Margaret Williams obituary

<span>Margaret Williams in 2012. Her dance films were exquisitely composed and framed with an artist’s eye, planned with beautifully drawn storyboards.</span><span>Photograph: Stephanie Matthews</span>
Margaret Williams in 2012. Her dance films were exquisitely composed and framed with an artist’s eye, planned with beautifully drawn storyboards.Photograph: Stephanie Matthews

A“magician of the camera” with an extraordinary visual sense, Margaret Williams, who has died aged 73, was a pioneering director during the heyday of dance on television in the 1990s and early 2000s.

She brought experimental yet accessible contemporary dance to mainstream audiences on the BBC and Channel 4 in films such as Cross Channel (1992) – made with the choreographer Lea Anderson, on location between London and Calais – and Outside In (1994), with the groundbreaking inclusive dance company Candoco and the choreographer Victoria Marks.

Rather than simply filming the action, Williams captured dance in a way that could not exist on stage. Marks recalled Williams asking her to adapt movements to “pull the camera along”. “Immediately I understood the possibility of the camera not recording the movement, but choreography and film-making being intrinsically in conversation with each other,” she said.

Williams’s films were exquisitely composed and framed with an artist’s eye, planned with beautifully drawn storyboards – perhaps a legacy of her first job at the animation studio Hanna-Barbera in Hollywood – and laced with quirky humour, “a wonderful funny bone” as Marks put it. “Being reverent and irreverent at the same time.”

When a retrospective of Williams’s dance films was shown at the Wapping Project in 2007, Judith Mackrell in the Guardian praised her “strange and lovely eye for dance”. In the Times, Debra Craine noted: “Williams’s witty, dynamic style captures dance in ways that give it a new spin, transcending the limitations of the stage while staying true to its essence.”

For Channel 4, Williams directed the dance series Tights, Camera, Action in the 90s, and 4Dance the following decade. She worked with the leading choreographers and dancers BalletBoyz, Jonzi D, Wayne McGregor, Kenrick Sandy, Cathy Marston and the flamenco star Joaquin Cortès.

Williams was instrumental in getting dance seen on screen – “passionate and pushy for the art form” according to Anderson – but beyond dance she directed films, documentaries, multi-camera recordings and live cinema relays of music and theatre, including Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 2015), films for the director Katie Mitchell, and an ambitious performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach.

She collaborated with the composers Judith Weir and Errollyn Wallen and made the TV adaptation of Thomas Adès’s opera Powder Her Face (1999). Outside the arts, she made documentaries, including the series of films A Love Divided (1991) about couples kept apart by political forces, set in Belfast, Jerusalem, Johannesburg and Berlin.

Williams was born in Epping, Essex. Her father, William, an accountant, and mother, Norma (nee Timms), had moved there from Leeds after the second world war with Margaret’s older brother, Roy. Film was an early passion: first Snow White and Pinocchio, later Buster Keaton and the French New Wave, but she also loved music, from Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra to Jimi Hendrix, who she saw live at Chelmsford Corn Exchange.

At Woodford high school, a student art teacher encouraged Williams to go to art school. She studied painting and drawing at Loughton College, where she met and was influenced by Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, founders of the art collective and punk band Crass.

In 1971 Williams went to Los Angeles to work at Hanna-Barbera, where she painted backgrounds for The Flintstones. At parties in LA she met two of her idols, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Jones, and on hearing David Hockney was staying at a nearby hotel, rang up to his room to see if she could meet him. “Come on up.” he said.

She returned to the UK in 1973 to train in rostrum camera at the BBC, but left after two years, partly because as a rare woman in the department she was too often asked to make the tea. In 1975 she formed the production company Arbor with the director David Rowan and made award-winning arts documentaries. Her first film as a director was a documentary on street style for the BBC in 1982, and in 1995 she set up MJW Productions.

Williams’s significant work in dance began with Flesh and Blood (1990), with Anderson and her all-female company the Cholmondeleys. She later forged a fruitful working partnership with Marks, often working with non-professional dancers, such as in the films Mothers and Daughters (1994), the playful and compassionate Men (1997), featuring seven men in their seventies, and Veterans (2008), with soldiers in combat rehab.

On set, Williams was in her element: warm, lively, confidently in charge and full of positive spirit. There was an atmosphere of fellowship. When a scene in Men required the performers to remove layers of clothes before jumping into a river, Williams and Marks stripped down to their bathing suits too. It was while making Men, in Banff, Canada, that Williams met her partner, Stephanie Matthews, the film’s art director. After two years of a long-distance relationship, Matthews moved to London, where she worked in historic building conservation. The couple married in 2010.

Matthews described Williams as someone who was never bored, with an eye that was “hungry” – in the five years preceding the pandemic she taught a class at UCLA in the US called Seeing the Unseen. She would work 10 hours a day even when she was not in production, because the ideas never stopped.

Latterly she was developing drama scripts with the writer Nick Herrett and the playwright Neil Bartlett. Even after her diagnosis with glioblastoma (brain cancer) in 2020, she continued the creative habit, taking photographs of images that caught her eye in hospital.

Williams inspired others simply by being a rare female director in the 80s and 90s, but she also generously mentored young filmmakers, including the award-winning dance-film duo Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple. “Mags saw in our work something no one had ever seen before,” said Wright. “She gave us the confidence to take our work in dance film seriously, and to take dance film as an art form seriously. We carry around her encouragement to this day.”

She is survived by Stephanie and her brother Roy.

• Margaret Joy Williams, film director and producer, born 26 August 1950; died 14 April 2024