Mad Passionate Dreams
MAD PASSIONATE DREAMS (1995)
I was now really curious about how I could make a film about what had taken the place of regular paid employment. I went to South Wales, the Rhonnda Valley which had once provided labour for the coal mines and created tight knit communities with a rich culture of brass bands, choirs and libraries and trade unions. Let’s not be sentimental, the work was dangerous, the last thing many men wanted was for their sons to follow them down the pit before they died young of emphysema . But these communities were self-policing and strong and nobody bothered locking their front doors.
I know this because during the 1884-1985 Miners Strike I was living in Oxford and our Miners Solidarity Campaign was twinned with Mardi, the last pit in the Rhondda. I went on demonstrations, collected money in buckets and drove pickets around.
Only ten years later I walked into Penrhys – the village next to Mardi. John my researcher and I had been warned never to set foot there. BBC Wales crews refused to film there because their equipment was smashed and they were beaten up if they ventured in but of course I couldn’t resist. We drove up the hill past two smouldering burnt out cars one misty evening and parked our little hire car outside the small row of shops.
John bought two rubber ducks and a suit for five pounds in the little charity shop and then we wandered into the tiny supermarket. I bumped into Larny Ward, not much older than me but with a face that was a map of the world, etched with laugh lines, sad lines, plenty of booze and a daily packet or two of cheap fags. I had recently lost a close friend to cancer and I was still very raw, Larny's husband had died a year earlier and I don’t know how we got onto talking about death in the aisle by the broken biscuits and tins of spaghetti but we soon both had tears streaming down our faces.
It turned out that Larny was the mother of Sammy and Timmy the two biggest gangsters on the estate and my friendship with her made us safe. Sammy the younger son, was handsome, clever and funny. He had exactly that combination of charm and menace you need to be a leader, “You need this”, he said tapping his temple, then making a menacing fist, “As well as this.” Sammy had love and hate tattooed on his knuckles. He also collected stamps – something I used in Tina Goes Shopping a few years later – an excellent way of stashing large sums of money. If you’re making money illegally you can’t bank it without questions being asked (unless you make billions in which case you can get away with it and even be rewarded with bonuses). Sammy specialised in flaws in 20th Century British stamps. He had a little room in which he kept his stamp collection, his geckos and the crickets he fed them with and for some reason a collection of teddie bears nailed to the ceiling by their ears. I vividly remember him delicately holding out a minute flimsy stamp with a flawed crown in his great big mits, the teddies dangling over his head and the crickets in full flow. I felt I was in some kind of mad dream.
Larny had a grey whippet called Tina who had a raised scar all around her head. It came from a badger baiting incident in which a badger had nearly bitten her head off and Sammy had stuck her head back together with Superglue. He explained it had been invented as a field medicine to stick injured soldiers together during the Vietnam War and that turned out to be absolutely true.
One evening Sammy said, “D’you want to see how we take the law into our own hands?” We were still researching and the crew had not arrived – these were the days when documentaries were on film and we didn’t shoot our own material. I said yes and Sammy and a couple of others fetched baseball bats and iron bars and I drove them outside a house and stayed in the car while they burst into a try house. Two minutes later they raced out again, very excited and keyed up. We went back to Sammy’s house, the guys were very hyped up, dripping blood on the kitchen floor. I got on my knees and wiped it with a J-cloth while they retold the story of what they had done to these heroin dealers. John was furious and things were never the same between us again. A couple of days later we saw the dealer on crutches. We used to see his partner, a skinny woman bashed about and covered in bruises. I felt very sorry for her but Larny grimaced, “She’s one of those women who likes a beating and then… Bed.”
There was another young woman, I’ve forgotten her name, who had a glass eye because boyfriend Sean who was known for being a pig to women had knocked one of her eyes out. They were still together. She told us a story about taking acid with her twelve year old son on his birthday then letting him drive her down the motorway at 100 miles an hour in a stolen car for a treat, both of them tripping. Everyone laughed. I blurted out, “I think that’s terrible” and everyone laughed. That was one of those what the fuck am I doing here moments. But these are people’s lives and we can live in a bubble if we want to.
Then there was Wendy who was the resident shoplifter. She would go around and take orders from her customers and head down the hill into the valley to pinch things. She’d set off with her pram, her baby and her little girl. I offered to take care of the baby but she explained that she needed the baby and the pram because that’s where she hid the stolen goods. She later became the model for Tina in Tina Goes Shopping and Sammy’s stamp collecting became Don’s hobby but I never found a place for Iggy the giant iguana who loved watching telly from his vivarium and would go nuts if anybody blocked his way scratching at the glass until they moved.
Life on Penrhys was harsh but it was also full of rambunctious ribaldry, people laughed a lot but nobody left their house unattended, not even with the door locked, not even Larny.
Things had really fallen apart in 10 short years since the miners strike. These tight knit communities had become lawless. My film was a sad one because I was only able to show what wasn’t there and nothing of what had replaced it. I didn't want anybody to get arrested by my truth telling because I didn't judge them for what they were doing. I judged the government that had destroyed people’s livelihoods, a political project about smashing organised labour and deregulating the economy without a thought for what might replace it. People in these communities have children very young and the idea of regular paid employment soon becomes a very distant memory. When I said to Sammy, “What do you think about the mines closing?” He laughed. “What mines?”
Two weeks ago a Pakistani taxi driver in Halifax, West Yorkshire told me he hated 'driving a bloody taxi.' I said if he could do anything at all in life what would he choose. "I'd like a job in a factory, with sick pay" was his heartbreakingly modest ambition.
The worst thing about this film is that there was something hollow at the centre of it. I couldn’t film what I was seeing without incriminating the people who had welcomed me into their lives. If you film a crime being committed that’s evidence that can be used in court. It’s surprising what people will let you film and irresponsible film shits happily stitch up the people who trust them. People sometimes say to me “How do you persuad people to let you film … whatever it is.” What happens is that you build up relationships with people and they often forget that it’s not just you the filmmaker who is going to see this film but lots of other people, including people they don’t know and potentially the police and other interested parties also. It’s our responsibility as filmmakers to resist the impulse to film something that will be potentially harmful to our contributors. If you're a undercover journalist filming a paedophile ring I can see why you’d do this but it’s not what I do. I am filming people on the edge who are surviving the best they can. I find I can tell some unsavoury truths as long as people recognise themselves and don't feel mocked.
I was trying to figure out how to tell the truth about what I was seeing without destroying people’s lives but I wasn’t there yet.
I only have a VHS of this film and will get it transferred and uploaded when I have time.