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Getting to Know: Stephen Frears

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For the last four decades, Stephen Frears has been Britain's most versatile and intriguing director. Now 80, he has recently returned to television to spectacular effect. Cinema Paradiso looks back over five decades of unassuming excellence.

Stephen Frears has no pretensions about being an auteur. Contentedly a director for hire, he admits that projects he has initiated have had a habit of folding, while his greatest successes have come out of the blue. 'I like surprises,' he told one interviewer. 'I wouldn't be interested in making a film about something I know about. It's the finding out that makes it exciting.'

Several of the features that Frears has made since 1971 have centred on outsiders. There's little obvious overlap between the topics he has explored, but his films have consistently had an intimacy, immediacy, insight and integrity that mark them as the work of a man of fierce intelligence and edgy compassion. Setting greater store by character and performance and story and theme than visual flourish, Frears has developed a style that prompted Sight and Sound to compare him 'with such self-effacing directors as Michael Curtiz and Marcel Carné.

Bentleys, Tin Baths and Elephants

Stephen Arthur Frears was born on 20 June 1941. His grandfather, John Frears, had run the family bakery and become the youngest mayor of Leicester at the age of 41. Father Russell became an accountant and married Ruth Danziger, with whom he had three sons before joining the RAF to fight Fascism. On returning from war service in South Africa, however, Russell trained as a doctor in London, leaving Stephen at home with his mother, while his two older brothers went to boarding school.

Frears has memories of washing in a tin bath in front of the kitchen fire and his mother boarding up rooms in the family home because they were too expensive to heat. Yet, his matriarchal grandmother, Minnie, would often have him driven for visits in the back of a Benley. Frears has compared Ruth to Margaret Thatcher and has jokingly complained that his childhood was 'where the damage was done'. While attending Minnie's 90th birthday party, the 20 year-old Frears discovered that Ruth was Jewish and he believes that this explains this 'might make sense of some notion of not fitting in'.

A still from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
A still from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

At the age of eight, Frears was packed off to prep school. He once recalled, 'It wasn't much cop. I was bright as long as it was just a question of learning things like kings and queens and dates. Once independent thought came in I was sunk. I was completely bewildered.' Nevertheless, the school reinforced the love of cinema that had started when he accompanied his mother to the cinema in wartime Leicester. Although the three-year-old Frears had been too scared to make it all the way through Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940), he retains fond memories of such flagwavers as Noël Coward and David Lean's In Which We Serve (1942) and Anthony Asquith's The Way to the Stars (1945).

The Floral Hall cinema was situated next door to a circus and Frears remembers hearing the elephant trumpeting during screenings. There were no such distractions at his boarding school, Gresham's in the Norfolk market town of Holt, which showed two films each weekend. Frears remembers seeing Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) and once taking a caning so as not to miss the same director's A Night At the Opera (1935), which starred the Marx Brothers. 'There are times even now,' he later claimed, 'when I think the only film I can bear to watch is A Night At the Opera.'

When Frears was 12, the family moved to Nottingham, where Russell became a GP and Ruth worked as an almoner at the local hospital. It was here that Frears attended a class by the local high school headmaster, who suggested that he should apply to Cambridge. Despite taking his A levels at 15 and being a voracious reader (as well as a huge fan of Elvis Presley), Frears had not considered university and he studied law at Trinity College. He didn't particularly enjoy his course, but he discovered the famous Footlights troupe and served as assistant stage manager for the 1963 revue, A Clump of Plinths, which starred John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Bill Oddie.

Sticky Out Ears

Following a brief period with a repertory theatre in Farnham, Surrey, Frears joined the Royal Court Theatre in 1964. It was here that Tony Richardson's production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (which Richardson had filmed in 1959 ) launched the brand of 'kitchen sink' drama that still provides the bedrock for British social realist cinema. Fellow 'angry young men' Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reitz were still directing at the Royal Court and Frears was awestruck by them.

