Indie producer Peter Williams reveals the four year battle to get a moving doc aired by the BBC.

A Race Against Time, which airs on BBC2 later this month, is the story of quadriplegic Hilary Lister’s successful attempt to sail solo around the UK. But she completed her voyage in 2009 – so why, asked Broadcast, is it on air four years after the event? Answer: Because that’s how long the negotiations with the BBC lasted.

In 2009 that we took the idea of filming Hilary’s epic journey to the BBC. They were receptive and gave us £5K development money. The relationship between film-maker and subject is crucial, particularly when a vulnerable and courageous woman is putting her life on the line. We bedded into the process of planning the voyage and became part of “The Team”.

Hilary lives in Dunkirk in Kent between Canterbury and Faversham. Sheis now in her late thirties and is paralysed from the neck down. She is suffering from a degenerative disease that first manifested itself when she was 17.

Shecontrols the sails and steering of heryacht through tubes or straws which she sips or puffs. It is the only movement left to her, as her body has gradually shut down.
Ordinarily, she is confined to her sofa at home, able to move only when carers enable her to. It is, she says, her prison. She is in intense and continual pain, controlled only by drugs, and she has thought of suicide: “I have my get-out-of-jail tablets if I can’t take the pain any more.

“But when I am sailing, it is as if I am flying. And Iam in charge of my own body. It’s a special freedom.”

As Hilary was about to set sail, the BBC – as was their right – decided they didn’t want the film. Among the reasons: Hilary wasn’t a big enough character for BBC1. And she might die during the voyage.

I remember pointing out that neither was a good reason for not making the film.

Now a situation such as this leaves the independent producer with a profound dilemma: To go, or not to go. How much confidence do you have in your idea – and, in this case, how damaging to the project and to those involved, would it be to withdraw at one minute to midnight.

We decided to fund the filming ourselves and bought a campervan. Hilary’s journey took three months and three cameramen – George Pellett, Malcolm Berry and Justine Ingham – each filmed for a month.

They were part of The Team, their campervan part of the convoy of vehicles carrying the men and women that made Hilary’s solo journey possible.

Hilary, a biochemist with an Oxford degree and an accomplished musician, was a music scholar at both the Kings School, Canterbury, and at Northbourne Park School, Deal, and she met her husband, Clifford, through music.

On the face of it, her story is about sailing around the British coast. But it also embraces her daily fight to live and breathe; her current relationships; her past life as a talented musician and sportswoman;and her attitude to the disease that has struck her down.

Six times during the voyage, Hilary collapsed and was rushed to hospital. Six times, she decided to sail on. When the engine of the rescue boat failed, £9,000 had to be found and the challenge put a huge strain on Hilary’s tight-knit team. The voyage is a feat of skill and endurance that earned Hilary nomination as World Sailor of the Year in 2010.

As a company, we funded the film (around £60K) because we believed in the example Hilary was setting – work hard and you’ll win through.

The film’s post-production was helped by grants from a number of Kent-based trusts – the Crown Community Foundation, the Roger de Haan Charitable Trust, The Rooney Foundation and the Kent Community Foundation.

We kept the BBC aware of Hilary’s (and our) progress but despite months of negotiation, there was still no commission. So we edited her story into a feature-length documentary that’s now on limited release.

Charlotte Moore was kind enough to describe it as “a remarkable and beautifully made film” and BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow couldn’t have been more supportive. The BBC decided they would take it now, as an acquisition.

Our 75-minute film was edited down to 59 minutes, with the aid of an edit-producer, our music was completely changed, and that’s the film you’ll see on Sunday night.

The BBC and I agree on the most important aspect of this four-year exercise in negotiation: The film got made, and Hilary’s remarkable achievement is now out there.

For to be given access to anyone’s life is an enormous responsibility. Hilary Lister is indomitable. This is a film about the triumph of the human spirit. Her spirit.

Peter Williams’ documentary, A RACE AGAINST TIME, airs on on BBC2 on Sunday July 14 at 6.30pm.