Film, television and theatre producer Eric Abraham is best known for producing the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award-winning film Kolya (Best Foreign Language Film 1996). Kolya is the story of an unlikely bond between a middle-aged isolated former concert cellist and the eponymous five year-old Russian boy who temporarily comes into his care – a world perhaps distant from the London Abraham has called home since 1976.
However, the fact that the film plays out against the dying moments of the Soviet system and the first sparks of the peaceful Velvet Revolution perhaps explain the uniquely personal appeal of the story for Abraham, who built his flourishing career in the top flight of arts journalism and entertainment in the UK only after assiduous persecution by the Apartheid security apparatus and his subsequent forced exile from South Africa.
Arriving in London in the mid-Seventies after his house arrest and banning in South Africa, Abraham put his human rights background to use at the BBC, eventually becoming a producer for Panorama and BBC radio correspondent.
At Panorama, he went on to produce many acclaimed television dramas including John le CarrÃ©’s A Murder of Quality starring Denholm Elliott and Glenda Jackson and the primetime crime series Dalziel & Pascoe starring Warren Clarke, which also screened in South Africa.
Turning his attention to more light-hearted fare (that still retains a serious moral message) Abraham produced Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, a highly acclaimed family film with major stars Jeremy Irons, Robbie Coltrane, Jimmy Nail and a host of other British talent.
Abraham’s extensive film career went on to include a long-term collaboration with Czech auteurs such as like JiÅ™Ã Menzel (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin) and with Kolya’s Jan SvÄ›rÃ¡k (Dark Blue World and Empties, which has been the biggest Czech box office hit in history, as well as 2010’s Kooky).
In English-language cinema, Abraham collaborated with Tim Roth on The War Zone, with Jez Butterworth on Mojo and Birthday Girl, on Nanni Moretti’s Quiet Chaos, and Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood.
In 2005, Abraham and his wife, Swedish philanthropist and anthropologist and Tetra Pak heiress Sigrid Rausing, founded Portobello Books – an investment of great artistic integrity at a time when the publishing industry in the developed world had already begun the contraction and consolidation that continues today. Later that year, Portobello acquired one of the most respected literary journals in the world, Granta, as well as its publishing arm, Granta Books.
That same year also marked Abraham’s West End debut, as a producer of Hugh Whitemore’s adaptation of Pirandello’s As You Desire Me starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins and directed by Jonathan Kent.
Abraham built on the success of As You Desire Me to produce his first solo West End production under Portobello’s new theatre division. Embers, based on the 1942 Hungarian novel that received critical attention when it was finally translated into English in the 2000s, was commissioned from playright Christopher Hampton, who adapted both Les Laisons dangereuses and Ian McEwan’s Atonement for the screen to great critical and commercial success; the play marked the end a twenty-year stage hiatus for Jeremy Irons, who Abraham had worked with on Danny, Champion of the World.
For all his international success, South Africa remains a part of Abraham’s life and work, and in 2006, he teamed up with Mark Dornford-May (of the Berlin Golden Bear-winning U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha) to set up a series of highly successful film and theatre projects designed to bring South African storytelling and performance to an international audience. The result, two Xhosa/English versions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (Ikrismas Kherol) totally reinvented two favourites of the Western canon, premiering at Cape Town’s Baxter and then at London’s Young Vic Theatre. Impempe Yomlingo, which featured township performers alongside established black South African talents, went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival 2008.
However, perhaps Abraham’s most lasting contribution to South African theatre was in his decision to establish a small (270-seat) yet world-class theatre in Cape Town that would be more receptive to new and experimental works, especially from historically marginalised voices, in the tradition of Fugard’s Å“uvre. To this end, he underwrote – and continues to support – a multi-million Rand project to convert an old textile warehouse and National Heritage-listed Gothic church into the Fugard Theatre. According to Abraham, â€œSouth Africa’s real wealth lies in the abundance of talent to be found in its people, from sport to culture,” said Abraham. â€œI commissioned The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town as a gesture of faith in this country and its potential to make a significant contribution to world culture. The transformational nature of theatre is well-documented and what we have here is an internationally track-recorded South African theatre company and a world class theatre. We intend to make both one of the main cultural landmarks of the Southern hemisphere”.
These words rang true within months of the theatre’s founding when it hosted Sir Ian McKellen in Sean Mathias’ acclaimed South African production of Waiting for Godot. Eric Abraham is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), and the European and Czech Film Academies. His experiences as a journalist and activist under apartheid in South Africa are documented in the radio documentary Betrayal.
SA Power 100 2013: Vincent Ebrahim
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