“The idea to produce a film on my father’s life had been in my mind for some time,” explained Jonathan. “As a producer, you are always looking for a good story and here, I had one right under my nose. There was naturally some concern. From my perspective it had to be good, because the last thing you want to do is make a bad film about your own parents.”
At 58, Cavendish is one of Britain’s most successful producers, perhaps best known for the hugely popular Bridget Jones films; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; and for founding Imaginarium Studios with actor/director Andy Serkis. It was relationships forged working on these projects with both Serkis and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson, that saw the beginnings of what would become Breathe.
“I had admired Bill’s [Nicholson] work for a long time. I asked Andy (Serkis) to direct the film and he agreed straight away. The last bit was to find the actors and this is both the easiest and most difficult thing, but when you find the right actors, the rest becomes easy.”
The film’s plot follows Robin and Diana’s life together from diagnosis with Polio to devoting their life to raising awareness of Polio at home and abroad. While humour is never far away, the film does not shy away from portraying the darker side of Polio. This is in part thanks to the skilful directing of Serkis and the honesty and sincerity at the film’s heart. When asked if it was hard to be so honest about a subject so close to home, Jonathan is in no doubt:
“There was this tremendous need to be honest, or really, what is the point in doing it?”
“It is an unusual subject matter and Andy, the actors and I all felt a responsibility to get it right. I think it helps that Andy and I both grew up with disability and therefore our treatment of the issues is based on personal experience. My father had Polio and was paralysed from the day I was born, so it was all I knew.”
Talk of family finally brought us on to a sensitive subject. Has his mum Diana seen the film – and what did she think? “Yes, my mum has seen it and thankfully, she likes it – absolutely loved it. Family and friends all agree that Claire (Foy) and Andrew (Garfield) are just amazing.”
“For me, Claire’s performance as mum is just brilliant; while Andrew is extraordinary as dad. Both Claire and Andrew spoke to us on how to get it right, but nobody wanted to see an impersonation. What we got is a great performance and from Andrew that perfectly encapsulates dad’s spirit.”
Robin has left a lasting legacy in the form of CS Disabled Holidays. The charity was set up in 2014 to provide holidays and respite breaks for people with severe disability due to neurological or neuromuscular disorders.
“It was dad’s firm belief that disability is disability but people must have quality of life and that breaks away, with or without a carer or family are critical,” explained Jonathan. “My mum, my wife and I are very much involved and offer grants to those in need of them – that would include members of The British Polio Fellowship too.”
“Dad was familiar with the work of The British Polio Fellowship and would be pleased I am now a Patron of the charity,” added Jonathan. “It is a surprise that 120,000 people are still affected by Polio in the UK. Mum and dad devoted their lives to raising awareness of Polio and I hope Breathe brings their lives and all those who have had Polio into the spotlight.”
Robin’s life is unquestionably a great story but is it a great film? On that score, Jonathan can breathe easy. It is visually stunning film, with talented actors delivering some of their best work, with fine directing by Serkis making his directorial debut. Serkis takes a superb and clearly well-researched screenplay by Nicholson and delivers a film that deftly avoids stereotypes and those who have been crying out for a more realistic and positive portrayal of life with disability will not be disappointed. View the trailer on YouTube.
You can read the full interview with British Polio Fellowship Patron, Jonathan Cavendish, in the Winter edition of the bulletin. the bulletin covers a vast range of topics, from clinical information on Polio and PPS to a lighthearted look at life in general. Members of The British Polio Fellowship receive a free copy of the magazine five times a year by post or email. To make sure you get your copy join British Polio now.