Laura and Harry Marshall

Doctor of Laws

Thursday 12 February at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor Peter Coates

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor

The Potala Palace, Tibet. Chernobyl, Ukraine. The Zambezi River. The Yassuni Biosphere Reserve, Ecuador.  The Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia. The Berkeley Estate, Gloucestershire. The old Biological Sciences building at this university. These are just some of the places, far and near, that feature in the productions of Icon Films.

Her Majesty The Queen. The Dalai Lama. Henry Kissinger. Iris Murdoch.

Rod Steiger. David Attenborough. Joanna Lumley. These are just a few of the people that Icon has filmed with.

King cobras. Tigers. Great white sharks. The Loch Ness Monster. The Yeti. The bones of the Buddha. Einstein’s Brain. Darwin’s diseases. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. These are just a handful of the subjects about which Icon has made films. Films that have landed Emmy, Grierson and Chris awards, as well as prizes at numerous film festivals. 

Icon is a leading light in the creative economy of Bristol, which houses the world’s greatest concentration of natural history filmmakers. And with us this afternoon are the Creative Director of Icon, Harry Marshall, and its Managing Director, Laura Marshall. Usually, on these occasions, there’s just one honorary graduand. In view of this highly unusual award of degrees to a husband and wife, I’ve been granted some extra time. I’ll take Harry and Laura in alphabetical order, until their lives and careers combine.

Harry was born in 1960 in Bangalore, India, where his mother, Nell, was the Bishop’s daughter. Travelling with his father to boarding school in the Hill Station of Ooty, Harry was taught how to catch the elephants they encountered. His father explained how, first, you look at the elephant through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Next, pick it up with tweezers. And, finally, pop it in a jam jar.  This was a remarkably prescient description of the principles of Harry’s future profession. For when you make a film, the subject must first be caught optically through a lens; then the image is arranged - with tweezers or some other editing system; and, finally, it’s displayed - in a collecting jar or, perhaps more effectively, on a TV screen.  

A formative influence on the young Harry was Hergé’s adventures of Tintin, the boy detective.  His favourite story was Tintin in Tibet (1960), in which Tintin rescued his friend, Chang Chong-Chen, from the Yeti after a plane crash.  The themes of remote places and high adventure – especially the Himalayas and semi-mythic beasts – have resurfaced again and again in Harry’s films and life.

Whereas India was colourful, hot and noisy, 1970s England was cold and grey. Harry was sent to a soul-shriveling prep school in Kent and the family moved to ultra-flat, Brussel-sprout growing country of Huntingdonshire. Harry completed his schooling in nearby Cambridge, before winning a scholarship to read English at Oxford.   

His first job was on ITV’s flagship arts programme, The South Bank Show. He worked as assistant to Melvyn Bragg, then at Border Television in Carlisle.Bragg, who’d recently become Chair at Border, told the aspiring TV researcher that he’d learn far more in Carlisle than as a small cog at London Weekend Television.  He was right, and Harry became programme developer for the newly created Channel 4 TV. While there, he devised a series called Revelations that featured the spiritual teacher Krishnamurti, the comedian Kenneth Williams, the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, and musician Yusuf Islam - the former Cat Stevens.

In 1985, he moved to Channel 4 in London as assistant youth commissioning editor. This is when he met Laura, who was working round the corner as assistant to Roger Graef, godfather of the observational documentary.  

Laura was born in 1961, in London.   Her mother, Perella, before marrying, worked in interior design and for the intelligence services. Laura’s father, Adrian House, had a long and distinguished career at Collins, where he became Head of General Publishing, working with authors such as P.L. Travers  (creator of Mary Poppins) and David Attenborough. He has also published a biography of Joy and George Adamson, of Born Free fame, and another one about St Francis of Assisi.  

After Kensington High School, Laura attended boarding school - at her own request. Sadly, Wycombe Abbey School turned out to be far less fun than the schools portrayed in the novels of Enid Blyton and Angela Brazil.  Instead of going to university, she went to France and joined the household of the renowned photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martine Franck as an au pair.  Cartier-Bresson, she tells me, was the first of many brilliant and difficult men she’s worked with.  

Back in the UK, she learned shorthand and typing. Armed with 60 words per minute, she worked with a host of companies, institutions and individuals, until working as production assistant for Roger Graef schooled her in the television industry. In 1985, as mentioned, her path and Harry’s converged. Soon after, she joined literary agents Murray and Gina Pollinger.  Gina was the doyenne of children’s literary fiction, representing talent such as Roald Dahl.   From the Pollingers, she learned how to negotiate a good deal and to retain maximum intellectual property.