On seeing Jack Clayton's adaptation of John Braine's Room At the Top (1959), the 18 year-old Frears had been taken by the fact that a film reflected his own experience. Indeed, when Reisz filmed Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) in Nottingham, his brother had appeared as an extra. Frears would work with the film's star, Albert Finney, while learning his trade, even though it was sometimes fractious. 'It was more like going to work for the Borgias than for Lenin,' he later recalled. 'I mean, I had straw in my hair. These were brilliant, creative people - but terrifying.'

As he found his feet, however, Frears was entrusted with productions of Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence and Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot (both 1964). He also acted as Reitz's assistant on Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment (1966) and Anderson's If.... before helping Finney make his directorial debut with Charlie Bubbles (both 1968), in which Finney plays an angry young novelist who returns to Manchester after becoming bored by his literary success in London.

Finney's Memorial Enterprises joined forces with the BFI to fund Frears's first short film, The Burning, which saw Tangier stand in for South Africa, as a privileged woman (Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies) receives an abrupt lesson in Apartheid reality when she visits her sister's farm. Hailed for its intensity, political commitment and striking use of the landscape, the 31-minute film was screened in Britain on the same bill as François Truffaut's Hitchcockian thriller, The Bride Wore Black (both 1967).

A still from Not Only But Always (2004)
A still from Not Only But Always (2004)

In 1968, Frears married Mary-Kay Wilmers, the co-founder and editor of the London Review of Books. They were introduced by her Oxford friend, Alan Bennett, who had helped inspire the British satire boom with the revue show, Beyond the Fringe (1960), whose making is covered in Not Only But Always (2004), Terry Johnson's tele-biopic of Bennett's co-stars, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. After making episodes for the TV shows, Parkin's Patch (1969) and Tom Grattan's War (1970), Frears would go on to direct Bennett's first teleplay, A Day Out (1972). They would later reunite on Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Doris and Doreen (both 1978), The Old Crowd (co-directed by Lindsay Anderson) and One Fine Day (1979), which can all be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Six Plays By Alan Bennett (2017).

Sadly, the marriage wouldn't last, with Frears leaving Wilmers for painter Anne Rothenstein, with whom he still lives in London and Dorset. Amusingly, son Sam Frears plays a neighbour in S.J. Clarkson's love, nina (2016), which was adapted by Nick Hornby (more of whom anon) from a memoir by Nina Stibbe, a Leicester twentysomething (Faye Marsay) who worked as a nanny for Wilmers, who is reinvented in the series as George Bulut (Helena Bonham Carter). Frears is spared inclusion, but he does crop up in the lyrics to 'Lily the Pink', the chart-topping 1968 single by The Scaffold. The line, 'Mr Frears had sticky out ears' was a small act of revenge by bandmates John Gorman, Roger McGough and Mike McGear, as they had been unimpressed by his comic timing while directing them in some sketches. Among those singing backing vocals on the song are Tim Rice and Elton John, who would win an Oscar for their collaboration on 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight' from Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff''s Disney classic, The Lion King (1994).

Frears returned to Nottingham for a TV documentary about slum housing, St Ann's (1969), which was the birthplace of Alma Reville, the wife and frequent writing partner of Alfred Hitchcock. Two years later, while still only 29, Frears made his feature bow with Gumshoe (1971), a spoof noir that stars Albert Finney as a Liverpudlian bingo caller who fancies himself as a private eye. The script was written by Neville Smith - with whom Frears would reunite on the teleplays, Match of the Day (1974) and Long Distance Information (1979) - while the score was by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Despite the encouraging notices, Frears wouldn't direct another feature for 13 years and, frustratingly, much of his small-screen work from this period remains buried in the archives. Surely somebody should have released Tom Stoppard's take on Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (1975), with Michael Palin, Tim Curry and Stephen Moore, and a landmark like Michael Abbensetts's Black Christmas (1977), with Carmen Munroe and Norman Beaton?

