Amanda Berry: Star role for a queen of screen

It's a bit like taking "a very deep breath", admits Amanda Berry. "I tell all the staff that they should enjoy their Christmas and New Year's holidays as much as they can because they know that, when they return, the pressure for the big event is on. Full throttle."

The "big event" is the annual Bafta Film Awards ceremony only a week or so before the Academy Awards Oscars in Los Angeles.

It was Amanda who shifted the date of the evening forward from April when she took charge at Bafta. It was a chance at the time – but it has paid off handsomely.

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It was not only the date she changed. When Amanda first arrived at the Piccadilly headquarters of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, its annual ceremony was pretty dull stuff and was only televised in the UK. Ms Berry's innovative plan worked so well that other countries wanted a part of this glamorous night out at the glummest time of the year and this time it will be screen in nearly 250 countries.

Amanda's career has included stints as a television producer, a researcher, a public relations guru and a theatrical agent.

When she hit Bafta, the membership was hovering just over the 2,000 mark.

Many of the young and up-and coming film and TV talents around took the view that the place was moribund. Many did not even consider it was worth joining.

According to one insider "there was a sort of cobwebby feel to the place. It was respected, but in the sort of way that you respect your great-uncle whom you only ever see once a year".

Amanda's get-up-and-go, no-nonsense, "new broom sweeps clean" attitude, changed all that.

Today, the membership of Bafta is at an all-time record of 6,500 and has been capped at that figure. Newcomers have to join a waiting list.

The Piccadilly headquarters have been revamped and revitalised and the academy mounts more events (many of them outside London) than ever before. The cobwebs have been blown away and there's a new sense of excitement about the organisation.

Talking to Amanda Berry is a bit one way. She has a Niagara of opinions and theories about everything. She is a powerhouse. Does she ever stop, you wonder?

"Not often", is the answer. "I take my holidays, like everyone else, and that's when I read the books I want to, but my hobbies and recreations are really very closely linked to my work. I enjoy watching films, I love watching TV. I've just come back from India, where my partner and I spent Christmas and New Year, and that was wonderful.

"A lot of sightseeing in places like Agra, and the Taj Mahal, and then a lot of R & R on the beaches. The year before, the entire family and some close friends took over some wonderful holiday cabins in North Yorkshire, and we had a great time there, as well.

"My mother Anita was with us that time. I link to ring the changes."

To see Amanda today, she looks every inch the in-control executive – warm, friendly and out-going. Beautifully dressed too. A few people remember the Amanda of almost 30 years ago, when she was a Business Studies student at Northumberland Polytechnic in Newcastle, and also taking in work experience at the promotions department of an evening newspaper in the city.

Is it correct that in those days she was the lass with the bright blue hair? "It's absolutely true", laughs Amanda, "I thought that I was very daring, completely outrageous – and I wanted to be noticed. Clearly, I was!"

She is an enthusiast for her home town of Richmond. "I was born in Darlington because that's where the maternity hospital happened to be. But after a few days, I was allowed home with mum, and Richmond has been home ever since.

"I wasn't a very strong little girl in those early years, and I have terrible attacks of asthma. I've often wondered if my love of TV and film was started by the fact that, during many a sleepless night, I was allowed into the living room in my sleeping bag, to lie on the settee, and to watch television late into the night.

"I can also – vividly – remember going to the long-vanished Zetland Cinema in Richmond. It can't have been very good for a child with asthma because it was very old, the ancient tip-up seats were very dusty, and there was many a time that I had to go and see the doctor after a trip to the movies. A couple of times I even ended up in hospital.

"I didn't have any clue at all about what I really wanted to do as a career. My late father ran the dry cleaner's in Richmond, and I certainly knew that I didn't want to take over from him. When he retired, it was sold out of the family, to a bigger chain.

