, however, Parker tended to dismiss the film and often refused permission for schools and youth groups to perform the stage version. The only point of making it, he explained, had been to send the message: "I can make movies - will you give me money for the next one?"

The strategy worked, because immediately afterwards, Parker was invited to make Midnight Express, Oliver Stone's thriller which he felt was "closer to the kind of thing I thought I should be doing". Filmed in an old military fort in Malta, it starred Brad Davis as an all-American boy incarcerated in a Turkish hellhole after being found in possession of hashish, and John Hurt as an English junkie fellow prisoner.

Hurt, Parker recalled, decided that to embrace the part, he would not bathe: "He didn't, for seven weeks, and he really did smell, and you would see him in the bar of the hotel and he'd say, 'come and have a drink,' and we'd say, 'no thanks'."

The film earned Parker an Oscar nomination in 1979 and put him firmly on the Hollywood map. The same year he was sent a script called Hot Lunch, about a group of students at the New York High School of Performing Arts. He rewrote it, and halfway through shooting noticed a pornographic film showing on 42nd Street with the same title. It launched under the new title Fame.

Parker's other films ranged from Shoot the Moon (1982), a lightly fictionalised account of the collapse of his first marriage, starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, to A Turnip Head's Guide to the British Cinema (1986), a polemic against film critics, and the British Film Institute. Angela's Ashes (1999) was a film version of the memoir of Frank McCourt.

Parker's output began to slow in the 1990s when, to the surprise of many, he began to take on appointments in the British film industry establishment. He became chairman of the British Film Institute in 1998 and, in 2000, chairman of the UK Film Council.

His last film was The Life of David Gale (2003), a death-row thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet. In 2013, he was awarded a Bafta fellowship.

His first marriage, to Annie Inglis, with whom he had a daughter and three sons, was dissolved. He married secondly, in 2001, the producer Lisa Moran.

Sunday Independent