In 2013, Alan Parker, who has died aged 76, received the Bafta fellowship award “in recognition of outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image”. Parker was praised for his energetic style, his keen visual sense and his storytelling skills, and for resuscitating the movie musical. He was also credited with having broken down the barriers between the American and British film industries and paving the way for fellow Brits – with Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, and Ridley and Tony Scott having come from advertising like himself – to pursue Hollywood careers.
Although Parker directed only two bona fide British productions – Bugsy Malone (1976) and Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) – in 1998 he was appointed chairman of the board of governors of the British Film Institute (BFI) and in 1999 first chairman of the Film Council. And yet, a little more than a decade earlier, Parker had made a television documentary called A Turnip Head’s Guide to the British Film Industry (1985) in which he tackled “the pomposity, stupidity, pretension and avarice of the film industry”.
He believed that British films were too parochial and not commercial enough in concept, recalling that, as a child, whenever he visited his local cinema and the film opened with an image of a red London bus, he knew he was “in for a lousy time”. Parker set out to change all that. Some of his attitudes derived from his working-class upbringing and the battles he had to advance himself. If any theme is to be found in his eclectic oeuvre, it is a sympathy with the underdog.
Parker was born during a German wartime air raid, on a housing estate in Islington, north London. His mother, Elsie, was a dressmaker and his father, William, a house painter. He became interested in photography at an early age, which led him, after leaving school at 18, to take a job as an office boy in the post room of an advertising agency.
He then got work as a copywriter. “The great thing about advertising, from a British point of view, is that it didn’t have a kind of class distinction as other jobs had,” Parker recalled. “If you were half bright, they gave you a chance. I was very fortunate that they gave me that chance.” One London agency he worked with was Collett Dickenson Pearce, where he first met David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, both of whom would later produce many of his films.
In 1970, Puttnam bought the rights to a handful of songs by the Bee Gees, which were incorporated into a story for a feature film, Melody (1971). Parker, who wrote the screenplay, came up with a tale of two children at a south London comprehensive whose friendship is tested when a pretty girl enters their social orbit. It was directed by Waris Hussein, and Parker did some second-unit direction for the film, as well as shooting the montage sequences.
But before making his feature film debut as a director, he made two shorts, Our Cissy and Footsteps (both 1974), and a TV drama, The Evacuees (1975), for the BBC. The latter, written by Jack Rosenthal, about the experiences of two young Jewish boys evacuated from Manchester to Blackpool during the blitz, won a Bafta award and an International Emmy. It was also proof of Parker’s expertise in directing children.
This was consolidated with his first feature, Bugsy Malone, a slick musical with children playing American gangsters of the 20s, one gang armed with cream cakes, the other with splurge guns. “My script was a cinematic pastiche, with echoes and references to Astaire, Raft, Kelly, Cagney, Brando and Welles,” Parker recalled. “It’s not so much an homage as a collection of fond memories of double bills that I had devoured as a kid at the Blue Hall rerun cinema in Upper Street in north London.” The routines were well staged and the “gangsters” talented and likable.
Midnight Express (1978) was loosely based on the true story of Billy Hayes, a young American jailed for drug smuggling in Istanbul. The movie, relentlessly directed by Parker, graphically depicted how Hayes (Brad Davis) was beaten up and tortured in prison. There were sympathetic critics who interpreted the film as less about the Turkish prison system than about a general fear of otherness. Some years later, Oliver Stone, whose screenplay won an Oscar, apologised for “over-dramatising” the story.
In contrast, Fame (1980), which again showed what Parker could do with song-and-dance routines, followed eight young people for four years at the High School of Performing Arts in New York. “Something wonderful is happening to me, mama,” says one of the budding stars. “I’m growing up.”
For Parker, Shoot the Moon (1982), a divorce drama starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, was “the first grown-up film that I’d done”. A robust dissection of modern marriage sympathetic to both sides of the battle, the film was convincing in its depiction of the minutiae of bringing up families. “It was a painful film to make for me because there were echoes of my own life in it. It was about a breakup of a marriage, and the children in the story were quite close to my own children in age.” Parker’s first marriage, to Annie Inglis, whom he had married in 1966, ended in 1992.
Although Parker considered the filming of Pink Floyd: The Wall “one of the most miserable experiences of my creative life”, this surreal extended pop promo, starring Bob Geldof as a disintegrating rock star, did well at the box office. The causes of unhappiness were the constant clashes with the Floyd vocalist and bassist Roger Waters, who wrote the screenplay, and the political cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe, who did the elaborate animation sequences.
Birdy (1984) seamlessly transposed the novelist William Wharton’s post-second world war traumas to a post-Vietnam setting. It concerned the devastating effects the war had on two young friends, Al (Nicolas Cage), physically injured, and Birdy (Matthew Modine), psychologically damaged, who believes he is a bird. Treated with sensibility and skill, the film contains some exceptional sequences, such as Birdy’s dream of flying over Pittsburgh.
Angel Heart (1987), a tense thriller, was set in the 50s in New Orleans where a private eye, played by Mickey Rourke, is trying to locate a missing person for a sinister client, played by Robert De Niro. His trail leads to voodoo rites and its link with sexuality, evil and darkness.
Mississippi Burning (1988) was about a couple of contrasting FBI agents (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe) in a small southern town in 1964, investigating the disappearance of three civil rights workers. In Come See the Paradise (1990), the FBI were the bad guys helping to round up and imprison Japanese Americans during the second world war.
Parker returned triumphantly to the musical with The Commitments (1991), based on the novel by the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, on the efforts of a ragtag group of Dublin musicians to launch a successful band. Laced with superb songs sung with passion, and vibrant performances by a cast of unknowns, it won Bafta awards for best film, best director and best adapted screenplay. “I wanted to do this film because I identified with the kids in the film,” Parker claimed. “They came from the north side of Dublin, a working-class area, and I came from the north of London, a very similar working-class area. I suppose deep down that the dreams and aspirations I had when I was a kid are very close to theirs.”
Parker’s unbroken run of box-office winners was halted temporarily by The Road to Wellville (1994), a hit-and-miss satire about the health crazes at the turn of the 20th century, mainly perpetrated by Dr John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins fitted with large buck teeth), he of cornflakes fame.
Parker had another success with Evita (1996), adapted from the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber stage hit. It turned out to be a glitzy entertainment, with wall-to-wall songs (well sung by Madonna in the title role) and sparse dialogue delivered in awkward recitatives. But whatever the quality of the content, the look was impeccable, as with all Parker’s films. In fact, Parker often used the same team – directors of photography (Michael Seresin and Peter Biziou), editor (Gerry Hambling) and production designer (Brian Morris).
Parker’s second film shot in Ireland, Angela’s Ashes (1999), based on the true story of Frank McCourt’s poverty-stricken childhood, failed to delve below the surface. Even more at fault for superficiality was The Life of David Gale (2003), which follows a Texas University professor (Kevin Spacey), an advocate for the abolishment of capital punishment, who finds himself on death row after being convicted of the rape and murder of another activist. The overwhelmingly negative critical reaction to the film convinced Parker to leave his filmography at 14 features. He said in 2017: “We have gone through the era of the producer, the director, now we are in the era of the studio executive. None of which bodes well if you’ve always had complete control of your work.”
Parker was knighted in 2002. He is survived by his second wife, Lisa (nee Moran), whom he married in 2001, their son, Henry, four children, Lucy, Alexander, Jake and Nathan, from his first marriage, and seven grandchildren.
• Alan William Parker, film director, producer and writer, born 14 February 1944; died 31 July 2020
• Ronald Bergan died on 23 July 2020