Award winning director Robin Sheppard talks EYE Movies through the in’s and outs of the film and TV world
In the space of a decade, Kirk Originals devotee Robin Sheppard has become one of the most in-demand TV directors in the UK, responsible for helming many household name series. A very personable, demure and likeable character, she nonetheless comes equipped with a steadiness and durability which are seemingly pre-requisites in the business. With her list of projects including a number of critical and popular successes such as “At Home With The Braithwaites”, “Sparkhouse”, “Lucky Jim”, “Cherished”, “Kingdom” and Jilly Cooper’s Octavia”, she’s also always managed to display a versatility in her choice of projects. On meeting her, she’s disarmingly charming and puts her success down to her personality and love of working with actors and writers with her refreshing, energetic attitude to the creative processes of the TV game.
Having graduated from the Royal College Of Art, she puts her entry into the competitive world of TV directing as down to a succession of happy accidents, as is quite typical of many artistic jobs. “It just kind of happened because I had no idea of what directors did. I didn’t really have a burning ambition to be a director, it happened by a series of events. When I was at college and even before that I always used to offer to shoot everyone’s films because I was the only one who knew how to work a camera. I noticed that certain directors didn’t communicate very well with the actors so I used to quietly go up and have a quick word with them and the actors seemed to appreciate that and used to say that I should think about becoming a director.”
With film-making being such an exhausting process taking on a project does usually involve setting apart the best part of a year or even more to complete the work. During this period, as Robin underlines here, it’s an all consuming process. “It completely takes over your life. It is so intense right from the first day that you start to the last day when you finish. It really, really is so intense but in a lovely way because you inhabit a completely different world. There are so many things to think about and do everyday to make it all come together.”
However the exactions of the working lifestyle are counterbalanced by her enthusiasm for working with actors and writers and she’s amassed a more than enviable list of the finest UK acting talents across her works.
“I do love working with actors and that’s the reason I do it really. It’s hard to single anyone in particular out but one I’d like to mention is Timothy Spall. He is one of the mightiest, finest talents around and if you’re talking about pure acting talent, he’s right up there. Stephen Fry also is really brilliant. He’s so much of a Renaissance man and able to turn his hands to so much. I also really like and rate Anna Friel. I love her and as for other actors I admire, Brenda Blethyn, Alun Armstrong, Sarah Smart, Helen McCrory, really there’s so many and it’s such a difficult one to answer. The acting talent in the UK is truly phenomenal and I’ve been so lucky to work with so many great talents.”
Looking at the rapid development of her directing career, it is notable that before getting her breaks on major series, Robin jobbed about on the TV drama staples that are the mainstay of the schedules, the likes of The Bill, and Casualty.
It was a strategy that appeared to pay off. When ITV were setting up the tale of the unlucky lifestyles of lucky lottery winners, “At Home With The Braithwaites”, it was the writer Sally Wainwright with whom Robin had worked on “Playing The Field” who lobbied on her behalf to set up and direct the first tranche of the series. “That was a huge break. Sally sent me the full series of “At Home With The Braithwaites” as a mate and I wasn’t nearly big enough to direct the first block of the series. She very kindly went to the Exec Producer and said “I want Robin Sheppard to direct it.” They met me out of politeness and I knew that they were only meeting me on Sally’s say-so. Anyway at the end of the meeting they said, “Ah whatever, we like you and think you’re great” and they gave it to me. It was a big leap of faith for them.”
With Braithwaites becoming “a huge and very unexpected hit”, it cemented Robin’s standing as a director to look out for and other projects came to her as she worked with the likes of Robert Lindsay on “Hawk” and then on the BBC series “Sparkhouse”, a contemporary update of Wuthering Heights, staffed by a stellar cast of Sarah Smart, Joe McFadden, Celia Imrie and Alun Armstrong. and Working Title Television’s adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ novel “Lucky Jim”.
Moving onto the likes of “Between The Sheets”, working with Rob Lowe and Anna Friel on rom-com “Perfect Strangers” and then the adaptation of the true story of Angela Canning who was wrongly convicted of killing her daughters, “Cherished” which featured Sarah Lancashire and Timothy Spall in the leads.
“Cherished” became one of Robin’s projects which she’s “most proud of”. Yet in jumping across all these different genres, she acknowledges that “I do seem to cross genres a lot and people are quite amazed by that as a lot of directors tend to stick to what they do but my CV over the years has become much more varied. I do like to stretch myself.”
Recently Robin has been involved in establishing the recent Stephen Fry Sunday night hit “Kingdom” and has completed an adaptation of Jilly Cooper’s novel “Octavia” which stars Patrick Baladi, Richard Coyle and Tamsin Egerton. Kingdom “did amazingly well, getting 8.4 million viewers which is double what most things get now. It was fantastically well received and also bucked the trend for downward ratings for drama.”
With a director taking responsibility for the overall look of a piece, it should come as no surprise that Robin has elected to dress her characters in Kirk Originals eyewear throughout her career, noting the individuality and subtle style they bring to the character. “Kirk Originals have always featured in my productions where I can squeeze them in. Anna Friel who was in “Perfect Strangers” wore several pairs of the Vintage collection in that film and she loved them. I’m also looking to slip them into “Octavia” because it’s set in 1976 and also I genuinely love Kirk Originals. I think they look fantastic.”
Currently Robin is developing a feature film adaptation of the cult hit book ‘Apples’. “The screenplay is being written by the original novelist Richard Milward and it is being produced by Nikki Parrott at Tiger Lily films. We also have some funding from the Film Council under their ‘First Feature’ awards programme” says Robin. “It is a twisted tragic-comic love story – a frenetic, poetic, funny and graphic account of adolescent angst set on a Middlesbrough council estate. Notably when ‘Apples’ was published as a book Times Magazine described it as “Catcher in the Rye meets the Arctic Monkeys”.
Yet Robin never strays too far from her TV work having recently directed the BBC’s “New Tricks” with Amanda Redman, Dennis Waterman, Alun Armstrong and James Bolam – and experience she characteristically describes as “more fun than you should be allowed to have while working!”
Robin wears Olaf ‘The Shadow’ Kirk from the Kirk Heroes collection in H2
Words: James Masters
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