One of the first British Asian directors – if not the first of real prominence in the modern era – Waris Hussein has a rich and largely unexplored legacy – until now and how Bollywood has yet to find him…
By Suman Bhuchar
WARIS HUSSEIN is one of the most remarkable figures to have emerged on the film and TV scene in Britain in recent times.
He was the first ever director of ‘Doctor Who’ and then went on to collect an Emmy and a BAFTA for different work in a 50-year plus career at the top.
His 1978 TV series, ‘Edward and Mrs Simpson’ was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Star Edward Fox won a BAFTA in 1979 for the seven-episode 50-minutes dramas, screened on ITV at the time. More recently, he was recognised by the Asian Media Awards, with an oustanding contrubution to media in 2014.
The British Film Institute (BFI) is honouring his contribution as a director, with a season of his films and TV work and described him as a “genuine pioneer”.
Called ‘Breaking Through’ it continues this month, screening much of his work which established him as one of the leading lights of the industry in his day.
He was the youngest drama director at the BBC in 1960 and went onto to direct his first BBC film at 23 just three years later.
“Hussein belongs to that exclusive number of UK directors to have made it on both sides of the Atlantic – he won an Emmy for his direction of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana…” says the BFI promo blurb.
ACV’s Suman Bhuchar was among those who attended the opening of the season last week (February 6) at the BFI Southbank in London, and the launch event, ‘In Conversation with Waris Hussein’ with him talking to broadcaster Samira Ahmed.
He was welcomed on the stage to the theme music of ‘Doctor Who’ and introduced as a “time lord of TV and film, 55 years without regeneration.”
His season of films at the BFI Southbank, had come about because he was “UK’s first Indian drama director, and the youngest drama director”, said programmer, Marcus Prince who has curated this season.
Hussein went on to make some remarkable television programmes and films, including ‘The Glittering Prizes’ (1976) and ‘Edward and Mrs. Simpson’ and as he spoke to Ahmed, www.asianculturevulture.com was taking in every word.
The evening began with a screening of Hussein’s TV drama, ‘A Passage to India’ in the presence of Hussein and the lead, Virginia McKenna, who played ‘Miss Adela Quested’, a young Englishwoman who comes to India for the first time.
Together with her on screen prospective mother in law, ‘Mrs Moore’, played by Sybil Thorndike, they meet ‘Dr Aziz’ (Zia Mohyeddin), an idealist who believes that the British and Indians can be friends.
The original classic novel, written by EM Forster, was first published in 1924, and shows how snobbery and racism prevent friendships from forming and invite suspicion and distrust because of a certain colonial mentality.
The film was a BBC Play of the Month made in 1965 – well before David Lean’s film version in 1984 – but was an adaptation of the Forster novel by Santha Rama Rau and had been a stage play in 1960 performed in the West End of London and also on Broadway, New York.
Hussein told the audience, that he only got the job by accident.
“I was not the original director on this, there was another senior director at the BBC, because it was a very important production, and I was a very junior director there. What happened was, they said to me ‘while you are in India on location do you mind filming some exteriors’ that you think you might use, if you were directing?” However, as fate would have it, the director fell ill, and Hussein ended up directing.
The film even features a bit of Urdu/Hindi being spoken to Dr Aziz to the servants, and it feels incredulous to see it on screen and you wonder if things were more diverse fifty years ago!
Today, Hussein is known as the man who made the first ever Doctor Who which featured actor, William Hartnell and this fact has only come to light in recent years, and was acknowledged when BBC made: ‘An Adventure in Time and Space’ (2013) a TV film marking 50 years of ‘Doctor Who’, where actor Sacha Dhawan (pictured with the director in the top picture) played Hussein. (He went on to direct 11 episodes of the series).
“It’s not very often you’re portrayed while you are still alive, only a few people, are like the Queen.
“I was very thrilled when they decided to do how the whole thing (‘Doctor Who’) originated, and I gave them a few reality checks.”
He was only 23 when he directed the first episode, entitled: ‘An Unearthly Child’ in 1963.
“There was actually another director involved and I was the most junior Indian-born doing my bit.
“The director, who was due to do this show – as it was going to be a children’s series – he decided to quit. I was brought in and that was the start. I found myself with the first ever female television producer in drama – Verity Lambert and she and I formed a very strong relationship.”
Hussein, 79, who was born in Lucknow, British India, came to the UK aged eight and was educated at Clifton Public School in Bristol and later at Queens’ College, Cambridge where he studied, English literature and directed plays.
At one point during the conversation, Ahmed asked him whether his private life and his public persona caused him difficulties – as he was part of two minority groups, one visibly so, the other because of the overt social stigma at the time.
Ahmed posed: “This is a period when racial prejudice was more overt, homosexuality was still criminal (partly decriminalised in 1967) – in your own experience working and living in London, what was your experience of prejudice in your career?
