All I Really Wanted To Do Was Direct

In the 1980s, Patrick's Mandie Fletcher became the sole female comedy director at the BBC. Here she shares some of her journey.

I was the first woman at the British Broadcasting Corporation to direct sitcoms. Back in 1982. Way, way before #MeToo. It was a solitary, confusing world I stepped into and one that was to mould me as a director and a woman.

Before I embark on what may become a “deranged-eyes-through-matted-hair” rant, I have to mention that there are many men in this industry who have supported me, enchanted me and made me laugh until I cried. Men who became long-lasting, lovely friends. You know who you are. I’m not talking about you.

Back in 1982, I was a fresh-faced, curly-haired young woman in dungarees and Converse sneakers who had directed theatre and joined the BBC on the bottom rung. I was just thrilled to be breathing that television air when a new Controller of BBC1 arrived and one of the first things he said was, “Where are all the women?” Well, they certainly weren’t in Comedy, because, well, everyone knew women just weren’t funny.

Wendy Craig (shot from the correct side) in Butterflies

All I really wanted to do was direct. As I was the only woman with any directing experience, I was thrown the bone of a couple of episodes of a long-running series called Butterflies, starring the biggest star in the Comedy firmament, Wendy Craig. I couldn’t believe I had been given the chance. I was so grateful. In between vomiting with fear, I was doing cartwheels down the corridors. On the first morning, I was to film her driving somewhere or other. We spent an hour loading the car, lighting the scene with a stand-in and setting up the shot. I was ready. No one could have been readier. I can see her now … sweeping down the steps of the makeup truck, her camel coat flowing behind her, looking like a benign Alan Rickman in Die Hard, only to arrive at my side and gaze at the camera, then at the car, before turning to me and saying, “Has no one told you? I can’t be shot from this side.” She turned on her heel and swept back to her caravan in a hail of A.D.s. Not for the last time, I thought, “This is going well …”

But all that was a piece of cake compared to what awaited me back at Television Centre. Sexism wasn’t rife, it was endemic. Also, I had been promoted over the heads of a lot of more deserving people, so it was always going to be a bumpy ride. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. There was an entire department of men dressed in blazers and slacks … and me. If I wore a short skirt, I was being provocative. If I wore baggy jeans, I was being disrespectful. I was woefully ill-equipped to deal with this. I was a scholarship girl from an all-girl’s school, and I must have been sick when they did the lesson on “How to Deal with Disappointed, Middle-aged Men.”

In the face of the BBC’s old guard, I was soon out of my depth. If producers propositioned me and I declined, I was castigated and humiliated in public. They would loudly sneer at my lack of knowledge and experience rather than try to help me. I was left lacking in self-esteem and desperate not to fail, feeling I had to be 10 times better than my male colleagues to be taken seriously. And God help me if I was propositioned and accepted, as it confirmed to people I had got the job “on my back.” Not only wrong, so wrong, but confirmation of their conservative sexual positions!

Mandie Fletcher with actor Tony Robinson on the set of Black Adder the Third

But I took it all and concentrated on the serious business of comedy. My very first six-episode sitcom was The Fainthearted Feminist, based on the book by Jill Tweedie, starring Lynn Redgrave. Suddenly I was working mainly with women and I started to relax and enjoy it. Then a male executive producer was installed to make sure we didn’t get “carried away.” He didn’t understand the material or why I had been employed. He would pick my work apart like a headmaster. I dreaded him turning up at rehearsal or on set, but I was supported by Lynn and all the other women on the show. Although inexperienced and panicky, I persevered. My first day on set was filming at a small supermarket in West London. Keen and terrified in equal measure, I arrived two hours early and got out of my car to be greeted by the gaffer, who asked if I was “makeup.”

Unbelievably, the Academy of Cable Excellence in Los Angeles mistook my inexperience for a fresh approach, and I won Best Comedy Director 1985. The BBC flew me over to the U.S. So certain was I that a male director would win, I tripped on my way up to the lectern, garbled a “thank you” and then walked off the stage in the wrong direction, compromising the production team’s extremely slick arrangements. When I returned home, a small BBC drinks party was held to celebrate the win, one of the hierarchies put his arm around me and announced to the room, “She’s quite good, this one. Do you think we can breed from her?” It was very funny, but I’d like to see him get away with it now.

I continued to direct comedy at the BBC for a few more years and was in demand. Female comedians were on the rise and some of the male directors weren’t too keen on taking on strong women – and perhaps coming off worse. I found a very nice niche, but I had changed. I had begun to keep myself to myself. I wore muted colors. I was passionate about the work, but I preferred to go home rather than attend wrap parties. It was just safer that way. Because I had distanced myself, I was now perceived as aloof. Even a little frightening. You know how sometimes you just can’t win?

Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Saunders and Mandie Fletcher on the set of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

When I left the BBC, I started a new chapter. I was no longer working with people who saw me as the young ingénue who’d come from nothing and been created by them. I was now an experienced comedy director in my own right – although it wasn’t all plain sailing. When I met with the CEO of an independent production company to explain I didn’t want to direct the second series of his sitcom because I had been offered a made-for-TV movie, he told me I was going to die a lonely, old woman! And when I wanted to leave a commercial production company to strike out on my own, the CEO bellowed at me, “And how the fuck do you think I’m going to educate my children?!” That floored me.

The atmosphere has changed so much now. When I am on set, I am surrounded by bright young women in every department. None of them have that haunted look I once wore, and if they do, I ask them to send the perpetrator to me and they watch while I rip their head off! On a particularly strenuous day on Ab Fab: The Movie when I had a scene to shoot with 10 supermodels, all with prior engagements to get to, the camera truck got stuck in traffic. As I flew past the sound mixing kit, trying desperately to work out my options, one of the boom swingers looked up from his sound magazine and advised me to calm down! I broke step and turned to look at him. His fellow co-workers took a sharp intake of breath – then silence fell. From the silence, the boom op paused for a moment before graciously apologizing and going to lie down for half an hour in the sound car. Oh, yes! There are huge bonuses to being older.

Mandie Fletcher during the filming of her latest film, Patrick

I’ve had a wonderful career, though, and only now feel I am getting into my stride. I have made two features in the last three years, and this summer I will direct a romantic comedy I have written. #MeToo is in full swing. A lot of women directors have made one film, but the reality is that very few ever make a second. Through Women in Film and Television, I am mentoring young female directors, as well as taking on director’s assistants with ambitions to write and direct their own films. Only one of them has a family. Thirty-five years on from when I started in this business, women still find it hard to square career and children. That’s when we will be making headway: when we make filmmaking family-friendly.

Celebrated director Mandie Fletcher‘s new film, Patrick, a canine comedy starring Beattie Edmondson and Ed Skrein, is in select theaters and on VOD from February 14 through Screen Media. Most recently, she directed Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous – The Movie, and her previous films are Deadly Advice, Born Kicking and Shalom Joan Collins. Mandie is the winner of two ACE awards as Best Comedy Director for Blackadder and The Fainthearted Feminist. She also directed the BAFTA-nominated series Only Fools and Horses, Hamish Macbeth and Blackadder II. She was named Director of the Year 2011 by Women in TV and Film and her other television work includes Miranda and Absolutely Fabulous. She is currently attached as writer-director on Pants on Fire, a romantic comedy for Irregular Features Ltd, and as director on Torrential Sunshine for Gilliesworks/Piccadilly Pictures.