TBB Talks to … BAFTA Breakthrough 2022 Finalist Alex Thomas

Alex Thomas’s start in documentaries was unorthodox, accidental even.

Having studied architecture at university, he was helping build a school in Columbia when he became fascinated with the local power dynamic between the cartels and extreme left-wing rebels and started documenting it. Impressed by his footage, Unicef contacted him to employ Alex to film other stories across South America, Africa and Asia.

Soon, he was working as a multimedia journalist for the likes of Save the Children, Amnesty, Associated Press and the Guardian and filming for the likes of Panorama, Dispatches and The Rap Game UK, among others. His first production commissioned for his own company, Milk First, was a much more personal project – Yorkshire Cop: Police, Racism and Me (2021) documented the life of his father, Bill, the first black police officer to serve in South Yorkshire.

Following this incredible personal work, Alex was headhunted to direct Britain’s Secret War Babies (2022) for Channel 4, released to critical acclaim from audience and industry alike. Alex was recently named in Broadcast Now’s Hot Shots 2022 list.

We spoke to Alex about making this year’s final 20 BAFTA Breakthrough list …

Alex Thomas Director | Photo Credit Sophia Spring

Please introduce yourself …

My name is Alex Thomas – Broadcast Hotshot (2022) – RTS nominated director and co-lead of new independent production company Milk First that tells stories that better reflect the diverse world we live in. Raised in a small Yorkshire mining town, I’ve lived on 4 different continents and now live in South East London.

Why and how did you get involved in Yorkshire Cop: Police, Racism and Me?

Yorkshire Cop is an authored film about my dad – Bill Thomas – the first black police officer in South Yorkshire. Dad was involved in some of the most momentous events of modern Britain but also overcame endemic racism in Britain to become a pillar of his adoptive mining town community. It’s also my story – driven by my narration as I try to discover dad’s motives for joining the police and his early experiences – something that he has always kept hidden from everyone, including my mum.

Britain’s ‘black experience’ is often confined to London’s inner city – I wanted to challenge that monolith and show that black people contribute to society across the UK, though it may not always be documented. Yorkshire Cop isn’t just a black story it is a British one that resonates equally with white working-class Britain who also rarely see themselves. It also tackles issues that not only affected Yorkshire but modern Britain – it just happens to have black a propagandist at the helm.

I won the commission through C4 First Cuts which was then backed by C4’s Indie Accelerator programme; and went on to develop, produce, direct and film it through Milk First. I was across all elements of the production from budgeting to selecting a majority diverse crew.

Tell us about the team you worked with – who was imperative to making your life easier whilst working on Yorkshire Cop: Police, Racism and Me?

This film was the first “60 commission for Milk First – a company I set up with good friend, broadcaster and Producer Ayo Akinwolre. Seventy-five per cent of my production team were from underrepresented groups – we had multiple neurodivergent members, first and second – generation immigrants, single parents and white working-class new entrants into TV. This was not just a tick-box exercise, I believe that innovation comes from diverse voices and minds rather than mirrored experiences. Yorkshire Cop was a springboard for the company to become the change I want to see in the industry.

What does Yorkshire Cop: Police, Racism and Me mean to you personally?

I’ve been in the industry for 11 years and worked across multiple highly acclaimed series but it was looking inwards with Yorkshire Cop that brought me to the attention of the industry and my peers. I received 5 stars reviews from The Guardian to The Daily Mail and now feel that I have a voice in the industry. More importantly, at a local level, it inspired change with a number of Yorkshire schools restructuring their curriculums to incorporate contemporary historical figures from diverse backgrounds like my dad.

My dad now speaks at multiple schools across the region and is the lead manager of the police-backed – Inspiring Youth Project that helps school children from diverse groups recognise their potential. Dad’s efforts in the community and police have now been recognised by the local councils with the recent erection of a number of plaques in dads local village and Sheffield city centre. It’s such a rare feat to be able to create a physical ode to my dad that my family can share.

Tell us a memorable moment from idea to final edit?

During the development process, I sourced hundreds of hours of unseen tapes from historic events my dad policed, in the hope that I may just catch a glimpse of him. One afternoon I was digitising a tape that a local miner had previously left buried in his attic when I came across an image of my dad front line and centre of the notorious Battle of Orgreave (Miners Strike) I instantly got goosebumps and a realisation my dad is a big part of UK’s modern history.

Share a skill-defining moment working on this project …

In the past, I’ve interviewed everyone from heads of states to cartel leaders but my dad – a stoic Yorkshireman who is used to being on the other side of the interrogation table is the trickiest to date! At first, dad was very guarded and spoke with assumed knowledge but through careful navigation sit-down interviews and informal conversations in actuality, I eventually worked out how to balance my dual role as a filmmaker, and son. It was particularly difficult to bring my dad physically and metaphorically to some very dark periods of his life and by joining him on camera at times I was able to offer an element of support whilst coaxing out his untold secrets.

What does being a BAFTA Breakthrough finalist mean to you?`

I received the news around two weeks ago and it still hasn’t hit home. I can’t quite quantify the scale of what this means to be recognised, championed and associated with the superpower that is BAFTA. This type of exposure and mentorship is just invaluable in an industry that is shaped around relationships and networks.

How are you hoping it will support your career?

I aspire to be a sought-after feature-length filmmaker known for telling award-worthy stories that better represent the world we live in through a warm and accessible way that reaches wider communities. I believe that being part of BAFTA Breakthrough with professional development led by the leading minds in the business will help me develop my burgeoning directorial voice and expose me and Milk First into the SVODS world of Netflix and Amazon and reach international audiences.

What’s next?

I’m currently deep in the edit with a BBC series I worked up with Afua Hirsch that showcases popular modern culture in Africa that is shaping culture in the UK and US. Milk First is also in development with ITV and BBC with two groundbreaking series expected to land in 2023.

Where can we watch / find your latest work?

The highly acclaimed Britain’s Secret War Babies is now available on 40D. Britain’s Secret War Babies follows presenter Sean Fletcher as he helps two children born to African American GI’s and British women embark on an emotional journey to discover who their fathers were and to learn more about their Black heritage.
And Yorkshire Cop is still on 40D for those of you who still haven’t seen it.

Read the rest of the BAFTA Breakthrough 2022 interviews here.


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