18 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
“Channel 4 is something we need to safeguard, and make sure that it's treated properly and protected;” Director Ian Fitzgibbon discusses his recent sitcom Hullraisers and working with Channel 4
19 May 2022 : Nathan Griffin
Channel 4 sitcom Hullraisers.
Irish director Ian Fitzgibbon (Death of a Superhero, Raised by Wolves) spoke with IFTN about his recent sitcom Hullraisers, working with Channel 4 & its importance, and the impact of Covid 19.

Hullraisers is a Channel 4 sitcom written by Lucy Beaumont based in Kingston upon Hull, England. It follows the joyously chaotic world of native Hullians Toni, Rana and Paula, as they juggle life, love, and “a lot of mucking about!” All 6 episodes are now available on demand on All4 and were directed by Irish film and television director Ian Fitzgibbon (Dark Lies the Island, Moone Boy), who talks to IFTN about his experiences making the show, the importance of Channel 4 as a cultural institution, and his experiences during Covid.

Speaking to IFTN over zoom, Fitzgibbon notes that post-lockdown, he feels the industry has fundamentally changed, for better and for worse. “I think it's permanent... I see lots of advantages. I see some disadvantages. I did a pilot in Glasgow last year called Beep; [a] pretty big, lovely thing that was nominated for a BAFTA. I was in Glasgow, my editor was in Bristol, and my producer was in London.” Fitzgibbon says that he never actually met the producer, nor the editor during the entire process of making Beep. However, Hullraisers was a much more straightforward, albeit cautious process, that meant he was able to be more “hands on”.

This kind of connection is particularly important when working with the type of creatives that work on Channel 4 productions such as Hullraisers. Gibbons is no stranger to working with Channel, 4 having also worked on shows such as Raised by Wolves for the broadcaster, which was created by sisters Caitlin and Caroline Moran.

Fitzgibbon speaks highly of working with the channel. He tells IFTN how the people there are so committed to creativity, and not afraid of taking a gamble. “I've done a lot with Channel 4 and the people in there, the creatives, I think that every single one of them are so ‘on’ in terms of what they're doing. They're so committed to it. And they're so about the creative, that's really what drives them, and they're so willing to take a risk, which is really important. It's almost part of their DNA, you know, that's what they need to be doing.”

This perspective on the iconic broadcaster is particularly engaging considering recent conversations around the potential privatization of the company. Channel 4 was established in 1982 to provide a culturally challenging alternative to BBC One, BBC Two, and ITV. It is publicly owned but commercially funded. Unlike the BBC, which is funded through the £159-a-year license fee its viewers must pay, Channel 4 has no financial support from the taxpayer.

In April, UK Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said: "Channel 4 rightly holds a cherished place in British life and I want that to remain the case. I have come to the conclusion that government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon. A change of ownership will give Channel 4 the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive as a public service broadcaster long into the future." A government source said the broadcaster would lose its "straitjacket" but retain its commitment to primetime news programming. However, this view is not shared by others.

When it was announced last year that the government was carrying out a consultation on privatising Channel 4, its bosses warned of "a real risk" to some of its programmes. Responding to the announcement that the move was going ahead, a spokesperson for the broadcaster said: "With over 60,000 submissions to the government's public consultation, it is disappointing that [the] announcement has been made without formally recognising the significant public interest concerns which have been raised."

Privatisation in some form has been mooted about half a dozen times since Channel 4’s launch, with the most serious push coming under David Cameron’s government in 2016. That was led by the then culture secretary John Whittingdale, who is also overseeing the government’s latest push towards privatisation. Ultimately, it was decided that the benefits of a cash windfall to the government were outweighed by the scale of the detrimental impact on the independent TV sector. In 2017, the culture secretary Karen Bradley formally ruled privatisation out, saying Channel 4 was a “precious public asset” that would “continue to be owned by the country”. Instead, the government pushed for Channel 4 to relocate significant parts of its operations and staff out of London. About 300 of its 800 staff have now moved to new “national” headquarters in Leeds, as well as “creative hubs” in Bristol and Glasgow. However, the government now once again intends to sell off the channel.

IFTN asks Fitzgibbon about what this could mean for a broadcaster who is renowned for showcasing a diverse range of talents and shows such as It’s A Sin, which was up for 11 BAFTAs recently. The director, for his part, hopes that the independent spirit, which has been its hallmark for four decades now, is retained.

I'm hoping that whatever transpires in the future, that that creative or indie, for want of a better word, sensibility is still top of their list.  I'm hoping that social pressures don't come to bear on those sorts of qualities that we associate with Channel 4. I think it's really important that that is safeguarded, because they do they do stuff that other people just won’t touch - darker, edgier, not 100% surefire audience bets. But out of that emerges these really successful shows.” Fitzgibbon clearly admires the storytelling ethos the channel has cultivated and their independent spirit saying: “I love working with them, as I just feel like they're all about the voice. They're about what the stories are, what story are trying to tell. It's not about box ticking, ‘get this name, get that star, get it on this budget.’ I just love what they prioritize.”

The variety of content too, and the lack of a recurring formula in their work is very attractive to a director like Fitzgibbon, who has worked on a number of Channel 4 productions prior to Hullraisers. These include Damned, which had what the director describes as “really dark, really challenging storylines, but very funny” and Raised by Wolves, which, while not as edgy or transgressive, still had “a very definite voice and it has a very definite take on the world. It's a series that probably wouldn't have found a home as easily somewhere else.”