Cinema Paradiso users can, however, see the episodes that Frears directed for the horsey children's show, Follyfoot (1971-73), even though they are denied the chance to catch his contributions to the kind of drama showcase that (foolishly) isn't made any more, including BBC2 Play of the Week, ITV Playhouse and Play For Today. Three selections from the latter series are available to rent, as is 'Going Gently', a 1981 entry in the BBC2 Playhouse strand that Cinema Paradiso has on offer via The Judi Dench Collection (2007). The BFI's wonderful Flipside series also means it's possible to rent Maurice Hatton's Long Shot (1978), a lampoon of the British independent film-making scene that sees Frears take a rare cameo at the Edinburgh Festival, where producer Charles Gormley is trying to find backers for a Neville Smith script about North Sea oil drillers.

It was back to the day job for Bloody Kids (1980), a snapshot of Britain in the early days of Thatcherism. It was co-written by Caroline Embling and Stephen Poliakoff and borrows the tropes of film noir to demonstrate the ubiquity of television in following teenager Peter Clark after he goes on the run in an Essex seaside town after accidentally knifing his pal, Richard Thomas. If this ITV excursion ruffled feathers, Frears caused waves in making broadcasting history on 2 November 1982, when Walter became the first film to be shown on the opening night of Channel Four. Adapted from a novel by David Cook, the story turns on a man with a learning disability (Ian McKellen), who winds up in an institution following the death of his parents. Once again criticising the state of the nation, this was also a conscious effort on Frears's part to present a raw view of lived reality that departed from the heritage films and shows which 'perpetuated myths about an England that no longer exists, while failing to illuminate British life as it is'.

A still from Judi Dench at the BBC (1991)
A still from Judi Dench at the BBC (1991)

Set 19 years later and drawing on Cook's Winter Doves, the 1983 sequel, Walter & June (which can be found on the same disc) sees McKellen and Sarah Miles fall in love and plan an escape to the outside world. Sadly, it's not possible to rent Frears's reunion with Judi Dench on David Hare's Vietnam War teleplay, Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983), even though it confirms why Frears came to so trust writers and actors that he prefers to place his skills at their service in making a film rather than steal focus with flaunting visuals.

Hitting His Straps

There was a certain irony in the fact that Frears returned to the cinema with a script written by four-time TV collaborator, Peter Prince. Made for just £1.2 million, The Hit (1984) was a road movie that echoed Michelangelo Antonioni's use of long shots and landscapes in following supergrass Terence Stamp and hitmen John Hurt and Tim Roth from the Costa del Crime to Paris. It might have misfired commercially, but this remains a cult favourite and there's no excuse for it not being on disc, especially as it kickstarted the film career of one of Britain's most significant directors.

The picture that made Frears an overnight success after 20 years in the business also had its small-screen connections, as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) was bankrolled to the tune of £600,000 by Channel Four. Scripted by Hanif Kureishi and filmed on 16mm, the romance between entrepreneur Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) and street punk Johnny Burfoot (Daniel Day-Lewis) was an exposé of the racial and sexual bigotry that went unchecked by the Thatcher government. Hitting a nerve with critics and audiences, this unflinchingly frank and funny feature earned Kureishi Oscar and BAFTA nominations.

It also landed Frears the long-awaited chance to pay homage to a fellow Leicesterian in Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Alan Bennett's adaptation of John Lahr's biography of 1960s playwright Joe Orton. Gary Oldman excelled as Orton, while Alfred Molina took over the role of insecure lover Kenneth Halliwell after Ian McKellen turned it down. Maggie Smith likewise passed on the part of agent Peggy Ramsay, which was played by Vanessa Redgrave (who is the subject of one of Cinema Paradiso's popular, Getting to Know articles).

