Martina Hall obituary

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The film-maker Martina Hall, who has died aged 56 of oesophageal cancer, had a passion for the arts, history and music, and over her 30-year career made highly regarded documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4, Sky and international broadcasters. She relished the opportunities film-making gave her to explore a wide range of arts subjects – from women in punk to Alfred Hitchcock, from Leonard Cohen to Joseph Beuys.

The historian Simon Schama worked with her on his BBC series A History of Britain. The episode Victoria and Her Sisters (2002) examined high Victorian culture through the eyes of women, and he recalled being struck by her “brilliant creative gifts, worn modestly and lightly.

There were so many touches of genius – finding and filming a mini version of the iron and glass aesthetic of the Crystal Palace in a house in the Midlands – which she turned into a slice of 1851; gently but persistently persuading the notoriously resistant guardians of the Victoria mausoleum at Frogmore to let us film at the tombs.

All this needed hard work, absolute editorial grip, a perfect pitch with the musical score, and that extra something of magic dust which Martina had in cartloads.” They also collaborated on Burning Convictions (2000) about the history of the Reformation in the 16th century.

Martina had a special passion for exploring and celebrating the creative gifts of women. In 2014, she made the film Secret Knowledge: Zaha Hadid on Kasimir Malevich with the celebrated architect for the BBC, and, four years later, approached the artist Gillian Wearing to direct a documentary about George Eliot, Everything Is Connected, for the BBC’s Arena strand.

“Martina’s gentle persistence, enthusiasm and support won me over,” says Wearing. “She was both creative and a creative enabler, with an eye and ear for small details, an acute perfectionist.”

Martina was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and moved with her parents to Beckenham, south London, when she was seven. She was the only daughter of an English father, Robert Hall, an electrical engineer, and a German mother, Renate Brack, an executive researcher. Martina went to Sydenham high school and was the first member of her family to go to university.

After taking a degree in French and German at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, she trained as a journalist at City University. She joined the BBC in 1995 as a researcher in the history unit, and was on staff there for a decade before going freelance. She and I met at the BBC, and we first worked together in 1997 on a documentary that I directed about the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the Reputations series. Impressively well organised as an assistant producer and tenacious as an interviewer, Martina was also great fun to film with – never missing the chance to explore a foreign city and check out the music, theatre and art galleries on offer in any free time we had.

Her talents as a director blossomed at the BBC and she went on to make history documentaries on everything from the Aztecs to the Vikings and from Victorian prostitution to all aspects of the second world war, with presenters including Melvyn Bragg, Miranda Sawyer, Peter and Dan Snow, Alan Yentob, Dan Cruickshank and Tom Sutcliffe.

In 2008, Martina worked with the actor Penelope Keith on a witty film, The Fast Lady, profiling the motoring pioneer Dorothy Levitt. Penelope remembered her warmth and sense of humour, particularly when it came to filming a sequence in which the actor had to learn to drive a 1905 motor car.

In addition to her television documentaries, for BBC Radio 4 Martina collaborated with Rowan Pelling on a portrait of the erotic novelist Pauline Réage, The Vice Francaise (2009), and made an arts feature about the novelist Jack London in 2010.

As a series producer, she nurtured and supported less experienced directors. Wearing remembers that it was her “sensitivity and kindness that shone through, she was always caring about crew and cast”.

Martina and I worked together again in 2019-20 on an epic series on Iranian cinema history. She made five episodes bringing to light the neglected work of Iranian women film-makers, as well as exploring the on-screen representation of women and portrayal of marital relations, and these are currently being shown in Farsi via the satellite channel Iran International.

They were to be her last substantial work as a producer/director. She left unfinished an independently funded film about the veteran artist Liliane Lijn, a short version of which was commissioned by Leeds University.

In person Martina possessed great style, a mischievous sense of humour, and a great gift for friendship. The Iranian cinema series was structured in such a way that several directors had to use the same interviewees. Martina liked to tease us that she could not be expected to share as she had grown up an only child, but then she would generously offer up apposite soundbites we had overlooked that she had found reading through the reams of translated transcripts.

At the beginning of lockdown, she moved back to her childhood home in Beckenham to help out her widowed mother.

When Martina discovered that she had cancer, it was Renate who supported her daughter through her last months, and who survives her.

• Martina Hall, film-maker, born 11 October 1964; died 1 August 2021

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