The Wet House
THE WET HOUSE (2000)
I hate walking past homeless people on the street as most of us do. I feel embarrassed, ashamed and helpless. So I decided to close the distance between us, look people in the eye and have them look in mine. Initially my idea was to make a documentary about rough sleepers (which I did 10 years later – see On the Streets). My assistant Rachel Das and I did wander around the streets and parks for a couple of weeks and I can’t remember how we heard about Providence Row, a wet house in Bethnal Green. A wet house is a hostel that does not require residents to stop drinking, offering safe accommodation and meals to those who can’t or won’t stop. Most of the residents at Providence Row were fragile and would have died quickly if they were left outside but there is a school of thought that by allowing the residents to drink all day they will die sooner than if they are on the streets. I don’t know what the answer is.
Our first visit was unforgettable. Rachel and I were taken towards to the main communal area but as we approached the door a tall skinny man with badly fitting false teeth and a crooked toupee – we later knew him as Willy the Wig - staggered up to the doorway declaimed, “Bah bah bah bah bah,” as his trousers dropped down to his ankles.
Willy lurched off and we emerged into the large communal room to see Jimmy unsuccessfully trying to stand up, Belfast Tommy yelling abuse, Jamie Blue sucking at her blue glue bag with her sweet face and doleful eyes and Michael Chandler a man with a hideously charred face and hands burnt to black claws stumbled up gently took my hand. His nose was dribbling. I can’t remember anything he said because I was in shock. I looked to one side and saw Rachel frozen, staring into space next to me.
A residents meeting was called a few days later to see whether in principle they were interested in being filmed.
Chairs had been laid out in rows for about thirty residents. I had prepared a speech but with the men yelling at each other and falling off their chairs I stuffed it in my pocket and kept it simple. “I would like to make a film about you for Channel 4. If you don’t want to be in it I promise not to film you. Rachel and I want to spend some time getting to know you first. Does anybody have any questions?” There was a rumble of agreement and Rob’s hand shot up with a question. He stood up. “Yes I have a question. I like the cunt and not the arse!” There was a wave of disapproval and demands that he sit down. “But I do!” Rob protested but sat down. There was a unanimous show of hands and we were on.
We spent the next two months at the Wet House, getting to know people and making sure they understood what we were doing while Providence Row went through a lengthy process to see whether they would give us official permission to film. The a challenge was getting informed consent from people who were always paralytically drunk.
Rachel and I took the Central Line to Bethnal Green every day and then a five minute walk up the road. By the time we caught the tube in the evening we could clear a tube carriage, even at rush hour. The chairs that lined the big room where we spent most of our time had soft cushioned seats that soaked up piss. We’d sit down and slowly our trousers would get damp and then very wet. People who are very, very drunk tend to fall over a lot which means they have no front teeth and that means they spit a lot when they speak. And there’s a lot of snot flying around too. Personal hygiene is not high up the list of anybody’s priorities. So by the end of every day Rachel and I were liberally coated in spit and snot and reeking of piss . I remember saying to Rachel early on, “I must tell you that you stink.” “So do you”, she retorted. At the beginning we had to overcome our instinct to recoil but as time went on we both moved through those scarred, injured faces into a recognition of our common humanity. I looked forward to going in every day.
Our standards dropped. In the tube one night I asked Rachel, “What’s that green line on your fleece?” “Nothing, Willy the Wig licked my back”, she said airily. I nodded and we continued talking about something else. Others were not so understanding. When I visited my son I was banished straight into the garden and not allowed to hold the baby. So I’d go home, straight into the bathroom, drop my clothes and stepped into the shower.
I loved my two months at the Wet House and formed close relationships. Michael Chandler was a lovely man – his story is in the film so I won’t tell it here but he was haunted by a set of photographs. Jamie Blue the glue sniffer was destroyed by her habit but there was a sweetness about her that was irresistible. Uncle Tony, the Brickie, Belfast Tommy and Carpark George all live on inside me and in the film. They are all dead now. We left Annette on a high note, sober and shiny but years later I was told that when she watched the film she fell off the wagon, went back to the booze and died. I had made a special extra filming trip to film Annette clean when the film was almost edited so she could be proud of seeing the change she had achieved. If it was the film that destroyed her, what was it about seeing herself as chaotic as she had been that drew her back? There is a stone in my heart. And Annette is dead.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I thought I had been careful and fair.
As I said the issue of how to secure informed agreement from people who were paralytically drunk was crucial and I trusted that people were capable of making that decision. We spoke to people individually and eventually I decided to ask everyone to sign a release form – something I rarely do as when you film over a long period consent is clearly implied. But I wanted to be sure that the residents thought about it properly. I explained that although they might not care whether strangers saw them on television their families, children or brothers and sisters might see the film and be shocked to see the state they were in. I remember Big Sean replying, “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a tramp and I don’t care who knows it.” We learnt that his sister really wanted him to move in with her but he wanted to be free to keep drinking Tenants Super with his friends. A few weeks later Sean turned bright yellow and died while we were still filming.
A couple of men were clear they didn’t want to feature from the start and we made sure that we continued socializing with them. But Jock, a former soldier, had a think after signing his form and said he had changed his mind because he didn’t want his sister to seeing him like this. I ceremoniously tore up his form in front of everyone and then made a point of continuing to talk to him so people would know there were no consequences to making that choice. Jock turned yellow and died before we started filming. Like many of them Jock had been in the army, a heavy drinking culture with all your needs catered for that doesn’t prepare people for life outside. Men like Belfast Tommy and the Brickie had been in the UDA, loyalist paramilitaries from Northern Island and they drank to deal with the PTSD – late at night Tommy would punch the air, fight invisible enemies and talk about bodies and guns he had buried. I later realised that boys who are in care often go into the army because they are not equipped to deal with civilian life. And when that’s over they have nothing. War. What is it good for?
We shot the Wet House on super 16mm film over five consecutive days (apart from the extra day we filmed Annette in her rehab). After five days I knew I had a film and I didn't just want to keep filming people dying. I think it’s my only film that came in under budget and we gave some money back to Channel 4.
Brand Thumim and I edited it over 8 weeks. (Or six, I can’t remember exactly.) We started off with some of the quieter, moving scenes but it was unwatchable and depressing. The key was found by Brand who suggested we start with a cheerfully chaotic scene, less shocking than my first visit to the Wet House but still with a voyeuristic allure, a kind of car crash. And once we had reeled in the audience, lured them in with disaster porn, we were able to humanize those they were gawping at.
One of the big revelations of this film was that far from being a danger to anybody else street drinkers and homeless people are attacked by others, those they call members of the public. We often flip things around – seeing those we persecute as a danger to us so we don’t have to feel guilty about what we are doing to them.
The film was chucked out with no previews at 11.30pm but still managed to gather massive viewing figures and scored very high with young audiences, in the top ten that year. It was referenced in a Ben Elton novel and Damien Hirst gave away 100 dvds to his friends. I mention this because there is still a prevailing belief among schedulers that young people only want to watch other scantily clad young people cavorting around.