While this was well received, however, Frears's second film of 1987 proved something of a disappointment, as the Kureishi-scripted Sammy and Rosie Get Laid strained to squeeze as many hot-button socio-political topics into the contrived tale of how the arrival of a former Indian torturer, Rafi (Shashi Kapoor) impacts upon his London-based son, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din), and his social worker wife, Rosie (Frances Barber). Yet, while its boho bed-hopping feels as dated as the split-screen technique used to comment on it, Kureishi's 'declaration of war against the British establishment' still provides valuable insights into the issues of colonialism, race, gender, assimilation and acceptance that persist to this day.

Much more engaging was the simply brilliant Mr Jolly Lives Next Door (1988), which played a key role on the evolution of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson's characters from The Young Ones (1982-84) and Filthy, Rich and Catflap (1987) to Bottom (1991-95). Nicholas Parsons takes a sporting cameo, while Peter Cook revels in the bleakness of being a hitman in the office next door to Dreamytime Escorts, the seedy agency run by a pair of dedicated alcoholics. This was Frears's third outing under the Comic Strip Presents... banner and The Bullshitters: Roll Out the Gunbarrel (1984) and 'Consuela' (Or 'The New Mrs Saunders') (1986) can also be found on The Comic Strip Presents: The Complete Collection (2012) and The Comic Strip Presents: The Best Of (2013).

Travelling Man

The contrast between Mr Jolly and Frears's next assignment couldn't be more stark. But the fact he could move from Rik and Ade to Choderlos de Laclos speaks volumes about his eclectic approach to selecting projects and his readiness to tackle anything that interests him. With Miloš Forman already basing Valmont (1989) on the scandalous 1792 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton knew they had to make their interpretation stand out. Casting John Malkovich and Glenn Close as the French aristocrats wagering on the virtue of the devout Michelle Pfeiffer certainly gave them the advantage, especially as the latter pair received Oscar nominations.

A still from The Grifters (1990)
A still from The Grifters (1990)

Ultimately, the film would win for its script, costumes and production design. But Frears would be recognised by BAFTA, among 10 nominations (with wins for Hampton and Pfeiffer). Among those impressed by Frears on his Hollywood debut was Martin Scorsese, who, as a producer of The Grifters (1990), was instrumental in him being hired to direct Jim Thompson's 1963 pulp thriller about the complex relationship between con artist Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston), her estranged small-timer son, Roy (John Cusack), and his ambitious paramour, Myra Langry (Annette Bening).

This time, the Academy nominated Frears alongside his leading ladies and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake. But, while they struck out, the Independent Spirit Awards declared this drolly downbeat neo-noir to be the film of the year. Unfortunately, no one was so positive about Accidental Hero (1992), in which Dustin Hoffman plays a petty thief who is unable to take the credit for rescuing survivors from a plane crash because he stole their wallets in the process. Andy Garcia and Geena Davis co-star in a Capraesque saga that needed a little more Preston Sturges snap to make it appeal to cynical modern audiences. On-set tensions with Hoffman didn't help matters and Frears took the opportunity to head to Dublin to film Roddy Doyle's The Snapper (1993), a sequel to The Commitments, which had been a huge hit for Alan Parker two years earlier.

Colm Meaney earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as the working-class father of 20 year-old Tina Kellegher, who refuges to divulge the name of the man who got her pregnant. Meaney returned when Frears completed 'The Barrytown Trilogy' with The Van (1996), in which a workshy Dubliner makes a success of running a mobile chip shop with his pal, Donal O'Kelly. This was released a year after the centenary of cinema, which saw Frears follow Parker's example by surveying his home film industry. Regrettably, however, neither A Turnip-Head's Guide to the British Cinema (1986) nor A Personal History of British Cinema (1995) is currently available to rent.