The commitment to story and the unique voices the channel prioritises was a key component to the joy Fitzgibbon felt working on Hullraisers. “There was such a creative buzz to work with Fable pictures and Hannah Farrell, especially, who was the main producer, and I just really admire the way they are all about the story, all about the creative side of it,” Fitzgibbon explains. “That's what they care about most deeply. It's so evident in the way they operate, and the way they work. And the way they relate to the talent that they're working with. So, for me, as a director, it was one of the best experiences I've had in a long time. I loved it!”

In addition to the team behind the project, Fitzgibbon was attracted to the freshness of the story, the characters, and the actresses who play them. Hullraisers, according to Fitzgibbon, is something that sounds familiar but feels fresh, largely because “it doesn't trade on the cliches of downtrodden working class in northern England”.

The series, adapted from an Israeli sit-com, centres on three women; Toni, Rana, and Paula, and looks at their disorganised, complicated, and joyful lives. It is co-written by Hull-born writer, actress, and comedian Lucy Beaumont, along with Anne-Marie O’Connor and Caroline Moran.

Each of the six episode, all of which Fitzgibbon directed, explore the humorous and testing reality of what it is like to be a working-class woman trying to juggle work, children, friends, family, and fellow parents - and have some fun at the same time. Though it may sound familiar, the director believes that it very much has its own voice and sense of place, saying: “It's a completely different thing. It's much more joyous, it feels very true to the spirit of that particular part of England. I think it's full of vitality, colour, personality and quirk, and energy!”

The characters and the actresses who play them also really spoke to him. The three main characters are Toni, Rana, and Paula. Toni is an impulsive and chaotic aspiring actress with no acting credits to her name, she's a mum to 4-year-old Grace but still daydreams about pre-parenthood and leaving Hull. She is played by Leah Brotherhead who has starred in the likes of Vera, Bridgerton (as Joanna in the episode Swish), White Gold, Zomboat!, and Doctors. Paula is Toni’s sister, and married to Rana's big brother Dane, she's a mother-of-two and a real homebody, in contrast to her younger sister. She is played by Sinead Matthews, who is known for her roles as Marcia Williams in The Crown, Emma in Michaela Coel's Chewing Gum, Miss Topsey in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, or as the Bennet family's singing maid in the Keira Knightley film Pride and Prejudice.

But Fitzgibbon was particularly taken by the character of Rana, who is played by Taj Atwal. Toni's best friend and sister-in-law to Paula. Rana is described as "a powerhouse policewoman whose daily life is ruled by her libido. She’d rather ‘investigate’ the full spectrum of Hull’s hottest bachelors than settle down". The director was drawn to her and the fact that she's so “uncompromising about what she wants, about her physical needs, and what she wants out of men.

“I think the obvious thing would have been to play her out against her cultural background, as this kind of conservative Indian woman from a conservative Indian family that maybe there'd be tensions created by what her family might expect of her, but it just sidesteps all of that,” Fitzgibbon explains. “It just makes her this very strong, dynamic, uncompromising woman who is not interested in kids. She's interested in her career. And she's interested in men and that's it, you know, get on board, or forget about love. I absolutely love that, like a rocket.”

The show, which can be watched in its entirety on All 4, has had a really strong reaction so far, particularly on social media, with people responding to the characters. Despite Fitzgibbon himself not being on Twitter, he thinks the fact that the actors’ portrayals are getting such good responses on the platform is good news.

Although I don't go on Twitter, I believe that Twitter has taken to it, which obviously, nowadays, social media is so important for all these things. So, I'm glad about that,” Fitzgibbon tells IFTN. “I'm really pleased that it's been so well received, and especially for the three main actors who I just think are fabulous. You know, they're real, proper talents. I think they deserve all the recognition that they get.”

He also praises the writers, including Caroline Moran with whom he worked on Raised by Wolves, as well as Lucy Beaumont, the creator, and Anne Marie O’Connor.  He found that they imbued the story with a sense of authenticity, and Fitzgibbon really responded to how they kept the stakes real and palpable in a comedy and maintained a sense of place, and a realistic portrayal of Hull throughout. “I think they, they have made sure that three female characters are dealing with stuff that feels authentic, in every way, even though it's heightened, and it's comedic,” says Fitzgibbon.

“They wanted to make sure that the stakes and the stories felt like something that reflected the lives of women who are of that age, who are living in that part of the world,” he adds. “I just think they're phenomenally talented, creative people. So, it was a massive privilege to work with them. And I think they delivered six really strong episodes.

Asked by IFTN if he had a favourite episode, Fitzgibbon point to Episode 4, titled Party, which is set in one location. “It’s what we call a bottleneck episode” he tells IFTN, “we set it just in one location and a house. And it's a party. And we never leave the three rooms, and a tiny backyard. I really relished directing that, because it's all about the characters. There are no devices, there's no high concept. It's really about three women trying to negotiate their way to a children's party, that never actually happens, because the episode ends as the doorbell goes with the first kid arriving. But I think as a piece of writing that was so strong. Because of all the constraints of space and blocking, and all that. I remember thinking wow this is a real challenge, but I loved it.”

Hullraisers is now available on All 4 on demand in the UK and Ireland.

IFTA Q&A Series: Kev Cahill on VFX
IFTA Q&A Series: Stephen Jones on Acting
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