Hugh Thomson has a strong award-winning record as an ambitious film-maker, often with a rock and roll twist, and with what the Observer described as ‘a daring commando-style’. With a background as a cameraman, he has often shot sections of his films himself and has constantly re-invented his documentary approach.
His acclaimed Dancing in the Street: A Rock and Roll History won plaudits (‘Hugh Thomson’s magnificent ten-part history is the most radical and the most ambitious history of rock ever attempted on television’ Daily Telegraph) and a BAFTA nomination. See the Opening Titles of TV being throw out of window. Hugh personally threw every television for the 15 takes needed to get this shot. Kind of addictive.
John Peel said of the first Indian Journeys with the writer William Dalrymple that it was ‘as wonderful a film as I have ever watched’. The whole series went on to win the Grierson Prize for Best Documentary Series.
His BBC docu-drama on Patricia Highsmith used Super-8 and stop frame animation, as well as black and white to tell the story that Time Out described as ‘gliding through Highsmith’s life with the slickness of a Ripley novel’.
As well as adventurous, challenging films in difficult conditions – like the BBC’s flagship series Russia with Jonathan Dimbleby and a Dispatches Special for C4 on Afghanistan – he has specialised in making ‘authored’ films with presenters such as William Dalrymple, Joanna Lumley and Michael Bracewell, in which they put forward their view of a subject. His film on Afghanistan was made with the Oscar-winning Pakistani journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy; his film with Joanna Lumley in Bhutan for BBC I has been repeated many times.
His recent three-part series on the Treasures of the Indus with Sona Datta was filmed in Pakistan and India.
Hugh was a founder member of the group of film-makers who established the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, the first festival in the UK to concentrate exclusively on documentary.
Treasures of the Indus with Sona Datta, BBC4
as Series Producer and Director
Filmed in Pakistan and India, this series was acclaimed by the critics:
‘Visually rich and intellectually fascinating. Datta portrays Pakistan, self defined as young and Islamic, as in denial about its territory’s long and complicated cultural past.’ Sunday Times
‘Much more than just a highly intelligent and visually beguiling tour of the great buildings and arts of India. It is a subtle and even provocative visual history of some 5,000 years of waves of migration, of empires built and lost, of different cultures and religions living together at times in amity, at times in open warfare.
In the hands of this highly intelligent and involved guide, we were treated to more than just the sight of glorious buildings and gorgeous paintings; more than art history, this was history in every sense.’ Marina Vaizey, Arts Desk
‘The most beautiful hour of television you’ll see this week’. Radio Times
Russia: A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby
Landmark series for BBC 2
Jonathan Dimbleby travels across the whole of Russia in an epic journey.
‘Expressive, serious and receptive…….this trip through a tragic country works so well.’ The Times
‘A very engaging series.’ The Observer
‘ A fascinating series.’ Daily Express
‘Best of all, though, he [Jonathan Dimbleby] was always happy to take second place to the material. Other travel presenters (these days perhaps even including St Michael Palin) may allow themselves and their own choreographed adventures to take centre stage. Dimbleby, by contrast, never forgot the important fact that he’s less interesting than Russia.’ Telegraph
‘Like Russia itself, the riches and sorrows of this series seem endless.’ Sunday Times
C4, a Dispatches Special
George W Bush: ‘The American flag flies again on our embassy in Kabul. The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes. Today, the women are free..’ Discuss……
A hard-hitting examination with the Oscar-winning journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy of the true situation in Afghanistan for the women who were supposedly liberated.
‘One of the most moving and upsetting films I’ve seen for a long time…’ Andrew Marr
‘Unsensational but shocking, this is superb reporting.’ Financial Times
Highsmith: Her Secret Life, BBC
Famously evasive during her lifetime, the author Patricia Highsmith left an array of diaries, notebooks and letters when she died in 1995 -a revelatory collection that answers many of the questions she would not answer about her private life and her work. As might be expected from the writer of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, Highsmith’s life was rich in secrets, and this documentary unveils the hidden world of the woman Graham Greene called ‘the poet of apprehension’.
‘Glides through Highsmith’s life with the same ease that you read a Ripley novel…Fascinating for its full 60 minutes, this profile shouldn’t be missed’ Time Out
Pacific Hell (To The Ends of the Earth), Granada for C4
‘The incredible story of Jim Shekhdar’s journey across the Pacific, alone and unassisted, in a 23ft rowing boat made of plywood. When he decided to do it, he was due for a hip operation, overweight and frightened of the sea. One of his daughters reckoned he was having a mid-life crisis. The other thought he ought to be sectioned. His wife dreamed of killing him. But set off he did, rowing away from Peru armed with bars of chocolate, a machine for turning sea water into drinking water and The Greatest Hits of Leonard Cohen, and his one luxury item – a lavatory. Nine months later he waded on to the Australian shore, Neptune emerging from the ocean.’ Times
‘Extraordinary……genuine emotion that will live on in the mind.’ Daily Mail
Icon Films for BBC. Three-part series for BBC2 (as both series producer and director) with the travel-writer William Dalrymple, who journeyed across India looking at the country’s great spiritual past and troubled present.
Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series
‘Among the most ravishingly photographed series ever to be broadcast.’ The Scotsman
Programme 1 Shiva’s Matted Locks
Following the Hindu pilgrimage route up to the source of the Ganges in the highest reaches of the Himalayas.
