- Film & TV
- 25 Aug 21
Having worked on big budget projects with Ridley Scott and Guy Ritchie, Niamh Algar goes back to her indie roots with Censor, a whip-smart horror film that’s delighting cinephiles. Retro gore, dream roles, horse-riding, Stephen Graham and debutante director Prano Bailey-Bond are all on the agenda when she talks to Stuart Clark. Portrait: Joseph Seresin
As the very ex-members of Thee Amazing Colossal Men, Some Have Fins, Milburn and Joe Lean And The Jing Jang Jong will all attest, a “They’re going to be massive!” from me usually means that the recipients will soon be consigned to the dustbin of popular culture.
I was spot on, though, in 2017 when I said in my interview with Niamh Algar that here was more Best Irish Actor competition for Ruth Negga, Barry Keoghan, Stephen Rea, Jamie Dornan, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson, Saoirse Ronan et al.
On that occasion Niamh was promoting Without Name, a superior low budget Irish horror in which she was chased round a freezing cold Wicklow forest by evil nocturnal forces.
Fast-forward four years and the Mullingar thesp is promoting Censor, a superior low budget British horror in which she was chased round a freezing cold Leeds forest by evil nocturnal forces.
“Wicklow was fine because I was wearing big boots and a big jacket whereas in this I was running around in a bloodied nightdress and it was wet,” she says shivering at the memory. “We shot solidly for ten days and it rained for about nine of them.”
Proving yet again that it’s grim up North.
“It is but you can use that. The character is meant to be terrified and it’s easier to access those emotions when you’re cold and feeling really miserable.”
Freezing forests aside, Censor is a very different beast to Without Name with its multiple horror movies within a horror movie.
Niamh plays Enid Baines, an English film censor whose nonstop watching of ’80s video nasties doesn’t
particularly bother her until one replicates the mysterious disappearance of her sister.
By turns horrifying, thought provoking and darkly humorous, it’s a first feature-length run out for British writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond who’s since landed the film adaptation of Things We Lost In The Fire on the back of it.
“What I love about debut directors is that they can invent their own rules,” Niamh enthuses. “It’s them putting their own stamp on it. With an independent film especially, you have to bend rules and create new ones in order to make things work because you’re not dealing with massive budgets where you can do whatever you like. Prano is extraordinary in that respect. I’d compare Censor to Midsommar and Inheritance in that there’s a new wave of young filmmakers creating their own genre.”
The contrast between Algar’s previous acting gig and Censor could hardly have been greater.
“I went from working on HBO’s Raised By Wolves with Ridley Scott who’s one of the oldest active filmmakers to being part of Prano’s debut feature. The experiences were different but equally rewarding. The moment you tell yourself you know everything is the minute you stop learning. Ninety per cent of my job is listening and responding and Prano gave me such brilliant direction.”
Horror was considered an inferior art form but that’s all changed with not only Midsommar and Inheritance, but also The Empty Man, Get Out and pretty much everything M. Night Shymalan puts his name to.
“Horror now is just another way of enticing audiences in so that you can tell a story,” Niamh reflects. “I took this film because I fell in love with both the story and the character – I hadn’t seen a woman represented on screen like that. Enid is not someone who’s trying to be liked. She’s incredibly quirky and different but also it was educating me about video nasties and the freedom of expression battles they were part of. I thought what Prano did with the story was incredibly bold.”
It’s perhaps surprising that Bailey-Bond is a connoisseur of films like I Spit On Your Grave, Island Of Death and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which usually followed the ’70s/’80s video nasty template of male screenwriters subjecting female characters to sexualised violence. The female characters sometimes got to exact their revenge, true, but morality tales they were not.
“It’s interesting because our Director of Photography, Costume Designer and Production Designer were women too,” Niamh notes. “It’s the first time I’d been on a set where so many of the heads of department were female. Prano is a walking encyclopedia on both video nasties and censorship, so if I had questions about either of them I could go to her. I also consulted a film censor. She said that most of the time it was sitting in a screening room watching tomato sauce explode out of somebody’s chest, but every now and then you’d come across a piece of work that was either exploitative or, like Cannibal Holocaust, involved live animals being killed.”
