Beryl directs film, TV drama, documentary and comedy. In TV, as lead director, she’s helped develop and then direct many popular UK teens and kids’ series, for which she has been awarded five BAFTA’s, and four Int. Emmy nominations, most recently a BAFTA in 2018, for drama mini series Joe All Alone, for which she was also nominated as best director, and an Int. Emmy nomination in 2020. Beryl is also a very experienced drama series director, and has written and directed her own short films, and is currently working a feature documentary.
Beryl is based in London and Killyleagh, Northern Ireland where she has set up a production companies Strangford Pictures Ltd and Derryboye Films Ltd. She holds British and Irish citizenship.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I was born in London and grew up in Gravesend, Kent. I’m from a working-class background with no experience of education, culture, TV or film. My favourite subjects at school were art and politics. I originally wanted to study Fine Art and be an artist, but not an art teacher, which was the only way I could see of earning a living. I had a strong sense of social justice (still do), and thought of being an MP, criminal barrister or investigative journalist. I also spent a lot of time going to nightclubs, and have a love of fashion. I came across a media studies course at Westminster University which I thought mixed together my different interests. Once I got to direct there, I realised that was what I wanted to do. I was first interested in documentary and later drama.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I studied BA Media Studies at Westminster University, an MA in Film and Video at Central St Martins London University of the Arts, and an MA in Screenwriting at London College of Communication, each 10 years apart. I’ve found it quite useful to go back into education part-time to think and change direction a little.
I tried to get into the BBC in an TV intern position during my college vacations but got nowhere fast. So I wrote to 300 TV stations in the USA to see if they might want me there. It worked. I got a PBS internship one summer and the following summer a four-month (paid!) job at KQED San Francisco. I was still only 19. I thought this sort of initiative would really help me get on one of the BBC trainee schemes. I was interviewed, but they didn’t believe I’d had that experience because I was too young, and it wouldn’t happen in the UK. So when I first graduated I spent a couple of years largely unemployed. Then through a graphic designer friend I came across an advertising agency that wanted to set up a video company. I had made a campaign documentary just before this, and had my college film to show. I was funded to set up and run a company specialising in videos for the public sector, charities, trade unions and campaign groups. From age 22 I ran that company for eight years writing, producing and directing over 100 films, doing drama comedy and documentary. Also I directed a documentary and wrote and developed a comedy series for Channel 4. It meant I learned through my own experience of directing, rather than learning from anyone else. But I’d ended up running a company too with 6 full-time staff and a turnover I needed to keep going and grow each year.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
At the time I felt my accent didn’t help. I definitely didn’t see anyone like me. When I went to work in America people there thought my accent was posh, which I found hilarious. In retrospect I’m sure the fact I was a woman was also a major factor. The reason I didn’t think that at the time was my experience of working in TV in San Francisco was very different to here. My template was of on-screen diverse and black talent, and of black, of female, and of diverse technical crew. This didn’t inspire me at the time, as I thought it was normal, and I was entitled to a place in the industry. So I’ve never suffered from “imposter syndrome”.
Like many women directors I feel it is harder for us to get hired, and I think this got worse particularly after the 2008 financial crash when broadcasters became more risk adverse. Not that I think being a woman is any sort of risk. But some think that. Another obstacle is having what is called an eclectic CV. I have often moved sideways and have enjoyed working in film and in TV alongside each other. But this is seen by some producers as being unfocussed. Of course, what the CV shows are the opportunities you’ve been able to get. Another challenge has been becoming known for directing kids’ TV, and then not considered for other areas, because you are seen as solely a kids’ director.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I wrote and directed 10 short films where I have developed a voice and style. I learnt from some mistakes in my shorts. In TV series I have lead directed and developed, I have a strong visual style, but this is organic to the material. So these series can look quite different from each other. I also found the room to write and think within the two MA’s I studied part time, particularly my Screenwriting degree.
How did you get your first break?
By the time I was 30 I had no network inside film and TV, except for one person who was a script editor. That woman became a producer and gave me a break directing EastEnders. My second break was directing the comedy series that I had written for Channel 4, that now the BBC decided to do. I said they couldn’t have it unless I directed it. Also a break from a women producer. Again I didn’t see anything unusual in this, but I did start to notice how few women directors there were. This set me off on a path directing episodic series TV. Alongside this I made short films with money from organisations such as BFI. I started to write feature scripts and develop series that I would then go on and direct. A lot of my work since has been as lead director, particularly in children’s drama and comedy. My first two agents were also good friends and really believed in me and my talent. That really meant a lot to me and kept me going. Although I often felt like an outsider due to my unusual path into directing, I was always confident about my right to be there.
TV Credits: Brookside (1982), Eastenders (1992-1993), Capital Lives (1994), Spitting Image (1994), Casualty (1997), Holding The Baby (1997), My Dad’s A Boring Nerd (1997), Holby City (2001), Linda Green (2001), Girls in Love (2003), My Life As A Popat (2004), Uncle Dad (2006), All About Me (2007), Echo Beach (2008), Wild At Heart (2009), My Almost Famous Family (2009), Leonardo (2011), Life Stories (2012), Wizards vs. Aliens (2013), Secret Life Of Boys (2015-2017), Joe All Alone (2018), Free Rein (2019).
Film Credits: Seasons Greetings (1996), Snakeboy and Sandcastle (2002), Recession (2013).
Photograph: Carmen Valino