WHEN you think of Hollywood, you probably don’t think of Oxfordshire.
But the county is starting to gather pace on Tinsel Town.
And one of the key players has been film producer Damian Jones, who is from the West Oxfordshire village of Church Hanborough.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, centre, talks to Caroline Organ-Jennings, left, and Eleonore Organ-Jennings outside the Cineworld cinema in Witney ahead of a special screening of Belle in June
By chance Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the actress who brought his film Belle to life, was born and grew up in Witney.
Many see something Jane Austen-esque about Belle, about a mixed-race woman in 1780s England. The film couldn’t have had a more British conception.
A painting featured on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow that intrigued his wife, set Mr Jones on the six-year movie-making project.
There was clearly quite a story behind the unsigned painting depicting two attractive, beautifully outfitted young women, perfectly relaxed together, one white and one black.
Both peer at the viewer, the dark girl smiling impishly with a finger to her cheek, while the other – resting from her book – absent-mindedly takes her companion’s arm.
What made it so fascinating to Mr Jones, was that this painting was created in 1799, in a Georgian Society where black women in society were pretty well unknown.
He said: “The painting happened to be situated at Kenwood House in north London and at around the same time I came across it during a visit.
“The women are stunning but the picture is completely ambiguous. You cannot tell whether they are friends, perhaps one a servant and the other a visitor. The clothing is exotic and they are touching. I think it is fair to say most portraits of the period do not feature black people, unless they are slaves or servants.”
When he began delving into the story of behind the picture, it emerged that the two girls were in fact sisters, both adopted, and raised by the aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield – and Mr Jones immediately knew that he had found the subject of his next film, the period drama Belle, which opened at UK cinemas last month.
Discovering Dido Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral, was a welcome stroke of good fortune for Mr Jones, Bafta-winning producer of The Iron Lady and The History Boys.
But during the shoot for Belle, Mr Jones’ mother Liz Gasiorowska said he was dealt the devastating blow of the death of his twin sister.
Selina Jones, a film scriptwriter, died two years ago, aged 47, at the Michael Sobell Hospice, Oxford.
Mrs Gasiorowska said that Ms Jones had been diagnosed aged seven with the degenerative disease Friedreich’s Ataxia. Mr Jones has dedicated Belle to her.
But after battling on through to finish a spectacular film, Mr Jones has even more projects, still with Oxfordshire links, on the cards.
The film producer, who will be 50 later this year, is now busy on two eagerly awaited films. His version of Dad’s Army, based on the classic British TV sitcom about the Home Guard, will star Toby Jones, the actor from Charlbury, who will play the pompous, diminutive Captain Mainwaring, with Bill Nighy as the taciturn Sergeant Wilson.
Mr Jones said the “universal appeal” of Dad’s Army had convinced him the time was right for Captain Mainwaring and Co to invade the big screen.
He is also making Lady in the Van, written by Alan Bennett, and starring Dame Maggie Smith.
Mr Jones originally fell into the film business seemingly by accident.
Having gone to France to work in a bar to improve his language skills, after finishing his politics and history degree at Warwick University, he took the opportunity to work as a “runner” on the set of Frantic, the Harrison Ford thriller set in Paris.
“I was getting the tea, coffee, doing reception work,” he said. But crucially he experienced what went on on a film set.
With Frantic on his CV, Mr Jones was able get his foot in the door at Working Title Films, the British production company behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shaun of the Dead.
He worked his way up the ladder as a production assistant. But at an early stage he recognised there were three jobs that really counted: lead actor, director and producer.
Mr Jones said: “Well, I quickly realised that I couldn’t act, did not have a clue what directing was but I was good at spotting interesting and talented people as well as organisation and making things happen.”
He set himself the task of making a short film, The Candy Shop, with a friend. “I spent two years raising the money for a film that took two weeks to shoot. I went to anyone I knew who was wealthy, as well as the traditional film sources. I even turned to my granny. You have to expect 99 ‘nos’ but you only need one ‘yes’.“ The film won the 1990 BAFTA Award for Best Short Film and on the strength of this he moved to Hollywood.
Over the next few years he produced films ranging from Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, which was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes, to Gridlock’d, which starred Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur.
After 10 years he returned home and the subjects of two of his best known films could hardly have been more English: Sex & Drugs and Rock & Roll, telling the story of rocker Ian Dury, and The Iron Lady, featuring Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher.
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady
A LIFE BEHIND THE LENS
- DAMIAN’S family set up home in the West Oxfordshire village of Church Hanborough 30 years ago
- His mum Liz Gasiorowska still lives in the village
- He took a degree in politics and history at Warwick and ended up in the movie business by accident, after travelling to Paris to work in a bar
- His first job involved making the tea on the set of the Roman Polanski film Frantic, which starred Harrison Ford
- He won an award for his first short film The Candy Shop – it took just a fortnight to make
- The list of films he has produced include The Iron Lady, The History Boys, Millions, Adulthood, Fast Girls and Sex & Drugs and Rock & Roll s He is currently making a film version of the TV classic Dad’s Army.
Sam Mendes, right, with Judi Dench and crew on the set of Skyfall
AN IMPRESSIVE CAST LIST
- DAMIAN Jones is one of an impressive array of Oxonians to have made a career in the movies, both in front of and behind the camera.
- Sam Mendes, who directed the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the James Bond film Skyfall, went to school in the city.
- Stars from Oxford include Tom Hollander and Harry Potter actor Emma Watson, while Toby Jones, who appears in the new Dad’s Army film, comes from Charlbury.
- Actors who went to Oxford University include Kate Beckinsale, Hugh Grant, Robert Hardy, Rosamund Pike and Michael York.
John Thaw as a well-read Inspector Morse
STREETS ARE PAVED WITH FILM AND TV GOLD
- SCENES from Belle were filmed in Catte Street, Oxford, and in the Bodleian Library’s Clarendon Quadrangle.
- The city has long been a favourite setting for film makers.
- Oxford has been used as a backdrop for some of the Harry Potter films, The Oxford Murders in 2007, and a movie version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
- Cameras came to the city to record scenes for A Fish Called Wanda, The Madness of King George, Heaven’s Gate, The Golden Compass and the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.
- And on the small screen, Oxford was the setting for Inspector Morse, starring the late John Thaw, its follow-up Lewis, with Kevin Whately in the title role, and the prequel series Endeavour, featuring Shaun Evans as a young Morse.
- A little further afield, Bampton is home to the outdoor scenes of ITV’s hit period drama, Downton Abbey.