BAFTA winning film and television director, Philippa Lowthorpe and NFTS graduate and RTS Craft and Design Award winning editor, Úna Ni Dhonghíle delivered a captivating masterclass on the critically acclaimed, award-winning BBC miniseries, Three Girls, which is about the Rochdale sexual abuse scandal.
Philippa started out as a director of award-winning documentaries which led her to write and direct her first drama Eight Hours from Paris followed by the 2004 TV movie adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl and more recently BFI/BBC films adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. She was lead director on the very first series of Call the Midwife and the Christmas special led to her being the first woman to win a BAFTA for TV directing. Most recently Philippa has directed two episodes of season two of The Crown.
Since graduating from the NFTS, Úna has worked on many award-winning documentaries and TV drama series. She won a RTS Craft and Design Award for ‘Best Editing’ for Three Girls and has received BAFTA nominations for Ripper Street, The Missing and White Girl. She has also received IFTA nominations for numerous series including The Crown and won an IFTA for her documentary, Invisible Man in 2016.
Philippa and Úna were introduced to the students by NFTS Co-Head of Fiction, Lesley Manning after they watched a screening of episode one of the ‘powerful and important’ drama, Three Girls, about the Rochdale sexual abuse scandal. The screening clearly left a lasting impact on the students as their questions came in thick and fast.
Many of the students wanted to know what it was like to make a TV Series based on such a harrowing subject and how Philippa and Úna dealt with that on set and in the cutting room, especially since many of the real people involved were often present.
Philippa said: “Three Girls was the most difficult drama I’ve made. It helped me as a director to know the real girls, and the real Maggie and Sara, and to be involved in the research with writer Nicole Taylor and producer Simon Lewis right from the beginning. These girls had no voice, which we wanted to make this drama. It’s incredibly important to get these untold stories out into the open.” Úna agreed: “It was humbling to play a part in that and keep the story alive. Although it was harrowing at times, having the real people in the cutting room brought to life their bravery in the process.”
On how the programme makers established trust with the people the drama was based on, Philippa said: “It’s very like making a documentary, you have to have sensitivity and patience. Listening is very important. You have to go in with a very open mind and be like a sponge and soak everything up.”
Philippa chose to work with Úna in part because she had a background in editing documentaries: “Úna is a very special person and had worked on both documentaries and dramas; she had to apply a fluid style of editing to making Three Girls.” 'Úna added: “Philippa and I were very much on the same page. A more conventional approach would not have worked and we used the cutting to build up the tension because we couldn't show too much of the violence, the audience would have found it excessive. Úna gave an example of how in the scene where the character, ‘Daddy’ attacks ‘Holly’, she used an elliptical style of editing: “We cut the scene through the subjective point of view of Holly and the music was looped so you got a repetitive, tense feel, which led to the scene in the bedroom when Daddy confronts her. By reverting to a more naturalistic style of editing at this point, the horror was palpable.”
Philippa emphasised how important it is as a director to have a duty of care towards the actors when making a drama based on such a traumatic subject matter: “As well as the young actors playing the roles of the three girls, we also were very mindful of the needs of the brave actors who played the roles of the perpetrators. They needed space to talk and discuss issues raised. These actors brought a great deal of insight to the process and we learned a lot from them."
A question came in from the floor as to what Philippa and Úna’s inspirations and influences were to get into filmmaking. Philippa replied: “I never thought I could be a director. I tried being a barrister but that didn’t work out so I got a job as a researcher for documentaries. I thought directing was the best thing ever but there were no women directors to look up to at the time. I find it amazing that there are so few women directors now. I passionately believe that we need other voices and would encourage you all to be brave and take up the challenge.” Úna had always wanted to make films and said that coming to the NFTS “was the best choice” she made: “I learnt so much about storytelling and editing and made great friends who I still work with now.”
On the wider impact that Three Girls has had, Philippa said: “Three Girls had over 8 million viewers per episode and up to 10 million requests on BBC iPlayer. We could not have imagined that it would spark such a huge interest from the public. We have also been told that the series is being used by professionals who work in Child Protection as a tool to enhance understanding of CSE." The BFI have stated that Three Girls ‘is as important as Cathy Come Home was in its day’ and have placed the drama in their top ten TV for 2017.
Writer Nicole Taylor, producer Sue Hogg, Philippa and Úna also won four prizes at Women in Film and TV Awards for Three Girls, the first time in the Award’s history that one single drama has won across directing, writing, editing and producing categories.
Since Philippa and Úna’s visit to NFTS, Three Girls has also won Best Drama at the Broadcast Awards 2018.
If you would love to attend masterclasses like this one, sign up to one of our upcoming open days at www.nfts.co.uk/opendays
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