Uppercut Films is a small independent TV production company making observational documentaries for all the main UK broadcasters.
I joined Uppercut in 2007 because Chris and I shared the same vision,” said Christine Hall. “We’d known each other for 20-odd years at the BBC and wanted to have our own brand of public service broadcasting, making documentaries that made an impact and that celebrated people’s achievements in life. We had also just realised that we enjoyed being together as a couple so it was positive for us as well and two years later we were married.”
Award-winning Uppercut joint directors Chris Terrill and Christine Hall both left the BBC in 2004: Christine dreamed of opening a restaurant whilst Chris left to establish Uppercut Films.
Instead of the restaurant, Christine worked as a freelance producer / director making the first two series of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares for Channel 4, satisfying her need to get in the kitchen and realising it wasn’t as easy as she’d thought. Chris was working under the Uppercut Films umbrella but relying on larger production companies as co-producers to assist with budgeting, legal and health and safety issues. When Christine subsequently joined Uppercut she began to see the potential of getting the business firmly established as a small, efficiently run independent.
Chris and Christine’s first production together was a two-part series for Sky 1, following injured Royal Marines climbing Mount Everest. Chris, who has spent many years making films with the military, works as a one-man band directing, filming and recording sound for his films. As a trained anthropologist and an adventurer, this expedition with the Royal Marines was his idea of heaven. The programme, War Torn Warriors, was a success and commissions have been rolling in ever since.
“We set up the company without knowing much about how to run a business,” explained Christine. “How to handle money and balance the books was a bit of a mystery,” she continued, “and we sort of muddled along. I soon realised that Chris had little interest in
learning about business acumen and so, having had experience of managing film budgets, I made it my duty to find out as much as I could about running a small company, but it was a steep learning curve.”
“Christine and Chris had been using a smaller accounting firm for many years,” explained partner, Jeff Gitter. “They felt it was important to move on and up their game with a firm that knew and understood the TV industry. Christine was looking for a hands-on approach to alleviate the burden of money and accounting issues. Whilst all businesses need to make a profit, Uppercut’s prime focus is to do what they’re good at, which is to concentrate on making the best TV programmes possible.”
“Lubbock Fine does an outstanding job,” comments Christine. “For us it’s important to establish great working relationships with those we work alongside. We feel very comfortable with both Jeff and Neil Williams who understand our world and have put some really great systems in place. It’s now easy to track every company expense on simple software which takes the stress out of having to suddenly get all the figures together. These days, Lisa, our production coordinator, can do it at the press of a button, which is ideal.”
Partner Neil Williams added, “For Uppercut Films, it was important to streamline procedures. There was a good deal of work up-front to achieve what was needed but the end result is that we now need to spend less time on day to day ‘hand-holding’, which has resulted in better systems for them and lower fees from us. I’d like to find a client who wouldn’t think that was a result!”
Now largely relieved of the financial aspects of running their business, Chris and Christine have been able to concentrate on continuing to make great documentaries. In 2006 Chris made a highly successful series for ITV, Commando: On the Front Line, which followed new Royal Marines recruits through training and out to Afghanistan. To fully understand the process and to gain the young recruits’ respect, Chris completed the training alongside them and became the oldest man to win an honorary green beret at the age of 55.
Five years later, in 2011, they were commissioned by Channel 5 to make another series with the Royal Marines on deployment in Afghanistan. The result was Royal Marines: Mission Afghanistan, a series of six hour-long films that involved Chris spending two
six-week stints embedded with the troops on Afghanistan’s front line.
As his wife and business partner, Christine found this a scary proposition and had to think very carefully about all the potential hazards. Fortunately, through the original series, they had made a good friend of Paul Mattin, a former Major in the Royal Marines, and promptly snapped him up as a consultant. Paul sometimes joins Chris on location as his right hand man, and Christine feels confident knowing her husband is in safe hands.
Just as Mission Afghanistan was ‘in the can’, Uppercut began shooting Theatre of War, an incredible project that saw the Theatre
Royal Haymarket join forces with a group of injured soldiers to produce a play based on their experiences of war. There was no TV
commission when they started filming but Chris and Christine felt confident the broadcasters would be biting their hand off for this one – a ‘no-brainer’ they thought. As they followed through the rehearsal process with theatre director Stephen Rayne and writer Owen Sheers, the soldiers began to tell their stories and the play was starting to take shape but still no commission for the film was forthcoming.
Bankrolling the project themselves, they were still pretty sure someone would snap it up but the broadcasters said they were ‘Afghaned out’. With already small profit margins Uppercut had to weigh up whether to continue pumping money into the project or abandon it completely. The trouble was they were now deeply involved and to pull out would have been incredibly upsetting for the people taking part. In a last ditch attempt to secure funds, Chris appealed directly to Alan Yentob who he had known all those years ago at the BBC. Alan watched some of the footage and immediately saw the potential for a cracking 90-minute special to start his next series of Imagine. Whilst it hasn’t been their most profitable venture, it has been an extremely worthwhile labour of love. The play, The Two Worlds of Charlie F was a huge success and now, with Arts Council funding, it will open in Toronto next February before touring 15 locations in Britain, ending with a short run in London’s West End.
“We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved at Uppercut and if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work,” comments Christine. “Chris spends probably half the year in exotic, and usually dangerous, locations (he’s currently filming with a fishing community in Mauritania), and we’ve had to wait four years for our honeymoon but the films we make are not only appreciated by the audience they can also be life-changing for the people who take part, and for us that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”