In 1987, Harry persuaded her to move up to the Lake District, where he’d set up their first independent company. In a cottage next door to mountaineer Chris Bonnington, he produced their first series, Art, Faith and Vision, which included portraits of sculptress Elizabeth Frink and composer John Tavener. 

But the Lake District, however beautiful, was too isolated. They had to move closer to the action if business was to prosper.  Bristol called.  Not only was it Harry’s grandparents’ hometown; it boasted a thriving independent documentary film sector. In 1990, they set up Icon in the basement of their home on Kingsdown Parade - a brisk 10-minute walk from here.   Their first film was Queen of the Elephants, commissioned by the nascent Discovery Channel, based in Washington, DC. This was not just the first of many films on the wildlife and cultures of India, and the foundation of Icon’s reputation as a specialist in the Indian subcontinent. It was also its first US production.

Having outgrown the basement, Icon was often on the move, riding the roller-coaster of independent production with an eclectic output, which includes: The Royal Collection (a six-part history of the paintings in the Queen’s palaces); Quest for the True Cross; an observational documentary series on the MoD’s officer training college at Sandhurst; and seven seasons of the extreme fishing series River Monsters, which is Animal Planet’s best performing series ever.

Icon has also made hundreds of short films for the BBC’s primetime magazine series, The One Show.  In fact, we made one such film together, about the re-introduction of the great bustard, a very large bird, to Salisbury Plain military training estate.

Today, Icon is located on College Green, overlooking Bristol Cathedral, to which Harry’s grandfather retired as an honorary canon.  Bristol’s largest true independent filmmaker, and rated 21st in the UK by size and turnover, Icon has around 100 employees. These have included their three daughters, Tilly, Alice and Daisy. And Tilly, by the way, is a graduate of the University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

As suggested, the company and city enjoy a close relationship. As Laura explained recently in Realscreen magazine:  ‘Bristol is a city of travel and adventure (Cabot, Brunel, Concorde), dissenters and independents’. The Bristol spirit and Bristol fashion are the Icon spirit and Icon fashion.

Icon’s mission is to make profitable films it is proud of.   The company ethos is one of respect: respect for its colleagues, customers and content – also for our fragile and embattled natural environment.  Icon believes that if it supports people, through training and opportunity, to do their best work, then Icon will make great films and the company will thrive.   

The working relationship between couples is never easy - for them and their staff. But, after 28 years, Harry and Laura are still married, and Icon celebrates its quarter century this year. What’s their secret? Harry and Laura try to support each other; to complement rather than compete; to push each other to accomplish his or her best work; to help each other keep things in perspective; to protect one another and to boost each other’s confidence; and to commiserate and celebrate together. Still, of course, they argue quite a lot.

Icon also regularly makes films for charities, local and international, among them the Bristol Old Vic theatre, Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.  Laura and Harry also make a substantial civic contribution.  Laura has been a Board member of the Bristol Old Vic since 2008 and served as its Chair for two years.  A few years ago, she became a Member of the Society of Merchant Venturers – only the seventh female member in the Society’s long history.  The Bristol Evening Post reported that ‘Laura is a million miles away from the traditional view of the average Merchant Venturer’. Nonetheless, she fits squarely within the Society’s tradition of hard work, dedication to the community and entrepreneurship, both economic and social. In pursuit of a fairer Bristol, she became a governor of the Merchants’ Academy at Withywood, which is co-sponsored by the University – and whose exam results have risen spectacularly over the past five years. Laura is particularly proud to be on the team working to provide employability skills and bring the Academy’s students closer to the city’s employers. 

An even closer-to-home example of Icon’s community work is the link with my Department of History.  Icon is a longstanding and dedicated partner for our MA unit in Public History. Our students troop down Park Street to the heady learning atmosphere of a creative site. In the boardroom, Harry, Laura and other team members explain how ideas for content emerge and are transformed into a finished product. We also discuss commercial and intellectual challenges.

The students’ assignment is to produce a ‘treatment’ for a documentary, as if destined for a commissioning editor - someone who might not bother to read beyond the first paragraph if it doesn’t grab the attention. Making the switch from standard academic prose and ways of thinking can be a stiff challenge. Yet Harry always reads beyond the first paragraph. And he provides copious feedback, ranging from praise and encouragement to salutary doses of cold water, inquiring, on one memorable occasion: ‘who on earth is going to watch this programme?’ Work experience follows, and sometimes employment.

To get the flavour of this stimulating workplace, spend a few minutes browsing Icon’s website. I particularly recommend the guided tour by the unflappable office dog, Alphie – a small white terrier not unlike Tintin’s Snowy. If the Great Hall had AV equipment, I’d conclude with this unique, dog’s-eye perspective of Icon’s operations.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Harry and Laura Marshall as, respectively and equally, eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.  

Edit this page