Film director, writer and producer Alan Parker, who has died aged 76, was one of the UK’s most acclaimed and successful filmmakers. His feature films won 19 BAFTA awards, 10 Golden Globes and 10 Oscars, and his body of work encompasses an extraordinary run of evergreen modern classics including Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, Evita, Fame, Birdy, Angel Heart and Angela’s Ashes.
Parker was also a passionate supporter of the UK film industry and a founding member of the Directors Guild of Great Britain. He was always characteristically forthright about both the importance of supporting creative talent and the need for the British industry to get the recognition and backing it deserved from government – both as an art form and as an industrial force. He argued fearlessly for the removal of any and all barriers to film industry growth while at the same time remaining a staunch advocate for government film subsidy to support filmmakers whose work required a level of creative risk that the commercial sector was unable to support.
As the founding Chairman of the UK Film Council in 2000 (a position he held for five years), Parker implemented a vision to put the UK film industry on a new road to creative and commercial success. Prior to that he was Chairman of the BFI. He received the CBE in 1995 and a knighthood in 2002, and was also an Officier des Arts et Letters (France).
Parker was also generous in sharing his time, knowledge and experience with young and developing film talent. He was a long-time supporter of the National Film and Television School, and in later years he taught there occasionally as well as at other film schools around the world.
In recent years, after retiring from the industry, Parker renewed his artistic passion with silk screen printing and painting.
Parker was born in Islington, London, on 14 February 1944. He began his career in advertising as a copywriter but quickly graduated to writing and directing commercials. By the late 1960s he was one of the small, but hugely influential, group of British directors (including Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson and Adrian Lyne) who revolutionised the look, quality and reputation of TV advertising by combining sophisticated, witty storytelling with cinema aesthetics for the first time.
In 1974, Parker moved into long form drama when he directed the BBC film The Evacuees, written by Jack Rosenthal, which won the International Emmy Award and a BAFTA award for direction; the first of Parker’s seven BAFTA awards.
Parker wrote and directed his first feature film, Bugsy Malone, in 1975, a unique musical pastiche of Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s with a cast comprised entirely of children. The film received eight BAFTA film nominations and five awards. It was produced by Alan Marshall and co-executive produced by David Puttnam (both of whom had started their careers with Parker in advertising).
Parker’s second film was the hugely successful and controversial Midnight Express (1977), which won two Oscars and six Academy Award nominations, including for Parker as best director. The film received six Golden Globe Awards and four BAFTA awards.
This was followed, in 1979, by Fame, a joyful and diverse celebration of youthful ambition in the arts, which won two Academy Awards, six nominations, four Golden Globe nominations and was subsequently adapted into a long-running television series.
In 1981 Parker directed the powerful family drama Shoot the Moon, starring Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. That same year he also directed the seminal Pink Floyd – The Wall, the feature film adaptation of the phenomenally successful rock album, which has become a classic of the rock-opera film genre.
Based on a William Wharton novel, 1984’s Birdy starred Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine and won the Grand Prix Special du Jury at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. Parker’s next film, the occult thriller Angel Heart, made in 1986 and starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet, opened in the US amid a storm of controversy caused by the ‘X’ rating imposed on the film by the MPAA.
Parker followed this with the civil rights drama Mississippi Burning, starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best director for Parker; it won for best cinematography. Parker was also awarded the D.W. Griffith Award for directing by the National Board of Review. The film was nominated for five BAFTA film awards, winning three. It also won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
In 1989 Parker wrote and directed Come See the Paradise, a moving family story about the treatment of forcibly interned Japanese-Americans during World War II, starring Dennis Quaid and Tamlyn Tomita.
1990’s The Commitments was the story of a young, Irish, working-class soul band, which was awarded a Golden Globe nomination for best picture and won Parker the best director prize at the Tokyo Film Festival, as well as BAFTA film awards for editing, screenplay, director and best picture.
Following projects included the 1993 comedy-drama The Road to Wellville, based on the novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, and starring Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda, Matthew Broderick, John Cusack and Dana Carvey; and Evita (1996), based on the stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The latter won three Golden Globe Awards, including best picture.
In 1999 Parker wrote and directed Angela’s Ashes, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning, best-selling memoir by Frank McCourt, and starring Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle.
Parker’s final film was The Life of David Gale, the 2003 thriller about the cruel politics of capital punishment in the US, starring Kate Winslet, Kevin Spaceyand Laura Linney.
Alongside his movie career Parker also proved highly adept at working across other art forms. In 1984, to celebrate ‘British Film Year’, Parker was commissioned by ITV to make a personal documentary feature about the industry he loved. The ensuing film, A Turnip Head’s Guide to the British Cinema, underlined Parker’s credentials as an outspoken champion of British cinema. The film was a big success for ITV when it was broadcast and it annoyed the British film establishment tremendously. Subsequently it went on to win the British Press Guild Award for the year’s best TV documentary.
Parker was also the author of a best-selling novel written from his own screenplay of Bugsy Malone, published by HarperCollins. In addition he wrote two other published novels, Puddles in the Lane (1977) and The Sucker’s Kiss (2003). He was also renowned as the film industry’s own cartoonist with a satirical and biting wit. Three collections of his cartoons have been published: Hares in the Gate, (1982), Making Movies, (1998) and Will Write and Direct for Food, (2005), a compendium of 20 years of observations on making films in Britain and in Hollywood.
In 1984 Parker was honoured by the British Academy with the prestigious Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema. In 1998 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of Great Britain and the Lumiere Medal from the Royal Photographic Society. Parker has also received Lifetime Achievement awards in Chicago, Munich, Prague, Warsaw and Lodz. He holds honorary doctorates from Sunderland University, the University of East Anglia, Southampton Solent University and University Council of Arts, Spain.
In January 1998, Parker was appointed Chairman of the Board of Governors of the British Film Institute and in August 1999 he was appointed first Chairman of the UK Film Council; a position he held for five years. He was awarded the 2013 BAFTA Fellowship, and the same year succeeded István Szabó as president of the European Federation of Film Directors: FERA.
In 2018 Parker donated his significant private archive of scripts and working papers to the BFI National Archive. He passed away on 31 July 2020 after a lengthy illness. He is survived by his wife Lisa Moran-Parker, his children Lucy, Alexander, Jake, Nathan and Henry, and seven grandchildren.
Originally published: 1 August 2020