"When I finally got to the Poly, I ended up working on the student newspaper and being on the campus entertainments committee. But there was never any big 'game plan'. I knew that I liked the entertainment and media industries, but what part I could play in them eluded me. That's why, I think, I've done so many things within the umbrella of the business.

"Today, when I'm interviewing someone for a position at Bafta, I am always more interested in people with a lot of experience and from different backgrounds and areas. I like people with good common sense, people who are reliable and who have energy."

She admits that when she left education, "the opportunities for young women were pretty limited. You could go into nursing, or the civil service, or into business. There really weren't that many more options. One of my misfortunes was that I was dreadful at maths. I must have been the despair of my careers advisor. But it is interesting where you end up in life, isn't it?"

She is a firm believer "of grabbing the opportunities that you are offered. But I also think that luck does come into it, and I have been – thank God – in the right place at the right time. I wouldn't offer advice to anyone, but I would say, 'Just do the best that you possibly can. Put 130 per cent effort into it'.

"My own glass is never half full – it is always overflowing. I was once told that lovely Scottish saying about 'What's for you won't go by you', which means that what's right for you, you will find, and I believe that there's a lot of truth in that."

A former Woman of the Year ("I was proud and honoured to get that award, but I never really think of myself as a 'woman' in that way, I think of myself as a 'person' who achieves") she says that the big Bafta ceremonies are just part of the overall operations of this not-for-profit organisation.

Her day can be varied. After this interview she was off to a meeting with the BBC. There was a lunch with a Government minister, a long committee meeting about sponsorship. Then, with the film awards coming up, there are movie screenings to sit through.

Amanda and her team work "incredibly closely – of course – with the film and TV industries". She does not, she insists "ever have the foggiest clue" about who or what will pick up their awards. "They are counted by our scrutineers and security is incredibly tight.

"On the awards night, the names that are read out are just as much a surprise to me as they are to the winners. People know that they are nominated – that's as far as it goes".

It isn't widely known that films can be entered for one of the awards up to one week before the ceremony. "It is as tight as that," she says.

On the night itself, things mostly work smoothly. "Only occasionally do we get a little glitch and more often than not it is something to do with the weather.

"On average, we seem to have a monsoon downpour every four years or so. But this is Britain, it is February, and it happens."

Away from Bafta, Amanda is a keenly enthusiastic supporter of the Station complex in Richmond. "It's a real community place – run by them and for them. It's the North Yorkshire volunteering thing. The Station has a real cultural identity of its own. I am intensely proud of my roots, you know."

How does she think that other people view her? "Well, I know that I am stubborn. But that's part of a strong streak of determination. I am pretty full-on, I suppose, and also relentless when I see something has to be done. I am also a perfectionist. Everyone else may say, 'That went brilliantly', but I always feel that we could have done it slightly differently – and better. My attitude is – good, but how can we top it?

"I hate complacency. And if there's something that I learned very early on, it's 'Never assume, never presume'. Check your facts over and over again. That has been invaluable."

Is there anything that she hasn't achieved? Well, says Amanda, there was an idea once that the QEII would moor on the Thames in the heart of London, "but after a lot of discussion and calculation we found that although it was feasible to get her to Greenwich, the tides at that time of year wouldn't allow her any further up river. A disappointment. But even to think about it shows you where our imaginations go."

She has a "little cottage in Suffolk" which doesn't get visited as often as she and her partner would like. "But when he and I get there, I feel my shoulders drop appreciably." She is also a big fan of the Blue Lion in East Witton in North Yorkshire, and she has a big family.

She thinks that 2009-10 "has been a pretty good year for film" and she was as eager to know who and what had been nominated for the Baftas, "just like millions of movie fans".

She looks at her watch. "I really do have to go to that meeting with the BBC", she says apologetically. With that and Miss Berry OBE, chief executive of Bafta, has left the building. All you can do is, well, catch your breath.

This year's Orange British Academy Film Awards are on Sunday, February 21. Over 6,000 Academy members vote in three rounds to decide the winners.