A still from Mary Reilly (1996)
A still from Mary Reilly (1996)

In 1996, Frears reunited with Christopher Hampton, Glenn Close and John Malkovich for Mary Reilly, an adaptation of Valerie Martin's novel about the maid who discovers the dreadful secret being guarded by Victorian doctor, Henry Jekyll. Malkovich played Robert Louis Stevenson's cursed scientist, while Close essayed the keeper of a London brothel. But Julia Roberts was miscast in the title role, which had been linked with Uma Thurman.

Taking over a project developed by Tim Burton, Frears gave it a good old gothic try. But horror wasn't his forte and he faced similar problems when he accepted the challenge of adapting Max Evans's latterday Western, The Hi-Lo Country (1998), which paired Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup as post-Second World War buddies who fall out over foreman's wife Patricia Arquette, when they return to New Mexico to become cowboys on Sam Elliott's ranch.

Looking back on his bid to put a noirish spin on the material, Frears admitted, 'I got lost. I can handle the art, it's the money I can't handle.' He told another interviewer, 'You make mistakes...It's always ghastly, painful and humiliating. Ideally my films wouldn't come out at all; they'd just be put on a shelf marked "Jolly Good". That way I could avoid the abuse.' The pressure certainly told and Frears suffered a heart attack. But he was to bounce back with renewed vigour.

Mr Dependable

As the millennium ticked over, Frears released three titles that rather sum up his career. Each was visually polished, impeccably performed and literately scripted. But the pictures had nothing thematically in common and, thus, demonstrate the way in which Frears flits between projects that pique his curiosity.

No doubt, as an Arsenal fan, Frears had cast envious glances at David Evans as he reworked Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (1997), an account of a championship-winning season that is also the subject of Dave Stewart's documentary, 89 (2017). But Frears came aboard the adaptation of Hornby's second bestseller, High Fidelity (2000), which transferred the action from London to Chicago in order to accommodate the casting of John Cusack, as the owner of a record shop in which he continually compiles Top Five lists with employees Jack Black and Todd Louiso.

Despite Frears having misgivings about inheriting the picture from Mike Newell (because musical taste is so generational), he enjoyed his reunion with Cusack. He also relished the opportunity to relive the days of live television by directing Fail Safe (2000), a black-and-white abridgement of Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Cold War thriller that had been so brilliantly filmed as Fail-Safe (1964) by Sidney Lumet, with Henry Fonda as the President desperately trying to recall a nuclear missile and Jack Binns as the oblivious pilot flying towards the Soviet Union. The roles were taken in the new version by Richard Dreyfus and George Clooney, while Frears called the shots on 22 cameras positioned on various sets. CBS hadn't gone live in this manner since 1960 and it says much for Frears's standing that he was considered a safe pair of hands for such a risky undertaking.

Completing this remarkable 2000 triptych was Liam, which brought Frears back to Blighty for the first time in 13 years. Adapted by Jimmy McGovern from Joseph Mckeown's novel, Black Crack Boy, the story is set in Liverpool during the Great Depression and centres on the observations of a stuttering eight year-old Catholic (Anthony Burrows), as his unemployed father (Ian Hart) starts spouting pro-Fascist ideology after his sister (Megan Burns) finds work with a wealthy Jewish woman (Anne Reid).

The themes of poverty, religious bigotry and the value of human life would recur in Dirty Pretty Things (2002), a damning indictment of the underbelly of modern London that dwells on two migrants working at a busy hotel. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the fugitive West African doctor moonlighting as a cabby-cum-desk clerk who teams with Audrey Tautou's Turkish Muslim cleaner to expose an organ smuggling racket without compromising their position as illegal immigrants. Filmed in a docu-realist manner, this not only earned Steven Knight an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, but it also revisited the plight of political refugees that Frears had explored in the 1978 teleplay, Cold Harbour.

Creative differences at boardroom level cost Frears the chance to direct the 007 spin-off, Jinx, which was to have seen Halle Berry reprise the role she had played opposite Pierce Brosnan in Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day (2002). Michael Madsen and Javier Bardem were slated to co-star, but Eon and MGM executives reached an impasse and decided to channel their energies into Daniel Craig's debut as James Bond in Martin Campbell's Casino Royale (2006).

