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Meet the Northern Ireland woman who brings you TV's star-studded Bafta red carpet night

Published 10/05/2016

Anne Morrison attends the House Of Fraser British Academy Television Awards 2016
Anne Morrison attends the House Of Fraser British Academy Television Awards 2016
Anne Morrison at the British Academy Television Awards; with Georgina Campbell and chairman of the Academy and presenter Dermot O’Leary
Anne Morrison, Stephen Fry and Sam Claflin last year
Outgoing Bafta chair Anne Morrison and the actress Amanda Abbington

Many people here will have watched Sunday's event without realising the organisation was run by Belfast woman Anne Morrison, who was among six trainees from 6,000 applicants selected for a BBC training programme and is now one of the most influential figures in UK broadcasting. She tells Dearbhail McDonald how TV was important growing up in the Troubles - because she was too afraid to go out.

In the wee small hours of Monday morning, one woman was still dancing at 3am when the lights came up following the British Academy Television Awards at London's Royal Festival Hall. By her own admission, that woman was Anne Morrison - the Belfast-born outgoing chair of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta).

Morrison is one of the UK and Ireland's most influential figures in the global entertainment and media market, the value of which is expected to reach just over $2 trillion by the end of this year.

Sipping Earl Grey tea at 195 Piccadilly - Bafta's headquarters in the heart of London's West End - Morrison breaks into one of her trademark peals of infectious laughter when she admits she loves the red carpet, the frocks and all the celebrity chaos that descends on London during Bafta's annual awards season.

"I'm superficial enough to enjoy that part of it," she explains, adding that she brings "a tremendous energy" to everything she does - including the disco dancing.

Morrison's self-deprecation is alluring, if deceptive. Holding forth with ease in the coveted members' bar at 195 Piccadilly, her witty quips are interspersed with serious observations on the charges of elitism, sexism and discrimination which plague the entertainment industry.

The outgoing Bafta chair, who says it is her mission to try and get the most talented people into the industry - rather than the most privileged or best connected - is under no illusions about the diversity challenges facing the creative sector.

"If you are doing well, I don't think there is anything better than the creative industries," she tells me. "It is completely absorbing, but let's face it, even if you are privileged, it is quite a hard industry to get into. The rewards are great, but there are risks and dangers, particularly on the diversity front."

As one of the few women to rise to the top of the entertainment industry (a recent survey of royalty payments by industry body Directors UK found that women directed only 8% of comedy and entertainment programmes and 13% of drama episodes on UK TV in the two years to the end of 2012), Morrison has faced her own diversity battles.

Resilient is an appropriate description of the former controller of documentaries and contemporary factual at the BBC. With responsibility for more than 1,000 staff and a budget of £120m for programmes, Morrison says the diversity issues were "enormous" when she first joined the-then "very male" broadcaster in 1981.

Along with diversity issues, she has endured personal obstacles too. She faced down an internal heave when the features and formats department she ran at the BBC was merged with documentaries, prompting some angry staff to sign a petition against the change.

You suspect that the petition, which she describes as happening in "a fairly tough time" - one that felt like a personal onslaught - still rankles at some level. But Morrison, who oversaw the dramatic growth of the BBC's regional output in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, was by then familiar with tough choices, having overseen successive rounds of redundancies as the independent TV sector made inroads to the hegemony once enjoyed by the national broadcaster.

Under her leadership of the factual TV production department, the BBC made programmes as diverse as Dunkirk, The Secret Policeman, Crimewatch, Rough Justice, Taking Liberties and The Queen's Golden Jubilee.

She also relaunched Top Gear - the broadcaster's former cash cow - long before lead presenter Jeremy Clarkson was dropped by the corporation after punching Irish producer Oisin Tymon in the face.

From being among six out of 6,000 applicants to be accepted onto a BBC trainee programme, Morrison's flair for developing new talent and taking calculated risks led to her taking on the role of director of the BBC Academy - the broadcaster's mammoth centre for training, housing its colleges of journalism, production, leadership and technology.

It was a role nurturing talent and relentlessly pursuing an agenda of diversity that in turn catapulted Morrison into the heart of Bafta, where she chaired its new talent committee - and the UK's creative economy.

And an interest in the sector is clearly something that runs in the family, with Anne's daughter Alice set to follow in her footsteps with a media career.

The UK's creative industries, from music and fashion to the arts and film, are worth £84.1bn to the British economy - of which £797m comes from Northern Ireland.

Morrison says the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was a major celebration of the sector.

A fascination with screens big and small are a thread that runs through the rich tapestry of Morrison's life.

She was born in Belfast and grew up during the Troubles, leaving Northern Ireland in 1978 aged 19.

That was the year when 12 people were killed and 23 badly injured when an incendiary bomb exploded at the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel in Belfast. It was also the year of dirty protests by republican prisoners in the Maze Prison.

"TV was important in my upbringing, because it was quite hard to go out," said Morrison, an only child who adored cinema and who read English literature at Churchill College, Cambridge.

"There weren't many bands who came to visit us. They were putting bombs in restaurants and cafes and bars - it was a time of random bombing - so TV was more important than it is to most people growing up. It was my medium - it was absolutely central".

During a gap year, Morrison obtained work experience at the BBC and Ulster Tatler, and also interned at Fortnight, the politics and culture magazine where she met her future husband Richard, who was then working as its assistant editor.

"It was a very productive year, everything from finding my future husband to finding my future employer," Anne laughs, adding that her continued success is due in large part to a decision by her husband to quit work entirely when their daughter was born.

Life is still busy for the 56-year-old. As well as chairing Bafta, Morrison is a governor of the University of the Arts London, a board member of London & Partners (the official promotional company for London) and a trustee of the Charleston Trust.

Like many high-profile people in the UK with Irish roots, she refuses to be drawn on her views on the forthcoming Brexit referendum. But she has recently teamed up with the Irish International Business Network - the London-based organisation that connects Irish entrepreneurs with global businesses - and she is passionate about the tourism and jobs potential on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Morrison, who chills out by watching box sets, says Ireland is enjoying a golden age in film and TV, with output including films Brooklyn and Room as well as TV dramas The Fall and, of course, Game Of Thrones.

"Game Of Thrones has had a giant impact on Northern Ireland's film and television industries. As of last year, the show has contributed an estimated £110m to its economy since it started," says Morrison, whose broad Belfast lilt has not been tempered by three decades of living across the water.

"By developing local talent, it has established Northern Ireland and indeed the whole of Ireland as a world-class location for film and TV production".

She lauds the "immense talent" here, noting that, unlike her, artists and producers are able to stay at home now and forge an international career as well as attracting jobs and tourism revenue.

"Ireland has always been a tremendous cultural centre," Anne says. "We haven't always been able to shout about it, but we can now."

As well as tax breaks, Morrison supports what she calls "intelligent" intervention to stimulate local businesses competing on the international stage. Diversity of financial investment is also required, she says, for producers to cope with the challenges posed by the massive disruption - through platforms such as Netflix and YouTube - that is blurring the lines between big studio feature films and TV dramas and short films.

"There is less of a difference now between film and high-end TV drama in terms of budget," says Morrison, noting that Amazon Studios earned its first nomination this year with the American TV series Transparent.

"The way audiences are consuming media is utterly different, across so many devices," she says, nodding sympathetically when I admit I watched an entire season of Netflix's House Of Cards on my mobile phone while waiting for broadband to be installed at home, before erupting into another one of her epic peals of laughter.

As for the future? It could be anything, including disco.

"You never know," says Morrison. "I wouldn't rule anything out."

Belfast Telegraph

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