Anthony Minghella tribute

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When Anthony Minghella died suddenly last week at 54, British cinema lost not only one of its leading writers and directors, but also one of its most powerful and intelligent advocates. For the past five years, he had been the chairman of the British Film Institute, which runs the London Film Festival and London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Here, the BFI‘s head of festivals, Sandra Hebron, shares her memories of Minghella.

I first met Anthony Minghella in 1991, when we opened his debut feature, ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ at the Manchester Cornerhouse cinema, where I was working at the time. Anthony came along to present the film and to take questions from the audience afterwards, and pretty much everyone in the cinema was charmed both by the film and by the man. Long after the official Q&A had finished, Anthony patiently answered questions about his approach and experiences in making the film, telling us stories that were as illuminating as they were entertaining and self-deprecating. The day after the screening I was laid low by a virus, and when I recovered and returned to work I found that Anthony had sent me flowers, with a note expressing concern that his film had made me sick!

This early encounter was the perfect introduction to Anthony and to some of the many qualities that I would come to appreciate more and more during his time as chair of the BFI. Warm, thoughtful and considerate, he was also passionate about film and the possibilities it offers. I was always in awe of the sheer breadth of his cultural knowledge. Was there an art form he wasn’t engaged by, couldn’t have an intelligent and informed conversation about? If so, I never found it. Of course, this was borne out in his own creative work by his ability to move between theatre, television and film, even tackling an opera, which he seemed to approach, as he did so many things, as a great journey, an adventure.

Anthony carried both his intellect and his erudition lightly but was more than willing to mobilise them in a good cause. That said, his huge commitment to the BFI went far beyond seeing us as such a cause. One of the first things he did when he took up the role of chair in 2003 was to quiz me for several hours about the two festivals (The Times BFI London Film Festival and London Lesbian and Gay Festival) – why we did them, who they were for, where we wanted to take them. Most importantly, he asked what he could do to help.

His enthusiastic support was invaluable – he was there to cheer us on when things went well and to offer a sense of perspective when all wasn’t quite so rosy. He diligently courted sponsors, chivvied the great and the good to attend, encouraged nervous filmmakers and helped to keep us all on track. He endured the task of giving the opening night speech with typical good grace, though I know it made him nervous and he was often in a state of conflict with the microphones at the Odeon Leicester Square.

Away from the BFI, he was a champion of initiatives like the Script Factory and the Berlin Talent Campus – he cared very much about nurturing new filmmakers. He did all this, and more, from a strong belief that people’s lives could be enriched by cinema and from a willingness to roll up his sleeves and get on with the practicalities of how to make this happen. A great inspirer himself, Anthony was always keen to talk about films he’d seen and how they had inspired him. The great pride he took in the achievements of his family, friends and professional collaborators was in direct contrast to the restraint with which he talked about his own.

And what defined that work, about which he was so modest, was the ability to reach and move audiences – in itself no mean achievement. His skill as a director known for his ability to draw brilliant performances from actors proved helpful in his task of marshalling the talents and steering the future of the BFI, where plenty of coaxing and persuasion has been needed. We loved his idealism and admired his clear-sightedness. Most of all we enjoyed his terrific and mischievous sense of humour: I’ve lost count of the times when he would lean over and whisper just the right words before we had to face a daunting audience or a recalcitrant funder. I feel incredibly lucky to have laughed with Anthony about so much, to have had the joy of knowing him.

I wish there would be more of it.

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