Her life story certainly reads like a movie script. Lady Elizabeth Anson, who died this past November at 79, was a cousin to Queen Elizabeth II and the doyenne of party planning who threw her first blue-blooded bash at the age of 19. She claimed to have invented the industry (take that, Carole Middleton). Indeed, her over five-decade career included throwing birthday parties for both Prince William (his 18th) and Margaret Thatcher (her 80th). Along the way, the aristocrat lost, she once claimed, nearly everything during the near collapse of Lloyd’s of London in the 1990s, a hoard of jewelry when robbers broke into her home and attacked her while she was watching TV, and a years-long lawsuit against Ivana Trump. Dubbed “the Battle of the Bouffants,” it involved a tussle over Anson’s claim that Trump had invited twice the agreed guest list for a party that included hot-air ballooning. Trump fired back that the bill was “ridiculous” for such a small get-together. The judge ruled in Trump’s favor.
So it’s fitting that Lady Elizabeth’s life is about to become a movie—though not one you can catch at a multiplex (whenever those reopen) or stream on Netflix. Rather, director Andrew Gemmell’s firm has been hired by her kin to make a bespoke biopic that chronicles her life and times for posterity—less a family album than a family film.
Indeed, that’s the name of the brand-new service Gemmell’s offering those like Anson—people who are both well heeled and well loved, and no longer with us. He’s allowing such families to commission a personal life story in documentary form. He’ll meet with the family to outline the narrative, and then dive into hours of in-person (or Zoom-based) interviews with family members and friends, teasing out fond recollections and memories.
“I want to find those anecdotes that exist within the family but get lost unless someone like me comes to chat with them about it—just a soft conversation, but gently prodding them to open up,” he tells Air mail.
Gemmell transforms this raw footage into a professional-grade film that’s equal parts Lawrence of Arabia and a prime-time Barbara Walters Special. The price varies but averages from around $27,000 to $50,000 for a comprehensive production. Location shoots can make it a six-figure sum.
Gemmell transforms this raw footage into a professional-grade film that’s equal parts Lawrence of Arabia and a prime-time Barbara Walters Special.
The 51-year-old Gemmell has spent the last 30 years as the go-to lensman for 1 percent events in Britain; his tight-lipped upper-crust discretion has earned him a blue-chip batch of assignments. Among them: the weddings of both Princess Eugenie and of her sister, Beatrice, who married in a socially distanced, scaled-back ceremony last summer. He also did Elton John’s bachelor party and a Beckham-family christening. Gemmell even spent an afternoon teaching Jay-Z how to shoot footage from a drone. The origin of this latest endeavor, though, was much less starry and more personal.
He was an avid amateur filmmaker as a teen, renting cameras near his home in West Sussex to shoot local golf tournaments. At 18, while Gemmell was traveling in Australia, his father sadly drowned. His mother bought the budding director his own video camera with part of the life-insurance settlement, and he never looked back. He started an event-filming business before he’d even graduated from college.
“Underlying it all, you know, was that the gift I’d received, the one that shaped my career, was as a result of my father’s death, but I never knew that much about him,” Gemmell says.
Indeed, all he had on video was a 10-second clip of his father walking and talking at a wedding—nothing noteworthy, he says, while still calling it “the most precious 10 seconds of footage I have.” To flesh out the hazy memories, he began shooting his own relatives, including his father’s brother—and so the idea for the family film was born.
“Everything about us is lost in three generations, but now it doesn’t have to be,” Gemmell adds. “In this day and age, it’s possible to record everything at such a high level and archive it—creating a way that family history isn’t lost to time.”
Certainly he’s unearthed some delicious tidbits while working on these family films. For example, take the woman who had been a wide-ranging heartbreaker in her prime, having both crushed Jeremy Corbyn’s hopes of a date when he met her in the Bahamas and apparently inspired Chris de Burgh to write his hit song “The Lady in Red” in her honor. He also hopes that subsequent generations will continue to update and expand the family films as the family tree grows, likening the potential to the career-spanning documentary series Up, from the late director Michael Apted, who chronicled the same group of people every seven years for almost six decades, beginning when they were children.
In Lady Elizabeth Anson’s case, her own story is more than enough to fill an hour or more. Gemmell is currently poring through footage of Gabriella and Freddie Windsor’s joint birthday party and other events she planned, as well as scheduling interviews with her family and longtime friends. Might the Queen make an exception to her rule of declining interview requests for her beloved, beleaguered cousin? Gemmell laughs, ever the embodiment of discretion.
“I can’t speak for certain, but I would be astounded”—much emphasis on that word, for sure—“if some members of the royal family wouldn’t like to be involved. She was very, very well regarded, and they will see this as a wonderful way of commemorating her.”
Mark Ellwood is a New York–based writer