Roll with it

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Hilary Bevan Jones is the hit film producer behind The Boat that Rocked, but she started out in teaching

Hilary Bevan Jones's first vivid memory of the big screen is of an under-age trip to the cinema with her boyfriend to see Psycho. He was so terrified that he ran out in the middle of the film and, in the mayhem, she ended up leaving the cinema later with somebody else's handbag. "So, my first memory of film is of the emotions that it can stir in you. And the after effect of those emotions," she reflects.

The experience did little to diminish her love of cinema, and she is now one of Britain's most respected film and TV producers, with her latest film, The Boat that Rocked, opening on April 1. But she did not go straight into the film industry: instead she began her working life in the classroom as a teacher.

Next month, Ms Bevan Jones will lead the first masterclass being held by the TES Film Academy, a new scheme aimed at helping teachers bring inspiration from cinema into the classroom.

Ms Bevan Jones taught art, maths and history for four years after graduating with a degree in psychology.

As a teacher, she incorporated visual techniques wherever possible in her lessons - something that has led her to appreciate the benefits of using film and other media in the classroom.

"I remember drawing cartoons on the board in history lessons to describe historical moments such as King Harold with an arrow in his eye.

"When teaching maths, I'd invent dramatic situations in betting shops to teach probability. So there was a bit of storytelling going on in the lessons," she says.

Although she loved the work, at the age of 27 she decided to give up her job and pursue a media career instead. "I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, but I still had an absolute yearning to get into this world," she says.

Teaching film or media wasn't an option as the subjects were generally not on the curriculum at the time. "And I wanted to make them rather than teach them," she adds.

After landing a three-month contract as a floor assistant at the BBC in 1979, she went on to work on programmes including Top of the Pops and Blackadder.

Her experience as a teacher has often been useful. "You don't need to have been a teacher to be a good film-maker, but it was a valuable experience," she says.

Being practised at marshalling unruly groups, for example, came in handy when she was working on The Legend of King Arthur, where her job included ensuring the actors were in the right place at the right time. "Wimbledon was on and I managed to lose all of the knights - they were watching the tennis and I had to find and co-ordinate them," she recalls.

"As a producer, your job from start to finish is to create the perfect blend of ingredients for your film - creating this perfect body of people and enabling them to do their best. As a teacher, you're hopefully enabling the pupils to achieve their best potential. So there's an absolute parallel there."

Another skill that teachers gain is to think on their feet and expect the unexpected. For Ms Bevan Jones this has been an important skill throughout her career, including when filming the first series of Blackadder on location, when writer Richard Curtis put a note under her door asking her to find him 20 black Jacob sheep for the following morning. "Producing is an ever changing multi-dimensional experience and so is teaching," she says.

"Teaching is interactive - you don't just sit with a group of finite sponges. It's the same with film-making. You might have to change tack mid-project. You could be out at sea filming a scene that's meant to have glorious sunshine - but it's raining and it's the only day you've got that actor. You have to think on your feet and find a way to tell the story differently. When teaching you have to think on your feet to inspire your class."

Her improvisational skills were frequently tested on her latest film, The Boat that Rocked, the highly-anticipated British comedy from Richard Curtis about a pirate radio station in the Sixties.

She and her crews spent a week on the boat used in the production to understand what it was like to be in a confined space for a long period. This experience was then fed into the film.

Again, Ms Bevan Jones sees a similarity between the types of preparation done for teaching and for film-making: "Preparation is key before hitting the ground with a massive juggernaut".

Her masterclass for the TES Film Academy is not her first educational project since moving into the film industry.

In 2006, she became the first woman to chair Bafta, which holds a range of events with pupils and teachers. She stresses that it is as important for pupils and teachers to get a video camera and have a go at film-making as it is to watch clips.

"Teaching how a production is made - and ideally making your own production - is creative, fulfilling and an invaluable lesson in teamwork," she says. "At Bafta's educational events, I have been struck by the large proportion of pupils who, at the start of the day, say they want to be in front of the camera - to be a star, or a celebrity. But once they have spent a day learning about other opportunities open to them in film, television and video games, they often discover alternative paths that they feel will suit them far more."

Film and other media have become widely recognised as having real potential to deliver complex information to pupils in a meaningful and accessible way.

Learning about war, for example, can seem infinitely more palatable for a history class of 14-year-olds if you show a classic war film to demonstrate key points and bring life to the subject.

For Ms Bevan Jones, the use of film as a tool for learning and a stimulus for discussion is invaluable. "Whether factual or fictional, a well-made film can provide a succinct starting point for many subjects. Film can, and should, be inspirational.

"Once people are inspired, they will want to learn more. Foreign language films, for example, can help not only with language but also with cultural observations."

While the culture and fashion of 1960s Britain may not seem so distant to some teachers, it will to today's pupils. Here The Boat that Rocked could come in handy, particularly with older media studies and history students.

Ms Bevan Jones stresses that it should not be seen as a source of reliable facts, as it wasn't intended as a documentary. Teachers who decide to use the film in class are likely to witness some interesting moral debates around law breaking, casual sex and the film's portrayal of women at the time.

"The film celebrates irreverence, but I would defend that because actually it's about freedom, freedom of speech, friendship and the freedom to listen to the music that you want to," she says. "I was rebellious in my youth, so I appreciate both sides."


The Film Academy is a new club set up by The TES and the charity Film Education to give teachers a unique insight into the world of cinema and the ways they can use clips and film-making techniques to liven up their lessons. Open exclusively to TES subscribers, it will provide:


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