‘This is as wonderful a film as I have watched since I started writing this column and I cannot imagine not being moved by it and by the devotion of the pilgrims, particularly of the man who, even as he justifies leaving his family for ever in the name of his God, wipes away his tears. The soundtrack is marvellous, too.’ John Peel (Radio Times)
Programme 2 City of Djinns
A journey into the soul of Delhi, where the ancient rites of Sufism sit uneasily beside modern, disturbingly nationalistic currents.
‘This brilliant series – as good-looking as it is thought-provoking – continues with another eye-opening report.’ Daily Mail
Programme 3 Doubting Thomas
A re-tracing of the epic voyage supposedly undertaken by Christ’s apostle St Thomas in the first century, when he sailed from Jerusalem down to the south of India.
‘Filmed with a beautiful lyric eye that is now rare in documentaries, where too often the words are supposed to paint the picture and the pictures are just to remind you that this isn’t radio.’ A.A. Gill, Sunday Times
A controversial BBC I film in which the writer Michael Bracewell presented a very personal account of Oscar Wilde’s life and legacy as the first of the century’s rock and roll stars, helped by Stephen Fry, Tom Stoppard and the Pet Shop Boys.
‘Mounts a daring commando-style raid on the reputation of Oscar Wilde.’ Observer
‘Intensely sincere and thoughtful’ Time Out
Dancing in the Street: A Rock and Roll History, BBC
Major 10-hour series (as series producer and director), which set out to tell the history of the devil’s music from the 1950s to the present day.
watch some of the films:
Hang on to Yourself. Episode 7 on Glam: Part I : Part II. Part III. Part IV. includes Mick Ronson’s last interview, David Bowie’s best interview (heavily recycled in recent Five Years BBC doc) as if he was in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lou Reed pretending to be a boxing manager. One of the films Hugh had most fun directing. Only matched by…
No Fun. Episode 8 on Punk: whole film. The reclusive Jonathan Richman, Steve Jones on how to play guitar on speed (and at speed), The Clash, John Lydon, Johnny Ramone interviewed together with Joey Ramone – very rare – Iggy Pop in the nude – very common – and some amazing footage of Patti Smith we found in a fridge that had not been seen for 20 years since she played at CBGBs and raised the hair on the back of Tina Weymouth’s neck (who Hugh also interviewed, along with David Byrne). In face who didn’t he interview? And he got to go to Jamaica to have herbal tea with Bunny Wailer. Watch and envy.
The whole series viewable on YouTube – see links from films above. PBS broadcast a recut version of the series in the States as ‘Rock & Roll’, with an American narrator: see the PBS version of No Fun, Episode 8 on Punk.
BAFTA NOMINATION; EMMY AWARD WINNER; also winner of Peabody Award, special medal-winner at New York Film Festival
‘Hugh Thomson’s magnificent ten-part history is the most ambitious and the most radical history of rock ever attempted on television’ Daily Telegraph
‘Anecdotal, evocative and authoritative, this is a treat‘ Sunday Times
‘Fine pop chronicle’ The Guardian
‘A very fine new history of rock music’ Independent
‘Easily TV’s most perceptive analysis of popular music’ Daily Mirror
‘Four years in the making, Hugh Thomson’s accessible, erudite series is an intelligent, superbly edited overview of this thing called rock and roll….unmissable.’ Birmingham Post
‘A palpable hit on the subject…. .as good as television gets.’ The New York Times
Joanna Lumley in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon
Icon Films for BBC. 70-minute BBC1 Special in which Joanna Lumley travelled across the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in the footsteps of her grandfather, who had made the same journey in the 1930s when he was a British political officer.
‘The archive her grandfather had taken seemed to flower into colour in this film.’ Guardian, Nancy Banks-Smith
‘Beautiful sights in her journey – in particular prayer flags rippling like a land-locked armada of devotion – and some comedy as well; in one scene a member of the Bhutanese royal family gossiped about Newmarket racing and took a phone call as if impersonating Patsy (“How are you doing? Absolutely fabulous!”).’ Tom Sutcliffe, Independent
War Stories: ‘Andrew Graham-Yooll’, BBC
A personal look at the military regime in Argentina prior to the Falklands War, in which the human rights campaigner and writer, Andrew Graham-Yooll, himself Anglo-Argentine, returned there after many years of exile to confront some of the generals.
‘Emotionally charged’ Time Out.
Great Journeys: ‘Mexico’, BBC
Account of Cortés’ epic journey across Mexico, again with the Irish poet Damian Gorman, who followed the conquistador’s difficult route overland from the beaches of the Yucatan to the site of the final Aztec defeat in the mountains and reflected on the current situation in Mexico.
‘Lyrical’ Peter Patterson, Daily Mail.
‘A treat’ The Guardian.
Words on Film: ‘Devices of Detachment’, BBC
Acclaimed ground-breaking documentary about the troubles in Northern Ireland, with a commissioned verse commentary from the poet Damian Gorman.
British selection for INPUT FESTIVAL. Screened again at Belfast Film Festival 2014 to mark 20th anniversary.
‘A television masterpiece’ Sean Day-Lewis, Sunday Telegraph.