The ‘Parkive’: an exclusive look through Alan Parker’s archives

The director of such classics as Bugsy Malone, Fame and The Commitments recently donated his private archive to the BFI. Here’s an early peek at some of the highlights.

24 September 2015

By Nathalie Morris

Alan Parker with producer Alan Marshall, 1979
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections. Photograph by Holly Bower

In 2018, Sir Alan Parker donated his archive of working papers to the BFI National Archive. The archive spans a period of 45 years, from his early work in advertising through to his career as an internationally renowned, award-winning director of some of the finest films of the period, including Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980), Mississippi Burning (1988) and The Commitments (1991).

The ‘Parkive’, as it’s affectionately been dubbed, currently numbers over 70 large boxes of scripts, correspondence, production paperwork and photographs. Over the past few months I’ve been exploring the contents of these boxes, selecting material to exhibit at BFI Southbank to celebrate the acquisition of this important archive.

What is remarkable about the Parkive is that it spans Parker’s whole career and goes right back to his days in advertising – few filmmaker’s archives are so complete. Upon leaving school he joined the advertising industry, eventually moving to Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP), one of London’s most prestigious agencies. Here, he met future producers David Puttnam (whose papers are also held by the BFI National Archive) and Alan Marshall.

Alan Parker as young copywriter at CDP
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

The Parkive includes examples of Parker’s early advertisements such as this one for Harvey’s Bristol Cream:

Iced Cream
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

While at CDP, Parker also began experimenting with the art of television commercials, then very much in their infancy. In 1970, CDP bankrolled Parker and producer Alan Marshall to set up their own commercials production company, The Alan Parker Film Company.

For Parker, making commercials became his film school as he “learned [his] craft, shot by shot, lens by lens, week in and week out”. He made many hundreds of memorable commercials during the 1970s. Many of these drew upon Parker’s love of cinema and pastiched classic genres and films such as David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) and Brief Encounter (1945).

‘Oliver Twist Workhouse’, commercial for BirdsEye Super Mousse
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

Parker also worked with a large number of actors and personalities such as John Cleese (Watney’s), Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter (Cinzano), Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise and racing driver James Hunt (Texaco).

Alan Parker directs John Cleese for Watneys, 1974
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

In 1970, while still a copywriter, Parker wrote a film script which became Melody, David Puttnam’s first film as producer (directed by Waris Hussein). Parker continued to write screenplays, even as he moved into making television commercials, and in 1972, he and producer Alan Marshall made the 52-minute No Hard Feelings. It was intended to serve as a pilot for a series of six films the pair hoped to sell to television. This series didn’t come off but the film became a stepping stone to further short films, finally leading to the development of Bugsy Malone (1976), Parker’s first feature.

The idea of a gangster musical pastiche featuring only children proved a tricky proposition for financiers. Parker and Marshall put together a pitching package for the film featuring concept drawings, song lyrics by Parker and explanations of props such as the famous ‘splurge gun’. This is one of Parker’s early drawings for the ‘splurge gun’.

Early drawing of the Bugsy Malone ‘splurge gun’ by Alan Parker
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

Parker’s follow-up to Bugsy Malone was something completely different. Midnight Express was based on the true story of Billy Hayes, an American imprisoned in Turkey for attempting to smuggle hashish. In one of the controversial film’s most notorious sequences, Billy (Brad Davis), having suffered a mental collapse, bites out the tongue of a fellow prisoner.

Alan Parker’s ‘scribbles’ to demonstrate the shooting of the tongue-biting sequence, Midnight Express
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

Parker does not use conventional storyboards on his films, preferring a more fluid and organic approach. Instead, he frequently draws (or, in his words, ‘scribbles’) images to describe what he wants from his cinematographer or camera operator. These are often done on the nearest bits of paper to hand – most frequently call sheets or script pages.

