Obituary: Roger Michell, director known for his box office success, Notting Hill

Death: September 22, 2021.

ROGER MICHELL, who died at the age of 65, was a film, television and theater director, best known for Notting Hill (1999).

The Richard Curtis-scripted romantic comedy reunited Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in a sparkling thread about a bookseller and an actress finding true love. The film drew on the very British optimism of its time and not only won a Bafta, but also became the biggest box office success of a British film.

It was one of many highlights for Michell, whose work on stage and on screen was marked by warmth, intelligence, and star-studded ensemble cast. It was also evident in his

Startup work as in Nothing Like A Dame (2018), a documentary that brought the ladies Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith together to talk about their lives and careers.

The film reflected Michell’s own theatrical roots. It was only after a change of regime at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was resident director for six years, left him somewhat on the sidelines, that he embarked on a course in three months for the directors of the BBC. It was designed to allow theater directors to work with cameras, and it has adapted well.

He made his small screen debut with a three-part miniseries, Downtown Lagos (1992) before overseeing the four-part adaptation of his novel, The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993) by Hanif Kureishi. Set largely in multiracial London, the series touched on the 1970s punk and theatrical scene that Michell and Kureishi were familiar with.

The two men had been contemporaries of the Royal Court Theater and then reworked together on The Mother (2003), Venus (2006) and The Weekend (2013). Michell also directed the video for David Bowie’s theme song on The Buddah Of Suburbia.

He directed Nick Dear’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion (1995), starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. It followed with My Night With Reg (1997), adapted by Kevin Elyot from his play about the London gay community in the 1980s. Michell had conducted the play at Royal Court and had taken it to the West End. Prior to Notting Hill, he directed Titanic Town (1998), which starred Julie Walters and Hinds in Mary Costello and Anne Devlin’s story of Belfast during the Troubles.

Despite his stint in cinema, he never left the theater and continued to direct the Royal National Theater, Almeida, Donmar and Hampstead Theater. He cast Andrew Lincoln and Bill Nighy in Joe Penhall’s play Blue / Orange (2000); oversaw a revival of Rope, by Patrick Hamilton, starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 2009; and directed his wife Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin in Consent (2017), by Nina Raine.

Throughout it all, he never imposed a director’s number on his work, but let it speak for itself through its actors. His empowering presence allowed his productions to breathe and there was an understated confidence in everything he produced.

Roger Harry Michell was born in Pretoria, South Africa, to Jillian (née Green) and HD Michell, a British diplomat. Michell also lived in Lebanon, Syria and Czechoslovakia before embarking on boarding school at Clifton College in Bristol. It was there that he began to write and direct short plays. He then studied at Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he immersed himself in student theater.

He won an award in Edinburgh for his Festival Fringe piece, Private Dick, co-written with Richard Maher. He then raced to Lyric Hammersmith and was transferred to the West End, where Robert Powell performed.

Michell joined the Brighton Actors Workshop before becoming Assistant Director at the Royal Court. He joined RSC in 1985, where his productions included Hamlet with Philip Franks in the title role. He has also directed plays by Nick Darke, Edward Bond and American playwright Richard Nelson.

Following the success of Notting Hill, his films include Changing Lanes (2002) starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L Jackson; The Mother (2003), with Anne Reid and Daniel Craig; Enduring Love (2004), adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel by Joe Penhall; and Venus (2006) with Peter O’Toole.

Michell was courted to direct the James Bond film which became Quantum Of Solace, but ultimately dropped out due to lack of a script. He then directed Morning Glory (2010), starring Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford, and directed Bill Murray as Franklin D Roosevelt in Hyde Park On Hudson (2012).

After The Weekend, Michell won his second Bafta for Peter Morgan’s two-part television drama The Lost Honor of Christopher Jefferies (2014), based on the true story of a retired teacher wrongly accused of murder . The fact that Jefferies taught Michell gave things a personal touch.

Michell then directed My Cousin Rachel (2017), his own adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel, starring Rachel Weisz. What turned out to be his last film, The Duke (2020), starred Dame Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent and premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The film is a fitting bookend for a successful career that has seen Michell steer clear of the limelight while still letting his impressive work shine.

He is survived by four children – Rosanna and Harry, his first wife, Kate Buffery; and Maggie and Nancy, his second wife, Anna Maxwell Martin.

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