Margaret Williams dead

Margaret Williams, who has died aged 73, was a pioneering director during the TV dance era of the 1990s and early 2000s.

She brought experimental but accessible contemporary dance to mainstream audiences on the BBC and Channel 4 in films such as Cross Channel (1992) – made with choreographer Lea Anderson, on location between London and Calais – and Outside In (1994), with the state of the art. comprehensive dance company Candoco and choreographer Victoria Marks.

Rather than filming the action, Williams captured the dance in a way that could not exist on stage. Marks recalled Williams asking her to adapt movements to “pull the camera back”. “I immediately realized the possibility that the camera would not record the movement, but that choreography and filmmaking would be in conversation with each other,” she said.

Williams’ films were exquisitely composed and framed with an artist’s eye, planned with beautiful storyboards – perhaps a legacy of her first job at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Hollywood – and full of quirky humor, “a great funny bone” as Marks put it. . it. “To be respectful and irreverent at the same time.”

When a retrospective of Williams’ dance films was shown at the Wapping Project in 2007, Judith Mackrell in the Guardian praised her strange and beautiful eye for dance. In the Times, Debra Craine said: “Williams’ humorously dynamic style captures dance in ways that give it a new twist, breaking the boundaries of the stage and staying true to its roots.”

For Channel 4, Williams directed the dance series Tights, Camera, Action in the 90s, and 4Dance the following decade. She has worked with renowned choreographers and dancers BalletBoyz, Jonzi D, Wayne McGregor, Kenrick Sandy, Cathy Marston and flamenco star Joaquin Cortès.

Williams has been instrumental in seeing dance on screen – “passionate and brutal for the art form” according to Anderson – but beyond dance she has directed films, documentaries, multi-camera recordings and live relays of music and theatre, with include Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 2015), films for director Katie Mitchell, and an ambitious production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach.

She collaborated with composers Judith Weir and Errollyn Wallen and produced the television adaptation of the Thomas Adès opera Powder Her Face (1999). Outside of the arts, she made documentaries, including the film series A Love Divided (1991) about couples kept apart by political forces, set in Belfast, Jerusalem, Johannesburg and Berlin.

Williams was born in Epping, Essex. Her father, William, an accountant, and her mother, Norma (née Timms), moved there from Leeds after the second world war with Margaret’s older brother, Roy. Film was an early passion: first Snow White and Pinocchio, then Buster Keaton and the French New Wave, but she also loved music, from Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra to Jimi Hendrix, whom she saw live. at Chelmsford Corn Exchange.

At Woodford high school, an art teacher encouraged student Williams to go to art school. She studied painting and drawing at Loughton College, where she met and was influenced by Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, founders of the art group and punk band Crass.

In 1971 Williams went to Los Angeles to work at Hanna-Barbera, where she painted backgrounds for The Flintstones. At parties in LA she met two of her idols, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Jones, and when she heard David Hockney was staying at a nearby hotel, she called up to his room to see if she could meet him. “Away with you.” he said.

She returned to the UK in 1973 to train as a rostrum camera at the BBC, but left after two years, partly because, as a rare woman in the department, she was too often asked to make the tea. In 1975 she founded the Arbor production company with director David Rowan and produced award-winning arts documentaries. Her first film as a director was a street-style documentary for the BBC in 1982, and in 1995 she founded MJW Productions.

Williams’ notable work in dance began with Flesh and Blood (1990), with Anderson and her all-female troupe, the Cholmondeleys. She later formed a fruitful working partnership with Marks, often working with non-professional dancers, as in the films Mothers and Daughters (1994), the playful and compassionate Men (1997), which featured seven men in their seventies, and Veterans (2008). . ), with soldiers in combat rehab.

On set, Williams was in her element: warm, lively, confident in charge and full of positive attitude. There was an atmosphere of fellowship. When a scene in Men required the performers to remove layers of clothing before jumping into a river, Williams and Marks also stripped down to their bathing suits. It was while making Men, in Banff, Canada, that Williams met her partner, Stephanie Matthews, the film’s art director. After two years of a long-distance relationship, Matthews moved to London, where she worked in historic building conservation. The couple married in 2010.

Matthews described Williams as someone who was never bored, with an eye that was “hungry” – in the five years before the pandemic she taught a class at UCLA in the US called Seeing the Unseen. She would work 10 hours a day even when she was not in production, because the ideas never stopped.

Recently she has been developing drama scripts with writer Nick Herrett and playwright Neil Bartlett. Even after receiving a diagnosis of glioblastoma (brain cancer) in 2020, she continued the creative habit, photographing images that caught her eye in the hospital.

Williams inspired others simply by being a rare female director in the ’80s and ’90s, but she also generously mentored young filmmakers, including the award-winning dance film duo Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple. “Mags saw something in our work that no one had ever seen before,” Wright said. “She gave us the confidence to take our work in dance films seriously, and to take dance film as an art form seriously. We encourage it to this day.”

She is survived by Stephanie and her brother Roy.

• Margaret Joy Williams, film director and producer, born 26 August 1950; he died 14 April 2024

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