The Five of Us
THE FIVE OF US (1998/9)
I don’t usually talk about this gentle film but it has a special place in my heart. I filmed it over a whole year while I was making Tina Goes Shopping. I made these two films over an eighteen month period and then over the next 18months I made Tina Takes a Break and The Wet House. Sometimes the universe throws you a bone.
How this happened was that Peter Dale, a fine documentary maker in his own right, was made head of documentaries at Channel 4 and he tried an experiment. He offered me and a couple of others a contract; we would be paid a yearly wage, all we had to do was offer our ideas to him first. He thought that if he took the pressure off us to be running after work we would be free to do our best creative work and that is what happened. I told him my idea about Tina Goes Shopping (making a drama and casting people playing fictional versions of themselves) and that I also wanted to make a film about flat share of adults with learning difficulties. I had attempted to get other commissioners interested in this idea also but they didn’t want to know.
With both the Wet House (more later) and the Five of Us I was making films nobody wanted about people they thought nobody wanted to look at. But they were wrong.
I spent time at Piper House – I specifically looked for somewhere that was well run so the film would be about the residents as people rather than abused victims. I visited most days for a month or two making sure that everyone understood that I was making a film about their lives. I was so cautious that the five residents took to rolling their eye and groaning, “Penny where the camera?” Luke had somewhat indistinct speech which was initially difficult for me to understand and I remember one day when he was trying to explain something to me and I couldn’t make it out. I suggested fetching one of the workers but Luke refused to allow it” “No, no Michael or Mary. You listen me.” And I listened and he patiently kept repeating things until I understood. That was very humbling. Often our embarrassment is to do with ourselves and not with others.
I think I had about twelve days filming, maybe fourteen and I returned about once a month. I knew I wanted to be there for Mary’s birthday, Luke’s mother (known as Mummy to all the residents) phoned to tell me his father had died and she was happy for me to speak to him about it and on Election day I knew that Luke, Mary and Jimmy all had strong views. But sometimes I just turned up and filmed ordinary life.
Over the year several things happened – there were the normal squabbles, jealousies and falling out and also a lot of fun and camaraderie. What interested me was that in so many ways the tensions in the house were the same as in any flat share. People get on each other’s nerves and resolve things in unexpected ways. And everyone gets a biscuit in the end.
Mary wore a special wig to her birthday party which blew the boys away. Luke’s dad died. I squirm a bit at my question: ‘How do you feel?” and his beautifully eloquent reply always brings tears to my eyes. Kwok – like my own cousin Patsy who has a learning disability in Argentina – was not told when his mother died. Nobody told Patsy and the truth gradually emerged after several months. Kwok was still confused about what had happened to his Mum and I love the way Jimmy folds his collar and tells him that his Mum was buried in Hong Kong when Kwok attempts to put flowers on a random grave.
Combining this film with the rawness of Tina Goes Shopping was perfect in many ways. I loved all of them but sometimes after a particularly rowdy visit to Leeds coming back to Piper House was like slipping into a warm bath.
I think most of these residential homes are being closed down. Just as with homeless people there is an obsession with forcing people to move on. As if everyone is capable of independent living–most of us find it hard enough without any disabilities. What’s wrong with looking after people by giving them a bit of support?
The last I heard the five had all been moved on. Mary refused to leave for a long time but eventually Kensington and Chelsea Council got their way.
This film was one of the Cutting Edge series and meant to air at 9pm. I was in the office preparing for The Death of Klinghoffer film when I got a call from Hilary Bell who was then in charge of the series. She inform med that there was an England world cup qualifier on at 9pm during the season and the schedulers had chosen my film to be shunted to midnight. I lost my temper. “Please go and tell the schedulers that I will alert the national press and bring a posse of people with Downs Syndrome to protest outside Channel 4 about discrimination. Why can’t we have a one single film over an entire year that shows people with disabilities in a prime time slot?” “Hmm”, said Hilary. “I’ll call you back.” She called back fifteen minutes later and confirmed that The Five of Us would be on at 9pm and some other poor sod got their film moved into the twilight zone. Those were the days when terrestrial television documentaries got millions of viewers and that film did really well.
Don’t censor yourself. If you decide to go somewhere then you have to go for it. Very often I see younger people hold back, worrying about hurting people’s feelings. And that’s just as bad as the awful mocking exploitative attitude of a lot of television.
What’s the difference? You can pick holes in this all day long but I think it’s to do with where your heart is.