Director Nicky Illis dies aged 53

by 24britishtvApril 8, 2024, 3 p.m. 49
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Nicky Illis, the long-term director of Fake or Fortune, has died aged 53.

After studying at the University of Glasgow, she moved to London to work on The Late Show in the 1990s and by her early twenties she was directing history strands such as One Foot In The Past and The House Detectives, which used investigative skills to solve historical mysteries.

As part of the BBC’s Arts team in London in the 1990s and 2000s, Illis made several films for BBC1 strand Omnibus. Highlights included a film about the Harry Potter phenomenon, made to coincide with the first movie; a dreamlike episode about the enduring appeal of the novel The Great Gatsby that featured writers such as Jay McInerney and Hunter S. Thompson, who she filmed at his ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado; and a visually elegant film about Monet that analysed the commercialisation of the art world.

Other ambitious projects included drama doc The Real Jane Austen, presented by Anna Chancellor, and A Picture of Britain, David Dimbleby’s series on landscape and art, plus its successor How We Built Britain.

In 2009, Illis relocated to Bristol, where directing work on Antiques Roadshow led her to executive producer Simon Shaw and art expert Philip Mould, whose book Sleuth provided the inspiration for a new investigative art series.

A pilot of the new format was made about a picture that had been brought to the Roadshow and, with Illis driving the development, Fake or Fortune was born in a matter of weeks.

The first episode aired in 2011, combining rigorous research, scientific analysis, a peek behind the curtain at the inner workings of the art world and a controversial conclusion.

Over the course of ten series, Illis produced and directed a dozen episodes on artists including Turner, Constable, Vuillard, Henry Moore and William and Ben Nicholson.

Her episode about a picture attributed to Renoir attracted the show’s highest ever audience, almost 6 million viewers and her episode on Turner saw several of his paintings reinstated in the National Museum of Wales.

At the beginning of this year, during a brief respite from the cancer that would end her life, Illis directed a new episode with presenters Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce, with whom she had forged a strong friendship over many years working together.

Bruce said: “Nicky is simply irreplaceable. Not just for her huge talent but also for her sheer exuberance, enthusiasm and sense of fun. Everyone on the team loved her and none more than me.”

Illis is survived by her husband Seb and their children Luke and Eliza.

This article is based on an obituary written by BBC Studios

”Nicky and I first worked together in 2001 on the BBC series House Detectives, travelling to India to film the crumbling ruins of a house once occupied by Robert Clive. In the baking heat of Kolkata, I was privileged to see one of the best TV directors of their generation at work. Throughout her career, Nicky had an incredible drive and curiosity as well as visual flair – she always brought the best out of the cast and crew she worked with and inspired fierce loyalty in her teams. In 2012 we were reunited on the series Fake or Fortune and over the next decade we worked closely together as it grew into a hugely successful returning series. We were partners in art crime, united by our shared love of art, storytelling and the twists and turns of this addictive show. She was someone I respected immensely, not just as a director and peer but as an all-round good person, so kind and considerate, with a famous sense of humour. I can picture her coming into the office, coffee in one hand, a bag slung over her arm bulging with art books, ready to solve another mystery. It’s quieter now and we’ve lost a precious font of knowledge, a trailblazer and a great friend. She will be very much missed.”

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