Franny's directing career began in the primary school playground, aged 7, when she wrote and directed the play "Who Killed Mr Fisher?" based on the hit TV show of the day "Who Killed JR?". (Mr Fisher being the class teacher and first to his feet in the standing ovation that followed the premiere performance.) But triumph turned quickly to disaster with her next production, "Shambles the Wonder Cat", when, noticing that lead actresses get way more attention than Directors, she decided to replace best friend Sharon with herself in the coveted role of Shambles. Unfortunately this led to the second strike seen at North Ealing Primary School in the year 1979 - the first being a more traditional teachers' union action over pay - and a memorable protest involving 10 girls from class 5F marching in a circle round Franny chanting "Sharon is Shambles, Sharon is Shambles". Franny wasn't forgiven till the next school year, when she pinched some BBC headed paper from her dad's desk and convinced the headmaster to read out in Assembly a letter she'd written to herself from Jim'll Fix It saying that the girls' latest show - a full-scale production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Cats', with Sharon in the lead role, naturally - was to be performed on the real West End stage.
At the age of 11, Franny's dreams of becoming a farmer were shattered during a much-longed-for family holiday on a Welsh farm when her favourite cow, Piggy - the solitary brown cow in a herd of Fresians - was led away for slaughter after slipping and cutting her udder. The farmer explained that it wasn't economical to pay the vets' fee of £30 to sew up the 2 inch cut and that it made business sense for Piggy to become beef straight away. Franny and her sister Boo became vegetarians straight away. Several months later, Franny lost an argument with her Welsh granny about whether Christmas wrapping paper should be orgiastically ripped & discarded, or carefully unpicked and folded neatly for next year. Being unable to find any flaw in Granny's logic, Franny conceded defeat and became a lifelong environmentalist. Shortly after, her conversion was complete after she again failed to win an argument - this time with her mum who proposed letting a homeless man move into their house - and became annoyingly self-righteous on social justice issues as well.
Next came drumming. Franny spent most of her teenage years practising paradiddles until finally plucking up the courage to answer an ad in Melody Maker - "Vegetarian drummer wanted. Obsessive commitment, not necessarily skill." - which led to her playing every toilet in London with indie-pop band The Playthings. Sometimes on school nights. They split up three years and one album - 'Consumed' - later, whereby Franny moved straight onto the drum stool at Rough Trade favourites The Band of Holy Joy via a degree in Zoology and some jumping in front of whaling ships.
Holy Joy split up live on stage at The Garage, Islington, after a nasty incident involving Sean Hughes, a turban, a dress, the keyboard player, the lead singer and a large globule of saliva. So Franny headed to Tanzania to help map an endangered coral reef (which later achieved Marine Park status and would still be safe now if climate change hadn't crept in the back door). While in Africa, Franny spoke to her dad on the phone, who said "Have you heard of the trial where McDonald's have sued two campaigners. It's right up your street. Why don't you borrow my camera and make a film about it?".
Franny’s first documentary, McLibel (1997, 2005), told the inside story of the infamous McDonald’s libel trial. Filmed with no commission, no budget and a voluntary crew - including Ken Loach, who directed the courtroom reconstructions - it shot to notoriety after getting stopped by lawyers at first BBC1 and then Channel 4 on its first release in 1997. Eight years later - after the ‘McLibel Two’ had defeated the British government at the European Court of Human Rights - it was finally broadcast on BBC2, to excellent viewing figures (1 million at 10.30pm on Sunday) and fantastic reviews . It was then broadcast on TV in 15 countries - including Australia, Canada & America - and released on DVD worldwide. Cinema Libre distributors released it in American cinemas and DVD stores in Summer 2005 and Revelation followed in the UK in 2006. McLibel was nominated for (but never won) any number of awards, including the Grierson Documentary Award and the British Independent Film Awards. It was recently picked for the British Film Institute’s prestigious series, “Ten Documentaries Which Changed The World”.
When the McLibel crew were making their films, website and court cases they didn't for a moment think they'd have any impact on McDonald's. They just thought it was worth doing. Which made the resulting law changes , store closures and sea change in public awareness all the sweeter.
Franny’s second feature doc, Drowned Out (2002), followed an Indian family who chose to stay at home and drown rather than make way for the Narmada Dam. It too sold to TV round the world, was nominated for ‘Best Documentary’ at the British Independent Film Awards 2004 and was released theatrically in America and on DVD worldwide in 2006.
Franny's obsession with climate change, then called The Greenhouse Effect, started with her "Name and Shame" campaign at High School, which promised to reveal which teachers were driving to school rather than biking or walking - and to list which of their cars had catalytic converters (what were they again?). By the next day she'd forgotten all about it, but years later met a former teacher who said the campaign had terrified her to the extent that she had actually gone out and converted her car.
At university seven years later, Franny caused a fuss when her thesis "Is the Human Species Suicidal?" (which is pretty much the blueprint for The Age of Stupid) split the examining committee. One bod called it "the most original undergraduate work I've ever seen" but another riposted "Ms Armstrong is not the kind of person who walks out of the University of London with a First Class Degree". Thus ended Franny's academic career and respect for large institutions.
During the McLibel decade, Franny made two climate change films - Baked Alaska, about the ironies of drilling for oil in a place which is melting ten times faster than the rest of the world, and Going Under, about rising sea levels in the Pacfic. Sadly the latter was never finished as Franny got so spectacularly dumped while filming in Tuvalu she was never able to look at the footage again. (But she did later sell it to a BBC film about Tuvalu also made by a Director who got dumped while on the island. Good job it's disappearing eh?) The silver lining of the sorry experience was that Mark Lynas - who was promoted overnight from climate change colleague to Pillar of Support as they were sharing a single-roomed hut on a 1km island with no phone, internet or plane out for "at least a week" - wasn't so bad after all. Mark became the co-writer of The Age of Stupid.
With zero backing from the UK TV industry, Franny’s films have been seen by more than 53 million people. She has been working full-time on The Age of Stupid since December 2004.