Parker recalls:

The ‘tongue’ was in fact a pig’s tongue that Brad spits out. I became so engrossed in doing this scene that I was quite oblivious to the fact that the crew had slowly withdrawn to the rear of the set, nauseated as they were by the sight of it. For myself, of course, the filmmaking process is an illusion and only when I experienced this scene with an audience months later did I realise how powerful and real it seems.
A repulsed-looking Alan Parker and camera operator John Stanier watch as actor Brad Davis spits out the infamous tongue in Midnight Express
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections. Photograph by David Appleby

Never one to make the same film over and over again, Parker’s next film was Fame. Set in a New York performing arts school, Fame was a huge success and spawned a hit TV show and stage musical. The film was shot in New York which led to complications around Parker being able to direct the film. It is impossible to make a film in the United States without being a member of the Directors Guild so Parker swiftly gathered up the strongest signatures he could muster: Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola and John Schlesinger. All of whom had expressed admiration of his earlier work. Parker’s application was immediately approved.

Alan Parker’s application to join the Directors Guild of America, 1979
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

Parker has described his next film, Shoot the Moon (1982), as his most personal film (it’s also one of my favourites of his films). It stars Diane Keaton and Albert Finney, in Golden Globe nominated performances, as a couple whose marriage is collapsing. As previously mentioned, Parker does not use conventional storyboards but frequently finds himself using drawings or ‘scribbles’ to plan and convey what he wants from his cinematographer or camera operator. In this below ‘scribble’ for a scene early in the film, George (Finney) and Faith’s (Keaton) emotional disconnection becomes clear as they drive to an awards ceremony.

Shoot the Moon (1982) ‘storyboards’ on production headed notepaper by Alan Parker, undated
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

Another key part of Parker’s working process is to always issue an open letter to his crew, along with the first day’s call sheet. He describes these as the “equivalent of a dressing room ‘huddle’ in sport” as he sets out his vision of the film.

Alan Parker’s letter to the crew of Shoot the Moon (1982)
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

Parker is always closely involved in the writing of the scripts for his films, and always writes the final draft script in order to get the film clear in his head before shooting begins. For Civil Rights drama Mississippi Burning, Parker initially worked with writer Chris Gerolmo but soon found that their ideas for the film did not mesh. He eventually wrote his own script which incorporated his extensive research into the period. This is his handwritten final draft script from January 1988.

Alan Parker’s final draft script for Mississippi Burning (1988)
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

Adapted by Parker from the novel by Roddy Doyle, The Commitments tells the story of the eponymous ‘Dublin Soul’ band. It was Parker’s first non American-shot film since Pink Floyd The Wall and was a huge hit. These photographs are by Parker’s regular unit photographer, David Appleby.

The Commitments (1991) production still
Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections. Photograph by David Appleby

Appleby is, in Alan Parker’s words, “the absolute best”. Like Parker and David Puttnam, he entered film via advertising (and was in fact introduced to the film industry by them). He has worked on their films many times and although the Parkive also features images by photographers such as Terry O’Neill, Mary Ellen Mark and Greg Williams, the vast majority of its photographs (as much as 80%) were taken by Appleby.

In 1995, Parker took on the epic challenge of adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Evita, to the big screen. The film starred Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce and won three Golden Globes including best picture. It was also a phenomenal box office success.

Evita (1996) costume continuity
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

This costume continuity is just one sheet from three large ringbinder files recording the costumes featured in the film. Madonna alone had 85 changes of outfit (some featured for just an instant) and Parker was typically involved in selecting these, as he was in all other aspects of the film. Costume continuity is maintained by the wardrobe department and is essential to avoid any major errors in continuity across the film. Notes here record the individual items of clothing used (“brown leather belt no.1”) and also how they are used in the scene (“hanging on coat rack  – picks up as he leaves the bar!”).

The Parkive goes up to Parker’s last feature film, The Life of David Gale (2003). These Polaroids are also costume continuity for the film, complete with the all-important annotations which are essential to their usefulness in ensuring clothes and accessories remain consistent across scenes and takes.

The Life of David Gale (2003) costume continuity Polaroid
Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

As well as details of costume, they also record the scene number and where the scene falls in the continuity of the film (eg Day 3).

Taken as a whole, the Parkive provides detailed insight into Parker’s working practice. He is a director who gets involved in every aspect of production, from developing and writing scripts through to designing posters and marketing material (a legacy from his days in advertising) and this is reflected through the range of material held. Cataloguing of the Parkive will begin later this year so please watch this space for updates, discoveries and behind-the-scenes peeks into the cataloguing and conservation work that we’ll be carrying out.

David Puttnam and Alan Parker at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979
© Alan Parker Archive, BFI Special Collections

More information on Alan Parker and his films, including his ‘Making of’ essays can be found on his official website

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