Shakespeare on the Estate
SHAKESPEARE ON THE ESTATE (2004)
I was on contract at the BBC in Bristol when I was asked to make a film about how Shakespeare was taught in classrooms. At the time I thought this was boring and was determined to change it into something I wanted to do. I was determined to get out of school classrooms, out of theatres, away from all the hallowed spaces where high culture is supposed to live and breathe. I fought hard to make a film set on a council estate in which I would ask a prominent theatre director - Michael Bogdanov agreed to play - to introduce residents to Shakespeare and see if he could persuade them to engage with some Shakespearean texts. The film would have worked even if nobody had wanted to join in - I suppose it would have shown that dead white men have nothing to say to an impoverished and diverse inner city community.
Once I somehow – with support from Nick White who was my assistant at that time and now a director in his own right – persuaded the powers that be to agree to this proposal, I got very, very frightened. Peter Symes, a commissioning producer in Bristol came across me drifting around a corridor freaking out with my eyes on stalks and he scooped me up and took me out to dinner. I have never forgotten what he said. “If you do what they wanted you to do, at best it will be all right and at worst it will be all right. If you do this, at best it will be fantastic and at worst it will be a disaster.” It’s the best advice I have ever been given.
If you’re going to fail, fail well. Don’t go for all right. Doing things you are passionate about can be harrowing and confusing but it’s not boring.
I also started to really understand what happens when whole communities are thrown away.
One early evening I was outside the pub in Ladywood in Birmingham talking to Tommo, a young man who had refused to take part in the film. He explained that he knew I understood why he couldn’t take part but reassured me that he and his friends had prevented anybody from nicking our gear. I didn’t really understand why he couldn’t be in the film but I thanked him anyway. “You really like your job don’t you Penny?” “I do and I wish you had a job you loved.” “But I do love my job”, he said indignantly. “Oh? What is your job?” “I’m a thief!” I was surprised. “If you want anything from the shops Penny, just tell us what it is and we’ll pinch it for you for half the price.” He explained that they ran a shoplifting service to order and could get anybody anything. When I asked what was the most difficult thing they had ever been asked for he replied, “Someone wants a grandfather clock. We haven’t worked out how to get it yet but we will.” (This is the last line in Tina Goes Shopping which I made four years later.)
I suddenly realized why the bad boys were always coming back from town laden with shopping bags. I had wondered why they were so keen on shopping. There was a job lot of Romanian football shirts they kept trying to sell to no avail. It was World Cup time and the shoplifters had got confused and robbed the Romanian strip instead of the Irish one and they couldn’t give them away. When we were inside the pub people would drift in selling anything from bags of raw meat to stolen shoes or booze.
I remembered that on our first day in Ladyhood in Birmingham Nick and I sat in a pub and watched a family breeze in and blow all their giro money on a two hour binge. There was a husband, a downtrodden wife, a teenage boy and Wanda their daughter who started snogging her Dad when they got drunker and drunker. The publican said the family came in every other Tuesday when they got paid. I wondered how they survived until the next pay day. After the eyeopening conversation with Tomo, I slowly began to figure something out. Instead of imagining a post-industrial vacuum populated by victims I started piecing together a picture of a thriving marginal economy with an alternative system for keeping order. I started thinking about writing a drama about this but it was four years before I worked out how to do it and persuaded someone to fund it.
I began to realise that when industry is annihilated and with it all the low paid jobs that keep communities pacified what follows is not only poverty with all its associated health problems but also the emergence of a bawdy resistance where criminality, drug dealing, shoplifting and robbing replace work. They don't replace work. They are work.
The undeserving poor. I love them because they refuse to lie down and take it.
But more than that that I saw clearly that there was a treasure trove of talent in these communities where people are thrown away and treated like unwanted rubbish . People who live on the edge have to be constantly inventive and as I have been told many times, “Penny we have to act all the time. We act for the bailiffs, the police, social workers, debt collectors. Of course we can act!”
Andy Hamilton, a wonderful saxophone player who had hung out with Errol Flynn in Jamaica lived on the Ladyhood estate in a tiny council house with his Irish wife. When he arrived in Birmingham in the 50’s or 60’s none of the local jazz musicians would play with him because he was black. Take a breath to absorb that piece of stunningly asinine prejudice. So as a devout Anglican he recruited the pianist in the church and taught him to play some riffs. Sam had hands as big as dinner plates and a beautiful touch.
Around the time we arrived Andy was picked up by Virgin and in his late seventies he released two wonderful CD’s, Jamaica by Night and Silverlight. Andy worked in a factory all his life and played jazz in his spare time - I don't mean to suggest that everyone is criminalised just that it is a genuine option along with minimum wage labour.
People who had no interest in Shakespeare - Patsy who became our beautiful Juliet was initially convinced that Shakespeare was French – understood Elizabethan language perfectly. I remember the chills down my spine when Martin O’Brian delivered the Caliban speech from the Tempest, “This island’s mine, which thou takest from me”.
This film won some awards. I didn’t take it seriously at the time but awards can open doors by giving you visibility. I was slowly becoming a filmmaker out in the world despite not having been to film school and not knowing anybody important. It took me a while to realise that most of those in positions of power had been to the same universities - Oxford or Cambridge and then joined the BBC under the fast track TAPS scheme they rose through the ranks together. It’s normal for people to want to work with those they know and trust but it can leave the rest of us stranded.