A still from The Queen (2006) With Helen Mirren
A still from The Queen (2006) With Helen Mirren

Instead, Frears focussed on The Deal (2003), a TV drama written by Peter Morgan that speculated on the pact over the leadership of the Labour Party forged by Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Gordon Brown (David Morrissey). In addition to drawing an Emmy nomination, the film won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama and prompted Frears and Morgan to join forces again on The Queen (2006), which examined the response of Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) to the tragic death of her former daughter-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales. While Frears received his second Oscar nomination, Mirren won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Actress. Moreover, Sheen went on to complete a Blairite hat-trick with Morgan in Richard Loncraine's The Special Relationship (2010), which chronicled the Prime Minister's dealings with President Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) during the Monica Lewinsky affair.

In between these much-admired biopics, Frears made Mrs Henderson Presents (2005), which is set in wartime London and recalls the partnership between widow Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) and impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) that turned Soho's Windmill Theatre into the home of Revudeville and topless burlesque. While not Frears's most admired film, it still garnered a number of nominations during the award season and reinforced his contention that his direction was less important to the success of a film than the combination of the acting and craft contributions. As he claimed in one profile, 'the less I have to do the more likely the film is to be good'.

Such modesty is typical of someone who has long held the David Lean Fellowship in Directing Fiction at the National Film and Television School and who became only the second Brit after Dirk Bogarde in 1984 to head the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. Joining Frears at the 60th edition in 2007 were Toni Collette, Maggie Cheung, Maria de Medeiros, Sarah Polley, Marco Bellocchio, Orhan Pamuk, Michel Piccoli and Abderrahmane Sissako. The film they chose to receive the Palme d'or was Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

Eighty Not Out

Having directed Stephen Dorff in the pilot episode of the proposed private eye series, Skip Tracer (2008), Frears started work on what would have been his third collaboration with Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen. However, while developing an adaptation of David Peace's acclaimed study of Brian Clough's ill-starred sojourn at Elland Road, The Damned United, Frears decided to explore other avenues and left Tom Hooper to take the helm while he reteamed with Michelle Pfeiffer on Chéri (both 2009).

Christopher Hampton reworked Colette's 1920 novel to chronicle the romance between retired courtesan Léa de Lonval (Pfeiffer) and Fred (Rupert Friend), the spoilt 19 year-old son of her wealthy rival, Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates). The themes of sex, age and the social status of women would recur in Frears's next excursion, Tamara Drewe (2010), which shifted the scene from Belle Époque Paris to the fictitious Dorset village of Ewedown, where three locals set their sights on a female journalist who has returned home following the death of her mother and the plastic surgery that has transformed her looks.

Posy Simmonds had based her Guardian comic-strip (and subsequent graphic novel) on Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, which has twice been filmed, by John Schlesinger in 1967 and Thomas Vinterberg in 2015, either side of a 1998 ITV rendition by Nicholas Renton. Gemma Arterton took the title role for Frears, with her suitors being philandering crime novelist Roger Allam, self-obsessed rocker Dominic Cooper and doughty farmhand, Luke Evans.

A still from Lay the Favourite (2012)
A still from Lay the Favourite (2012)

Never one to repeat himself, Frears moved on to Lay the Favourite (2012), an adaptation of a gambling memoir by American journalist Beth Raymer. She is played by Rebecca Hall, as we see how a bored Florida lap dancer relocated to Las Vegas and became a lucky charm for big-time gambler, Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis), in spite of the opposition of his jealous wife, Tulip (Catherine Zeta Jones). The intriguing premise failed to prevent the film from under-performing at the box office. But Frears returned to Britain to produce another picture based on a work of non-fiction, Philomena (2013).

