Commission impossible – Catherine Bailey

Catherine Bailey has made her mark as a producer capable of realising projects that seem unattainable. With sheer perseverance, she has made a feature film from scratch and succeeded in independent production despite BBC commissioning restrictions, Nick Smurthwaite discovers

In her quiet, unassuming way, Catherine Bailey has become a dynamic force in British drama. As well as 150-odd radio plays and serials, including this year’s gold and silver award winners in the Sony Radio Awards, she has produced the feature film Spider, directed by David Cronenberg, a dozen or so TV documentaries, a children’s TV series, and now looks set to launch herself into mainstream TV drama.

Bailey has optioned the rights to all the Rumpole of the Bailey stories and hopes to go into production next year with the first series, setting it in present-day London. She seems undaunted by the prospect of reinventing the original and unforgettable eighties series, starring the late Leo McKern.

“You have two choices as a producer – to make things you think will make will make you a lot of money or to do things you believe in. I’m inclined to go with the latter. If you can make a $10 million film against all the odds, you are prepared to take on almost anything, no matter how challenging.”

After completing a stage management course at Rada, Catherine Bailey worked in the theatre for 18 years, first as production manager at Hampstead Theatre, under Michael Attenborough, then in stage management at the National Theatre under Peter Hall. The decision to move from in-house stage management to independent production wasn’t so much reckless as suicidal.

“I had some calling cards printed saying Catherine Bailey Productions and went and sat in an office on my own with no phones ringing, nobody to bounce off, no work and nothing happening for six months,” she recalls. “I went from being incredibly busy to complete silence.”

When it finally came, her first break was a documentary for Channel 4, Still Missing, about a mother searching for her missing daughter. A powerful film, it was nominated for a broadcast award but the downside was that everyone then expected her to do further missing person stories. Instead she made a film about Deborah Warner directing Coriolanus in Salzburg, followed by another in which Alan Rickman went through the painful process of making a film that was never to be released.

In the course of making these documentaries she was befriended by Maria Aitken, who told her she should try producing plays for radio. They have since worked together many times, notably on a radio adaptation of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, which won the Sony Gold Award.

“I didn’t know how to do radio drama like the BBC did it, so I had to think what I could offer, given my background in the theatre. I decided I wanted to bring in theatre directors and rehearse in a rehearsal room, like you would with a theatrical production.”

So she persuaded the likes of Annie Castledine, Phyllida Lloyd and Howard Davies to forsake the visual dimension and concentrate on the aural.

One of her earliest productions was Machinal, adapted from the National Theatre success of the late nineties, in which the set designs had been a key component. “What was interesting was how exposed the play became and how the narrative came through much more strongly on the radio because you didn’t have all that scenery to contend with.

“You could say the same of David Hare’s The Permanent Way (Silver Award winner in the Sony’s). However strong the imagery on stage, there is nothing quite as powerful as the imagery in your own mind. Everyone is going to imagine something different, whereas on stage you are limited by what you are shown. I really believe that many stage plays are enhanced by being done on radio.”

With her working partner Marilyn Imrie, herself an ex BBC producer, Bailey spends a lot of time nurturing writing talent.

“We now have a whole stable of writers and directors we like to work with. We’re good at sticking with the people we believe in. If they don’t get it right the first time, we hang on until they do. If we had a company policy, that would be it.”

In the ten years she and Imrie have been producing radio drama, things have actually been rather bleak for independent producers, since Greg Dyke decreed that 90% of all drama output at the BBC should be produced in-house. So until such time as the ratio changes, the indies are all vying for that precious 10%.

“We’re constantly being turned away with ideas the commissioning editor loved, which is tantalising,” says Bailey. “In some ways you’d rather they said ‘sorry, we hate that idea’ so at least you could go straight back to the drawing board. To my mind it seems the best ideas are not always getting through, which is bound to affect the quality of the output.”

Frustration with the commissioning system at the BBC was one of the factors that contributed towards Bailey’s headlong plunge into the murky waters of feature film-making seven years ago. “I was doing a radio play with Ralph Fiennes and I asked him to look at this great script I’d been sent by Patrick McGrath. Next morning Ralph rang me to say he wanted to do it. Then we developed it for three years, before David Cronenberg came on board and then Miranda Richardson. If we hadn’t all clung on to each other for so long it would never have got made. It took me five years to get the finance together, then we lost it all and I had to start all over again.”

Spider was selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival the following year.

“It could also easily have fallen apart. The fact that it got made was a testament to how believing in something can make it happen. Of course it made me wary of making another film and I’d be nervous of working with another director. Working with someone as brilliant and easygoing as David spoils you for anything less.”

Now Bailey is searching for a director to shoot a low-budget film version of Jacqueline Wilson’s book Lola Rose, as well as forging ahead with the first series of Rumpole.

“I’m very quietly driven and, considering how small the company is, we do produce an incredible amount of work, some 20 hours of radio drama a year, as well as all the other stuff. It is nice to have it recognised by the Sony awards but it’s the work that counts. It costs a lot of money to enter the awards and part of me would always rather use that money to develop new projects.”

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