With the mainstream movie industry frightened to rock the boat, it was video nasty-makers and their pornographer comrades-in-arms who took the Thatcher-era Morality Police on and won ushering in a new era of no holes/holds barred British TV and film-making.
“I wasn’t born when all that was going on so I had no idea about it,” she admits. “This idea that if people were to see violent content they’d go and commit the crimes depicted themselves.”
My counter-argument being, “If that’s true, why aren’t all film censors homicidal maniacs?”
“Yeah, absolutely,” she laughs. “I think what we see now surpasses any of the violence there was back then. Prano was very transparent and collaborative in relation to how she wanted Enid to be portrayed. We spent weeks developing the character together and figuring her out. Enid is held together like a tightly wound spring – you’re just waiting for her to snap.”
In a previous chinwag with Hot Press, Niamh admitted to having had the bejaysus scared out of her by Jaws, The Exorcist, The Shining and The Ring. That list has since been updated.
“I watched Human Centipede,” she winces. “That is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It made me so ill. Then you’re like, ‘Why did you do it to yourself?’ Everyone warns you but you can’t help it. My introduction to my horror was being eleven and wanting to watch the films my sisters and brothers were watching because they were 18’s. You’re like, ‘What am I missing out on?’”
It’s like a pal of mine who as a teenager only bought records that had a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker on them.
With all of its knowing references to other horror films, Censor has been warmly received by the cinephile brigade.
“I love how much love Prano is getting for it. It’s not just the cinephiles; people who perhaps wouldn’t have watched horror before are finding the film and Enid’s character is really resonating with them. It got such an amazing reception at Sundance, which is one of my favourite festivals – I’m always so excited wanting to go to it – but was sadly only virtual this year.”
Niamh is an example of a curious new phenomenon: actors quarantining so delighted to be talking to someone even
if it is a journalist.
“I’ve just come back from Cape Town in South Africa,” she explains. “Going out there was only a five-day quarantine so this is my first proper ‘you can’t leave the room for fourteen days! one in a quarantine hotel. I’m very lucky in that after the first hard lockdown I did a TV series called Deceit for six-months. It’s a Channel 4 drama which challenges the narrative around a real-life honeytrap operation.”
Talking of Channel 4 dramas, Niamh was rightly lauded for her portrayal of Dinah in The Virtues, which stole the 2019 edge of your seat television honours.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” she shoots back. “Shane Meadows was a director that I idolised when I was part of The Factory in Dublin with Shimmy Marcus and Maureen Hughes. We would take scenes from This Is England and act them out. To then be in a Shane Meadows production opposite Stephen Graham. Very few actors get that opportunity.”
I’m sure that Niamh always does her best, but you really have to up your game if you’re on camera with Stephen Graham.
“Yeah, he makes you. He’s one of the most generous actors in that he’ll give you everything you need in that scene. He’s incredibly present but also so kind. He rung me up yesterday just because he knew I was in a quarantine hotel and wanted to know how everything was going. He’s a true human being checking in with people. I think kindness is now being recognised as a main ingredient in this industry. If you’re kind you’ll get the best out of someone.”
It strikes me looking at The Virtues, Censor, Raised By Wolves, Deceit and her recent turn in Guy Ritchie’s Wrath Of Man that Algar is going out of her way not to be typecast.
“I want people to think, ‘What role is she suited to?’ and then presenting with something they haven’t seen before. Keep ‘em guessing!” Niamh admits with a sly grin before revealing her preferred next choice of genre.
“I would love to do a female-led western,” she gushes. “I grew up on horses. Every day after school I rode so I’m confident in the saddle. You could make an amazing western in Ireland. We have the landscape for it. Something like An Klondike.”
• Censor is open now in Irish cinemas and is also available on VOD platforms. See censormovie.com for details.
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