Journalist Martin Sixsmith's The Lost Child of Philomena Lee recalled his efforts to help a woman find the toddler son she had been forced to give up for adoption five decades earlier while working in a convent laundry in Ireland. Judi Dench received 25 nominations for her performance in the title role, including Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe recognition. In addition to similar citations, Steve Coogan (who also plays Sixsmith) and Jeff Pope also won an award at the Venice Film Festival for their screenplay.

The same year saw Frears make another fact-based drama, as Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella and Danny Glover played three Supreme Court justices debating whether the greatest boxer of all time should be jailed for refusing the Vietnam draft. Based on a book by Shawn Slovo, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (2013) was transmitted on HBO and is currently unavailable for rental. However, Cinema Paradiso users can order another dissection of a sporting reputation, The Program (2015), which features Ben Foster as disgraced cyclist, Lance Armstrong. This fallen icon saga is also the subject of such documentaries as Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie (2013) and Alex Holmes's Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (2014).

Staying with biopics, Frears guided Meryl Streep to her 20th Oscar nomination in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016). Set in New York in 1944, the story shows how British actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) strove to help a socialite heiress fulfil an ambition to give a song recital, even though he and pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) know that she can't hold a tune. Streep is typically magnificent, but it's worth comparing her performance with Catherine Frot's in Xavier Giannoli's Marguerite (2015).

A still from Victoria and Abdul (2017)
A still from Victoria and Abdul (2017)

The following year, Frears journeyed back in history for Victoria & Abdul (2017), which saw Judi Dench reprise the role of Queen Victoria that she had earned her a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination opposite Billy Connolly in John Madden's Mrs Brown (1997). Adapted by Lee Hall from a book by Shrabani Basu, the action explores the relationship in the late 1880s between the Queen-Empress and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), the Muslim prison clerk who became her trusted Munshi, in spite of the opposition of her family, courtiers and ministers.

This would be Frears's last feature for five years, as he focussed on three small-screen projects that would further enhance his reputation. Scripted by Russell T. Davies from John Peston's book, A Very British Scandal (2018), was a BBC mini-series that charted the uneasy relationship between 1970s Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and former stable boy, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). While the excellent Grant missed out, Whishaw completed a sweep at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Emmys. For once, Frears was also recognised, as he took the BAFTA for Best Director: Fiction.

He followed this three-parter by reuniting with Nick Hornby for State of the Nation (2019), a mini-sitcom that brings Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd to a quiet pub for a 10-minute pre-brief before their weekly marital therapy session. A second season has been planned, with Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson in the leads.

Following an episode of The Loudest Voice (2019), Frears returned to ITV for Quiz (2020). Translating James Graham's play into a three-part serial, the story recalls the attempt made in 2001 by 'Coughing Major', Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen), and his wife, Diana (Sian Clifford), to cheat their way to the big prize on the popular TV show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? With Michael Sheen playing host Chris Tarrant, the drama was seen by large audiences during the Covid lockdown. It can now be borrowed from Cinema Paradiso, perhaps in a double bill with Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994).

Renowned for the casual dress style that prompted Glenn Close to compare him to 'a stadium after the game', Frears has no intention of retiring, even though he is now in his 80s. 'If I stopped working I'd die,' he once confided. 'I don't like having nothing to do, I'm hopeless at that.' Fortunately, Steve Coogan has found a way to keep him busy, by taking Frears back to Leicester for The Lost King, an account of how, in 2012, amateur historian Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) discovered the remains of King Richard III under a car park in the East Midlands city.

Due for release later this year and available from Cinema Paradiso as soon as it comes to disc, this will be the 25th feature by one of Britain's finest directors. Not a bad achievement for someone who once insisted, with characteristic self-deprecation: 'I don't really have a "vision". I have a few fanciful notions. Half the time on set I genuinely don't know what I'm doing.'

A still from Quiz Show (1994)
A still from Quiz Show (1994)
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