Antony Thomas was making documentary films at a time in film and TV when leading producers and executives were backed by their organizations, could stand by their principles and get films made. Three very different commissioners – Charles Denton, Sheila Nevins and Tony Essex – gave him a free rein to make defining, bold films. They were not dominated by the obsession with ratings and chasing “subscriber loyalty”, or hampered by lawyers making risk-averse decisions to protect the brand, as is the case for factual entertainment today.
Antony Thomas is best known for ‘Death of a Princess’, shown on ITV in 1980. It is the story of a young princess educated in Beirut who returned to Saudi Arabia and lived openly in an adulterous relationship. She and her lover were publicly executed. It was described at the time as “the biggest single incident on an international scale since television was created.”
He heard this story from one of the most powerful figures in the Saudi establishment, and was so moved by it, that he was determined to tell Misha’al’s story. However, later, “a very different version of the truth emerged, thanks to a number of key witnesses, including Rosemary Buschow, who had a close relationship Misha’al and later wrote a book about it.” He writes about this fully in his memoir.
Despite the global impact of this drama documentary, there have been no momentous changes for women in Saudi Arabia since it was broadcast.
“My two rules for documentary filmmaking are to never approach a subject without extensive research on the ground, and to try to tell the story through the experiences of ordinary people” – Antony Thomas
His fifty-two-year career is revelatory of the way in which his early experiences shaped his humanitarian eye as a documentary filmmaker. The timeless subjects covered include the pernicious effects of racism, the fluid correlation between intelligence and crime, the last colonial wars in Africa, the conflicts in the Middle East, the rise of Islamic extremism, the politicisation of Evangelical Christians in the United States and the origins of fake news.
In 1982, his investigative documentary Frank Terpil: Confessions of a Dangerous Man, was awarded an Emmy.
Fight Your Fears
Our childhood experiences are the foundation on which the rest of our lives are built. Antony Thomas had a turbulent beginning, yet he moved forwards from an early life with his grandmother marked by poverty into a successful future. The disparate experiences he describes in his memoir, In the Line of Fire: Memories of a Documentary Filmmaker are done with a very personal approach as he takes the reader behind the camera to experience his ways of seeing.
After his parents divorced, his grandparents had taken him to South Africa at the end of World War Two for five years. When his grandfather died penniless, his grandmother returned with him to England and he worked in holidays on farms where his grandmother also worked, enabling him to go to public school.
Age fifteen, Antony Thomas had to decide whether he’d go into science and mathematics, or literature and the arts. Opening a volume of the new edition of Encylopedia Britannica, he stumbled upon the entry for Motion Pictures. Reading about Bogart, Bergman and ‘Casablanca’; Brando in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’; and Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ he decided in the instant that here was the life for him, even though he had no idea whether he’d be an actor or a film-maker. When he was given a local film society membership, he saw documentaries directed by Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, and the way ahead came clear.
Antony Thomas’ mother remarried – her new husband was an American millionaire – but his grandmother was too proud to ask for help. They had a small allowance from his father who was now in South Africa. After his grandmother had a heart attack, all farm-work stopped. Hearing an announcement on BBC Radio 4 that anyone whose child was at grammar school could apply for a grant, his grandmother went for it, even though the boy was at public school. The grant she obtained meant he got through Cambridge University.
C.S. Lewis, during a lecture about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, advised the students to “decide what you want to do in life and follow it with a passion.” Antony Thomas would go on to write, direct and produce forty major documentaries and docudramas.
On the Road
1960 was the year when the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his “Wind of Change” speech to the Parliament of South Africa; and the year when police fired on a crowd demonstrating against apartheid in the Black township of Sharpeville, killing or wounding around 250 people.
1960 was also the year when the naïve young student took up his father’s invitation to visit South Africa for Christmas. During their long walks together, Antony Thomas was persuaded that apartheid, which had started out as a crude form of segregation, had matured into something different and that things were changing for the better.
His first job after graduating was making advertisements for a company in Johannesburg where Black South African artists appeared in the ads. At a screening in Pretoria, he was hired by two people from the Department of Information to make a film about Apartheid on a tiny budget. His decision to appoint David Kalahote to work with him as fixer/translator was a very unusual step. The horrifying lessons thomas learned on the road made him realize that he had made a disastrous decision in accepting the commission, but it shaped everything thereafter.
He got to know Soweto and witnessed the grim realities behind the propaganda about Bantu education in government schools and Apartheid in general. He was to become no stranger to being imprisoned and eventually had to leave South Africa.
Three films broadcast in the 1970s – ‘The South African Experience: Six Days of Soweto’ together with ‘The Search for Sandra Laing’ and ‘Working for Britain’ – illuminate the cruel hypocrisies of the privileged and the underprivileged that lie behind the prevailing culture of the time, and the shocking realities of the social and political hinterland.
Tank Man about the peaceful protester who had his image shown all around the world when he stopped a tank during the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is a superb example of Antony Thomas’ authorship. His emphasis is on characters, and as a good story starts to build, he lets the story tell itself.
“The governing force is the human spirit” – Antony Thomas
He takes himself on journeys through his films, nine of which are about religion, and gets amazing access. Three films in particular which he made with his close knit team, backed by HBO and PBS, are powerful and controversial eye-openers: A Question of Miracles, The Qur’an and Secrets of the Vatican.
In the Line of Fire: Memories of a Documentary Filmmaker was launched at the Frontline Club in Paddington, with Anthony Geffen, CEO and Creative Director of Atlantic Productions, in conversation with the author. It is an inspiring read for both aspiring and expert filmmakers, as well as the curious outsider. And it is an important reminder of the fact that, when it comes to good storytelling, emotion is the number one consideration.
In the Line of Fire: Memories of a Documentary Filmmaker by Antony Thomas | Unicorn Publishing Group | HB 256 pp 01 March 2022 | ISBN 978-1914414336
For more info, visit www.antonythomas.co.uk
Buy In the Line of Fire from WH Smith
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