Margaret Williams obituary

Margaret Williams, a ‘wizard of the camera’ with an extraordinary visual sense who has died aged 73, was a groundbreaking director during the heyday of televised dance in 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 groundbreaking Including dance company Candoco and choreographer Victoria Marks.

Rather than simply filming the action, Williams captured dance in a way that was not possible on stage. Marks recalled that Williams asked her to modify movements to “pull the camera along.” “I immediately understood the possibility that the camera is not recording the movement, but that choreography and filmmaking are intrinsically in conversation,” she said.

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

When a retrospective of Williams’s 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 noted, “Williams’ witty, dynamic style captures dance in ways that put a new spin on it, transcending the limitations of the stage while staying true to its essence.”

For Channel 4, Williams directed the dance series Tights, Camera, Action in the 1990s and 4Dance the following decade. She has collaborated with leading choreographers and dancers BalletBoyz, Jonzi D, Wayne McGregor, Kenrick Sandy, Cathy Marston and flamenco star Joaquin Cortès.

Williams was instrumental in bringing dance to the screen – “passionate and pushy for the art form” according to Anderson – but in addition to dance she has directed films, documentaries, multi-camera recordings and live cinema broadcasts of music and theatre, including Maxine Peake’s Hamlet. at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 2015), films for director Katie Mitchell, and an ambitious performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach.

She collaborated with the composers Judith Weir and Errollyn Wallen and made the TV adaptation of Thomas Adès’ opera Powder Her Face (1999). Outside the arts, she has 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 mother, Norma (née Timms), had 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, later 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, which she saw live at the Chelmsford Corn Exchange.

In high school in Woodford, a student art teacher encouraged 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 collective 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 that David Hockney was staying at a nearby hotel, she called his room to see if she could meet him. “Come on up.” he said.

She returned to Britain in 1973 to train as a stage camera with the BBC, but left after two years, partly because as a rare woman in the department she was asked too often to make the tea. In 1975, she founded the production company Arbor with director David Rowan and made award-winning art 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’ major dance work began with Flesh and Blood (1990), featuring Anderson and her all-female company, the Cholmondeleys. She later forged a fruitful collaboration with Marks, often working with non-professional dancers, as in the films Mothers and Daughters (1994), the playful and compassionate Men (1997), with seven men in their seventies, and Veterans ( 2008). ), with soldiers in combat rehabilitation.

On set, Williams was in her element: warm, vibrant, confident and full of positive attitude. There was an atmosphere of togetherness. 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 swimsuits. While making Men in Banff, Canada, 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 the conservation of historic buildings. The couple married in 2010.

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

Lately she has been developing drama scripts with the writer Nick Herrett and the playwright Neil Bartlett. Even after her glioblastoma (brain cancer) diagnosis in 2020, she continued the creative habit, taking photos of 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 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 film seriously, and to take dance film seriously as an art form. We carry her encouragement with us to this day.”

She is survived by Stephanie and her brother Roy.

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

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