It’s not every school that can boast a double BAFTA award-winner among their ranks of former students, but thanks to Philippa Lowthorpe, the director behind major new British comedy-drama Misbehaviour, De Aston School can do just that. We caught up with Philippa for a wide-ranging chat on all things Misbehaviour, her time at De Aston and finding her quiet inner confidence.
Released in UK cinemas on 13 March 2020 (and available digitally from 15 April), Misbehaviour was met with positive reviews, with BBC film critic Mark Kermode describing it as having a “genuine wow factor”. The film, which features an impressive ensemble cast including Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans and Greg Kinnear, focuses on the infamous 1970 Miss World competition.
The contest descended into chaos when the Women’s Liberation Movement interrupted proceedings with a number of protests, while anti-apartheid protestors also targeted the event. Addressing themes of feminism and race, the incredible true story is told through a charming and fun film from Lowthorpe, who was drawn in by the narrative territory the story allowed her to explore.
“The 1970 Miss World contest was like a lightning conductor for political protest,” says Philippa. “Watched on tv by 100 million people worldwide, not only did the Women’s Liberation Movement put themselves on the map by pitching themselves and their protest into all those living rooms, but western ideas of beauty were turned on their head in that moment because the first black woman won the competition, and another woman of colour came second.”
The contest proved irresistible terrain for making a drama, with a story which still feels relevant today in the context of the #MeToo movement. “It happened 50 years ago, so it’s a great time to look back on issues of race and women’s rights, and see how far we’ve come, but also see how far we still have to go to get real equality,” explains Lowthorpe.
The chance to work with Misbehaviour’s diverse A-list cast also made the film an enjoyable project for Philippa. “I really loved working with all the cast,” she says. “It was an honour and a privilege to work with such talented artists. They all threw themselves into their roles with great enthusiasm. Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessie Buckley all met the real women they were portraying.”
Philippa’s next project also sees her link up with some leading British actors. “At the moment I am editing a show called The Third Day for HBO/Sky,” she explains. “My three episodes star a wonderful actress, Naomie Harris. The first three episodes star Jude Law. It’s written by Dennis Kelly. It’s a very unusual story – scary and thrilling – set on the island of Osea.”
Winning directing BAFTAs, as she has done on two occasions for Three Girls and Call the Midwife, and working with genuine Hollywood stars may seem like a world away from school life in rural Lincolnshire. However, reflecting on her time at De Aston School, Lowthorpe remembers fondly an education that set her up for a remarkable career. “I did a lot of music, singing in a folk group and playing my cello in the orchestra at school, but I was quite shy and not terribly confident,” says Philippa. “I think that De Aston helped give me a quiet confidence in myself. As a director, you don’t have to be a shouty person, or boss people around. But it is good if you can have a quiet inner confidence and a feeling that you have something to say about the world.”
Despite attending school at a time when gender-specific classes, such as cookery for girls and woodwork for boys, still existed, De Aston School had a progressive outlook which had a positive impact on Philippa and the rest of the students. “There was absolutely no difference between the way girls and the boys were treated in terms of teachers’ expectations of academic excellence,” she says. “De Aston really encouraged us all to do well, try hard and take part in things like music, drama and sport. In my year I think almost everyone went to university, five of us went to Oxford and Cambridge, and the few that didn’t go to university went off to do something really interesting. I remember having a great sixth form experience. My year was full of interesting, funny, clever people. I still keep in touch with a lot of them, who’ve all gone on to do really interesting things in their lives.”
Despite having a positive experience of education, there was one incident that sticks in Philippa’s mind which highlights the hurdles she has had to overcome to get to where she is today. “A visiting (male) director from Lincoln Theatre Royal came to De Aston when I was about 14 to talk to us about his work,” she remembers. “When he asked for questions, inspired by what he’d been saying, I put up my hand and I told him I would like to be a director. He looked down his nose at me and told me it was a very difficult job and I should perhaps think of some other role if I wanted to work in theatre, like stage hand or props. I’ve never forgotten how crushed I felt. I went bright red and probably didn’t dare ask a question for weeks after. The injustice of what that man said really stung me, but it also made me very angry and I thought ‘I’m going to show you!’”
Countless directing credits and two BAFTAs later, it’s fair to say that she did just that.
Misbehaviour is available for digital download from 15 April, and The Third Day premieres on Sky Atlantic in May.
Philippa Lowthorpe’s top tips for aspiring young filmmakers
1. Watch lots of films and television drama, and documentaries. You can learn a lot by watching what other directors do. Choose a director you are interested in and watch a few of their films. See what shots they like using and how they use them.
2. If you have access to a mobile, you have the technology – make little films on your phones. Keep them short! 3 minutes max to start off with.
3. Be interested in people and the world around you – there are many ideas for films and stories that need telling right there.
4. Film making is a collaborative exercise. Get together with someone who likes writing, or have a go at writing a little short script yourself. Get your mates to star in your short film.
5. If you want to be a documentary maker, start with ideas close to home. Your family, your grandparents, your friends.
6. Be quietly determined and keep going.
For anyone wanting to make films I would say “go for it!” and “you can do it!”