“To be honest, I don’t think there was any open…. basically whatever, I felt was within myself.
“I felt that because of my background and my being an artist, I needed to do my best, because I was terrified of stumbling on the set, and not knowing what I had to do, because of the crew – there were all these men standing around saying ‘prove something’ in my head.
“In all fairness I did not encounter any overt sense of prejudice, but I was fully aware of my background and having to constantly prove myself by being on top of the game. I could not afford to stumble, that’s basically been my philosophy.”
Hussein has certainly worked with a roll call of big names and regaled the audience with anecdotes of his experiences.
He talked about working with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for a TV movie, ‘Divorce His, Divorce Hers’ (1973), where he bonded with Burton who cautioned, “I’m Welsh, you are Indian” – meaning both were outsiders to a certain degree.
In 1974 he directed the BBC series, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ about the Suffragette movement (and it will be shown at the BFI in June), and ‘Edward & Mrs. Simpson’ (1978), well before ‘The Crown’.
“We prepared this show for almost a year and shot at Fort Belvedere, Windsor, his country retreat Mrs Simpson was still alive at the time.” (she died in 1986).
He directed Shirley MacLaine for ‘The Possession of Joel Delaney’ (1972) a story about possession, and Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in ‘Daphne Laureola’ (1978), (about a young man’s obsession with an older woman), and worked with Ian McKellen in what was for both of them their first feature film, ‘A Touch of Love’ (1969).
If you Google his IMDB profile you will see that Hussein has over 68 credits and his work has spanned the UK and US.
He also teaches film and is waiting for Bollywood to call…
“I have never been approached by Bollywood because they don’t know who I am. I would love to film an entire series in India.”
When asked what his 23 year old self would have made of this BFI retrospective, he said: “I am thrilled, it’s lovely to be acknowledged, and I think it’s wonderful to be able to sit here and talk to everybody.”
In an interview (December 2013) with www.asianculturevulture.com not long after the site was first created, and more about his famous mother, novelist and broadcaster (and actor) Attia Hosain, we asked Waris why (at that time) his considerable achievements were not widely known He didn’t really have an answer but explained that he was brought up with certain Laknnavi (from Lucknow) manners and self-promotion of any sort was considered vulgar and inappropriate. See the link to the interview below.
Remaining ‘Breaking Through’ – BFI screenings
Screenings at: BFI Southbank, Belvedere Rd, South Bank, London SE1 8XT
Phone: 020 7928 3232
♦Today, Monday (February 12) 6.10pm, NFT 3
‘Chips with everything’
Arnold Wesker’s hit 1962 Royal Court production get the Hussain and BBC Play of the Month 1975 treatment. The coruscating examination of the British class system seems “strangely contemporary”, says the BFI.
♦Thursday (February 15) 3.20pm & Sunday (February 18) 6.05pm NFT 3
‘The Possession of Joel Delaney’
Shirley MacLaine stars in this film, released just a year before ‘The Exorcist’ in 1972. Hussein attended exorcism rituals himself and the backdrop of New York adds to the suspense and chilling notes contained within a production that adds “up to a well-regarded psychological horror crossed with an arthouse sensibility”.
♦Monday, February 19 6.15pm NFT 2
‘Hedda Gabler’ Intro by Waris Hussein and actor Dame Janet Suzman
A top-level cast including Suzman, Ian McKellen and Jane Asher feature in one of playwright Ibsen’s greatest works. Suzman plays the lead Hedda as she tries to bust free of bourgeois conventions and takes several down with her in trying. This was a BBC Play of the Month in 1972.
♦Friday, February 23, 6.15pm NFT2
‘Blind Love and Romance Three Weeks’
Adapted from a novel by VS Pritchett, ‘Armitage’ (Sam Wanamaker) is blind but is totally captivated by his new PA (Mary Peach). A double bill and produced by ITV Playhouse Granada in 1977, it explores the sexual mores of the day with more than a sensitive appreciation of disability too.
♦Sunday, February 25, 5.30pm NFT2
‘Intimate Contact’ with actor Claire Bloom (Episodes 1-4 with an introduction to Episode 3 by Waris Hussein and Claire Blook and interval)
One of the earliest dramas to cover the Aids crisis in its infancy, Hussein’s particular facility and skill with actors comes to the fore in a moving drama about the effect of the disease on one middle class family. Produced by Central TV in 1987.
♦Tuesday, February 27 6.20pm NFT2
Barry Manilow stars in this musical which revolves around Lola, the Copacabana Lounge in Manhattan and a Cuban gangster called Rico. Hussein won an Emmy for direction – so this really is musical history… produced Dick Clark Productions-CBS in 1985.
More Info/Tickets: BFI Waris Hussein Breaking Through Season