Michael Houldey (M 58) 

20 February 2024

Michael Houldey, who has died aged 82, was a director whose documentaries for television ranged from portraits of film and music giants to insights on world issues that reflected his original ambition to become a foreign correspondent. Houldey’s early work put on screen the realities of daily life faced by those struggling in Britain. The first example of this was Ebbw Vale, an episode in the 1968 BBC series Anything Legal Considered, about two school-leavers on a gap year. In Houldey’s film, one worked in the steelworks, the other in a centre for people with learning difficulties. “I saw a side of life completely unlike anything I’d known in a secluded, white, middle-class background,” he said in a 2020 interview with the writer-director Sophie Robinson. Ebbw Vale was “dominated by the steelworks … a great monster billowing smoke all the time.” 

It was Jill Craigie, the pioneering documentary-maker and socialist, who had pointed Houldey to the south Wales industrial town – and parliamentary constituency of her husband, the future Labour leader Michael Foot – when Houldey was working as an assistant director on her film Who Are the Vandals? (1967), questioning whether the break-ins and graffiti on a Regent’s Park housing estate in London were the fault of the young people there or town planners, architects and politicians. 

 Houldey would return to serious subjects later, but had already started a period concentrating on making programmes about showbusiness legends. Among his episodes in the Faces of Paris series (1968), he saw the opportunity to get Brigitte Bardot on screen by persuading Eddy Matalon to agree to being filmed directing the French star in a TV special. Then, for the arts series Omnibus, Houldey made I Regret Nothing (1970), about the singer Edith Piaf. The penetrating portrait was a result of Houldey getting friends and colleagues, as well as her two husbands, doctor, nurse and an estranged half-brother, to talk. This ability to reach those who had been close to the big names was just as impressive when he directed Omnibus programmes on Humphrey Bogart (1971), securing an interview with the actor’s co-star and wife, Lauren Bacall; and Judy Garland (1972), talking to her daughter, Liza Minnelli, taking a dip in Mickey Rooney’s swimming pool and being told by Dirk Bogarde about his love for the Wizard of Oz star. 

Switching to ITV, Houldey travelled the world to direct episodes of Granada Television’s epic series The Christians (1977) and made Thames Television’s trilogy Only in America (1980), joining homicide detectives in the Bronx (“I saw enough bodies to last me a lifetime”) and taking a black family from Boston to their ancestral home in Alabama. For the 1981 Thames documentary, The Miami Drugs War, he was with police tackling heroin and cocaine trafficking. 

His ability to reach those who had been close to the big names was impressive. Back at the BBC, one of the films he directed for the 1989 Great Journeys series was The Ho Chi Minh Trail, following the celebrated Vietnam war photographer Philip Jones Griffiths on an emotional trip through the jungle landscape that had been the North Vietnamese Army’s main supply route south. 

 It was a long way from Penn, Buckinghamshire, where Michael was born to Irene (née Evans) and Gerald Houldey, who previously worked in Myanmar importing tea for the East India Company. After the Second World War, the family moved to Eversley, in Hampshire, where his parents ran a market garden. On leaving Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire, at 18, he travelled to Paris. Influenced by the country’s New Wave cinema, he ditched his journalism aspirations and performed in plays at the American Centre while studying languages. Returning to Britain, he popped up as a police officer in an episode of the 1961 TV thriller Flower of Evil before joining the BBC as a trainee film editor in 1963. He left two years later to work as a freelance researcher. 

As a director, his other documentaries included Alan Price: Between Today and Yesterday (1974), taking the musician back to his Jarrow roots, and Welcome to Birmingham (1983), visiting Martin Luther King’s prison cell with the writer Caryl Phillips, as well as an Omnibus programme on the Bolshoi Ballet (1986). The ITV company Central Independent Television gave Houldey the chance to make drama. In 1983, he directed the documentary Newlands, about disruptive pupils, and the fictionalised case history of ‘Belinda’, which ran under the umbrella title Troublemakers. 

Houldey’s skill at winning people’s trust helped him as a hands-on series producer for fly-on-the-wall programmes, including 1997 and 1998 editions of Children’s Hospital; Zoo (1999–2000); Giving Up for Good (2000), featuring alcoholics and nicotine addicts; Harrow: The School on the Hill (2001); four series of Airport (2001–04); Soldier Husband Daughter Dad (2005), following a Regiment’s tour of Iraq; and the second series of Trawlermen (2007). In the same capacity, he oversaw the 2004 series of Your Life in Their Hands, about the work of surgeons, which won a Royal Television Society award. He was later an executive producer of the Emmy-nominated 2014 Netflix documentary My Beautiful Broken Brain, directed by Robinson, about a woman learning to speak, read and write again following a stroke. 

In 1965, Houldey married Judith Shapeero; she died in 2017. He is survived by his partner, Monica Lee, and the children of his marriage, Dominic and Gemma. 

Michael Gerald Houldey, director and producer, born 19 November 1940, died 10 February 2023.

Courtesy of The Guardian