In the winter of 2006, the town of Ipswich was rocked by a series of murders. In just over a week, the bodies of five sex workers were discovered, sparking a manhunt for the killer, who the press dubbed the ‘Suffolk Strangler’.

But, as well as kicking the authorities into action, these horrifying events sparked a fierce community spirit in Ipswich, inspiring locals who wanted to make a difference.

One morning, 60-year-old Frances Harper was listening to the radio in the bath when she heard a young sex worker called Louise being interviewed about life on the streets of Ipswich.

“It was the most horrendous time,” Frances explains. “The world’s press came to Ipswich. They were everywhere. And I thought, lots of people seem to be interviewing this young woman, but how is this helping?”

Motivated by a sudden burst of inspiration, Frances got out of the bath, began making some notes, and an idea for a project began to take form. She imagined an intimate documentary that would take viewers inside Louise’s life to help raise awareness about the experiences of women living on Ipswich’s streets – and maybe even serve as a platform to help Louise.

Up until this point in her life, Frances had had no filmmaking experience or even any prior desire to create a film. In her professional life, she was a private secretary and helped out with her husband’s building business. And, as she tells us, she hadn’t even wanted to take a camcorder on holiday with her family. But there was something about Louise’s story that provoked her imagination.

Frances says, “There was obviously something I picked up on. But where the idea to make a documentary came from, I don’t know. I’d recently read about a production company in a magazine, so I got in touch with them. They said, ‘Brilliant idea, but you haven’t even met her!’”

Undeterred, Frances decided to take matters into her own hands and went into town to buy a camera. “It was a tiny little thing, nothing special,” she explains. She also dropped off a letter to Louise’s solicitor, who she discovered in a newspaper report, hoping they’d pass it on to her. Not long afterwards, Louise called, and they arranged to meet in a cafe.

“We had a chat while two of her friends sort of stood in the background,” Frances says. “Afterwards, she said she’d do the documentary.”

“She probably didn’t realise it, but Louise taught me some very valuable lessons”

She probably didn’t realise it, but Louise taught me some very valuable lessons

In the weeks that followed, Frances spent lots of time with Louise, filming and interviewing her.

“We used to go around town, talking to people she knew on the streets. I never knew who I was meeting, but they were all fine with me because I was with Louise. I’d also take her shopping and to art galleries and afternoon tea, which she’d never done before.

“Gosh, I entered another world I knew nothing about. I would come home and be quite emotional because I thought, how can people live like this? I was so naive about her lifestyle.”

Frances says she would often put Louise up in B&Bs to save her the hardship of spending the night on the streets. “I used to ask the people running them to phone me if there was a problem,” she says. But after receiving calls from managers, she decided to speak to Louise.

“My camera was running, and I said, ‘What am I going to do? I’m running out of places to book you into.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’ll have to go back into my cupboard, won’t I, Frances?’

“So, because I was getting slightly frustrated, I turned to her and said, ‘Louise, how many people do you know who live in cupboards?’ And she said, ‘Actually Frances, quite a few.’

Frances continues, “I thought: you’re absolutely right. I haven’t got a clue about how some people live. She probably didn’t realise it, but Louise taught me some very valuable lessons. The time I spent with her changed my thinking and attitude. Now, I interact with people from all walks of life, have incredible conversations, and I try to see both sides of what I hear from people.”

Once Frances had enough footage, she put together a taster film which she showed to an editor at BBC East in Norwich, who decided to commission the project. It was released as a half-hour special on BBC One in February 2008 under the name Where Angels Fear to Tread.

“The commissioning editor saw it as a story about two women with different backgrounds,” Frances tells us. “So I ended up featuring in it and narrating it. The end result is funny and sad at times, and raises awareness – and I think that’s what a documentary is all about. I think it has all the elements of a good film.”

“I’m even more determined than ever”

With the release of Where Angels Fear to Tread, Frances’ filmmaking career was only just beginning. Next, she worked on a documentary with Sky about addiction called My Son, Drugs and Me, which was narrated by Davina McCall. After that, she produced a film about a factory in Yarmouth whose traditional Norfolk clothing became a hit in Japan.

Since then, she’s also made a film about the nearby seaside town of Southwold, which was shown in regional cinemas, alongside some commercial work.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Frances. As she explains, “Because my first project was commissioned straight away, I just thought that’s how it worked. But it’s not like that at all because now I’m still trying to get things made that I’ve been working on for years. It’s extremely challenging.”

One of these projects is a television series about women in horticulture. Over the past few years, Frances has filmed at spots like Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) library. The other is a documentary about protestors opposing a waste-to-energy plant, a campaign that Frances has followed for four years.

She says, “A few years ago, while I was working on these two projects – that I still haven’t got commissioned – I thought to myself: I’m going to give this up. I’m wasting my time. But then I had a pause and thought, they’re too good to be sitting on my desk. I’m going to have another go. And now I’m even more determined than ever.”

Now 76, Frances partly credits her perseverance to experience. “I think age brings a different perspective. Over the last 16 years, my confidence has built up. There have been lots of obstacles that I’ve had to overcome, and I don’t know whether just anyone could do that. But, more importantly, I’ve become extremely determined, and I certainly didn’t used to be like that.

“Now, it’s become a passion. It consumes my everyday life. If I’m sitting watching something on the television in the evening, I’ve got my laptop or phone out, and I’m researching something for my next project. I’ve even taught myself to edit videos, and I’m particularly interested in women’s issues and trying to give women a platform.”

“Documentary filmmaking has been extremely difficult, but I haven’t given up on it”

Documentary filmmaking has been extremely difficult, but I haven’t given up on it
Frances and her son, Martin

As well as getting her projects commissioned, Frances has another goal on her list. Inspired by her aunt, who she describes as a “trailblazer”, Frances is planning her first holiday abroad in years.

“I’ve always had this thing about travelling,” she says. “I’ve never wanted to go off here and there because it takes me out of my comfort zone. But this year, I’m travelling to Bergen in Norway to follow in my aunt’s footsteps. I’ve got a photograph of her standing beside a glacier there in 1928. Well, the glacier possibly isn’t even there now, but I’m going!”

As for anyone looking to follow in Frances’ footsteps and pursue a passion in later life, she has this to say…

“Just do it! I think people can overthink things. If I had thought too much about making my first film, I wouldn’t have done it. I may have done that about many other things in my life, but on this occasion, I thought, I’m going to do it. Documentary filmmaking has been extremely difficult, but I haven’t given up on it!”

You can find out more about Frances and her projects on her website here.

Are you thinking about pursuing a passion in later life? If so, what is it? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.