Award-winning photographer and film-maker Richard Billingham talks to Shelley Carter about the tumultuous childhood that inspired his critically-acclaimed work
Photographer and film-maker Richard Billingham grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Cradley Heath in a chaotic family set-up which he has documented over the years through gritty photography that’s both moving and unsettling. He’s now immortalised his late parents Ray and Liz in a film of the same name.
The film about Richard’s childhood focuses on his parent’s relationship and their effects on him and his brother. The work won the annual £50,000 bursary as part of the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker award in association with the British Film Institute. The most significant bursary of its kind in the UK film industry, it’s designed to support the future careers of exceptional homegrown talent affording them financial stability and a chance to develop creatively.
More accolades followed at the British Independent Film Awards last month where Ray and Liz scooped two gongs with Richard taking the Douglas Hickox Award for best debut director with the film’s producer, Jacqui Davies, winning an award for Breakthrough Producer.
No stranger to recognition, Richard was the first recipient of the Deutsche Borse photography prize in 1997 and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001. He was part of Charles Saatchi’s YBA exhibition in the Nineties alongside Damien Hirst and his contemporaries and Richard’s work is held in collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the V&A and Tate Galleries.
Given his tough start in life, Richard’s success is extraordinary. Recently, social mobility feels like a buzz term that politicians bang on about in Parliament that means little. However, Richard’s stable adult life would have been thoroughly alien to his parents. He says: “I spent six years stacking shelves in Kwik Save. I fit into this world much more than that one. I have three children and I’m middle-aged. I look at my children. They have a nice life, clean pyjamas, go to good state schools and it makes me realise how different it is to my childhood.”
STRAIGHT AND NARROW
Richard’s route out of his troubled upbringing was art and nature. He explains: “I was always the best drawer at school. I’d look outside the school gate and remember the cars and houses and recreate them. I always wanted to be an artist.”
Aged 10, Richard got interested in nature but he didn’t have any money to catch the bus to go the countryside, so he’d walk. He remembers: “Art and an affinity with nature kept me on the straight and narrow. I liked school. I wanted to learn and I was fairly popular largely thanks to my mysterious drawing ability.” And were his parents supportive? “They were totally indifferent.”
Richard went on to study science A-Levels followed by a degree in painting, but quickly changed tack. “While studying, I took photos of my close family so I could paint them but I realised the photos were better than the paintings, so I switched courses.” Initially, Richard wanted to create a gallery installation about his father’s lifestyle. He explains: “It was about the tragedy of the situation. My father would lock himself away in the marital bedroom drinking strong home brew. He’d drink, sleep, drink some more. I wrote it and got funding.” Richard then wrote another piece centred on his uncle and planned a third about his mother. “I thought if I wrote another, I’d have a film in three loose parts.” Cue Ray and Liz.
HOME SWEET HOME
Produced by Jacqui Davies at Primitive and shot on location in the Midlands with funding from Arts Council Wales among other organisations, Ray and Liz has been well received by audiences. Unfolding in three parts, the film is uncomfortable and shocking, absorbing and moving in equal measure and as a first feature film a cracking introduction. We caught up with Richard on his return from the New York Film Festival where it was hailed a triumph. He modestly says: “People really liked it which was emotional.”
The British Film Institute bursary, which was presented by leading director Edgar Wright at a swanky award ceremony in London, will make a big difference to Richard’s life allowing him to focus on film and potentially give up the day job – he currently teaches fine art at the University of Gloucester. He says: “I’ve lots of ideas. Funding gets easier once you have a short gallery. No one’s going to give you £100k without seeing work. Perhaps that’s why most film-makers create short films first.”
Now based in Wales, Richard comes back to the Midlands a lot and despite his troubled upbringing, he’s fond of the region and believes where you’re born is important. He says: “It’s special in the way that wherever somebody grew up it’s special.”