Jo Southwell on directing BBC’s ‘Doctors’ and bold, female-led films

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TV and film director and writer Jo Southwell has had a varied career. Born in the UK, she has Irish heritage, which has been an inspiration for much of her work. She started her film career as an actress in LA (via Leeds), and she ended up writing and directing for short films and popular TV shows including BBC’s ‘Doctors’. She’s now building on the foundations of her successful short film ‘Deirdre’ to turn it into a feature film. Jo told us more about her childhood dreams of the stage, her acting agency and why she’s passionate about portraying strong female protagonists.

How did you get into the film industry?

I still remember the overwhelming feeling when I was about nine years old, of wanting to be in the movies, to be on set, and not sure how it would ever happen. I went on to study theology and media in Leeds, which led to a work placement with YTV. By luck, I ended up working as an actress in LA, which ultimately led to my return to the UK. I set about writing, producing, directing and acting in my first short film, ‘Holding On’ (starring Gordon Kennedy). It won several awards and gained distribution with Shorts International; from the moment I was on set as a director and writer… I knew I was where I was meant to be!

What was your experience working on the BBC TV series ‘Doctors’?

In 2021 I was given my first opportunity by the BBC to direct broadcast TV, on their daytime series ‘Doctors’. I’d been working towards this for many years, shadowing other directors before being given my own episodes. It wasn’t easy, because the first three episodes were shot under full Covid protocol. Trying to meet the cast and crew of a very established series with a mask on was a challenge. With only 10 days to shoot three episodes, the schedule is full-on and there is little room for error. I loved every minute of the process and thankfully my producer was happy, which led to me returning to Birmingham earlier this year to direct another three episodes. I was also delighted that my first block launched the primetime trial of ‘Doctors’ at 7pm. The second block was very different; not only was I made to feel like part of the family, but some of the restrictions had been lifted and it made for a very happy set.

Photo credit Alex Harvey Brown

What have been your favourite projects to date?

Every project is different, but ultimately as a director I have to feel totally passionate about the story or concept to come on board. As a writer/director, my Irish short film ‘Deirdre’ was hugely successful and now lays the foundations for a feature film. My current slate is eclectic and covers both film and TV. At the heart of my work are interesting, flawed but brilliant female protagonists, who I want to bring to life on screen.

Photo credit Alex Harvey Brown

Can you tell us about your talent agency?

As a director passionate about finding talent, I soon discovered that my entrepreneurial skills crossed over to agenting. Aston Management now has two other agents who represent our clients across screen and theatre. We’ve proved that we can establish new talent and create opportunity in the West End, TV, film and new forms of media. We also support our writers and creatives by creating production opportunities. Established in 2008, we now work with over 60 clients in the UK, LA and Ireland. We are super-proud of all our clients and get such a buzz when they land that next role.

Any upcoming projects that you’re looking forward to?

Aston Productions has several exciting projects on the horizon – a TV series in active development based on a book option; my feature film ‘Deirdre’, which is at the financing stage; and we are in early development with a new book option by an exciting Irish author. In September I’ll be directing a very ambitious short film called ‘Echo’. Working with producer Sara Gibbings from Troy TV, we’re delighted to be shooting at Pinewood with director of photography Mike Valentine. ‘Echo’ was inspired by miscarriage, but ultimately deals with loss and closure. Our protagonist, Alice, delves into a secret, imaginative world where Echo exists. In the end, she must choose reality or Echo… As a TV director, I’m also looking for that next series to work on, as I believe it’s really important to direct other writers’ work as well as projects I’ve developed from conception.

Featured photo credit: Alex Harvey Brown