Tina Goes Shopping
TINA GOES SHOPPING (1998)
I get asked about this film a lot. At the time I really believed I was inventing a new kind of filmmaking but I subsequently realized that there was already a long tradition of filmmakers casting non-professionals to play fictional versions of themselves.
Years later I was introduced to the wonderful Jean Rouche's ‘Moi un Noir’ and the Italian neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson. I had seen some of the Italian films but didn’t realise that they were not actors. I had also seen Gillo Pontevorvo’s Battle of Algiers – I remember staggering out of the Electric Cinema about 1970/1 with my mind blown. I just didn’t understand what I had just seen. I was years from even thinking I could ever be a film maker but perhaps that film subliminally influenced me in a powerful way.
Actually you can go back even further to 1922. Robert Flaherty is often referred to as the Father of Documentary and his film Nanook of the North as the first documentary but it’s a complete fiction. Nanook’s real name was Allakariallak which was difficult to pronounce so Flaherty changed it. Allakariallak didn’t normally wear ethnic clothes, fish in the traditional way or live in an igloo and the woman playing his wife was actually Flaherty’s lover. When shooting was completed Flaherty abandoned his pregnant lover and his son Joseph was later forcibly relocated to the Artic where he died.
Anyway at the time I thought I was a trailblazer. What happened was this. While I was making Shakespeare on the Estate (1994) I understood that there was a new thriving marginal economy in those places that had brutally been deindustrialized by the Thatcher Conservative government. Mines, mills and factories had been shut down, unemployment ballooned and nothing was put in its place. It was done swiftly and harshly, sweeping away the powerful unions and pulverizing communities. Left wing filmmakers like Ken Loach made fine films about decent working class men – mainly men – who were left bereft, emasculated and unable to provide for their families. There was an undercurrent of mourning for what had been, for proper jobs, however backbreaking or mind-numbingly boring they had been.
I am not denying the social aspect of going to work, being part of a community, having structure in your day, feeling useful, putting food on the table. But what I saw was that the old economy had been replaced by a new, mostly illegal one. In Mad Passionate Dreams and Macbeth on the estate I attempted to get to that truth but didn’t quite pull it off. Sometimes the only way to tell the truth is through fiction. I decided I would make a film based on real stories and cast people to play versions of themselves or others in their community. They would know how to move, how to speak, all the detail would be right but they would be acting scenes for the benefit of the camera and therefore what I filmed could not be used as evidence in court.
Researching this film was a mission. I went through four male researchers. I had the idea that it would be better to work with a man, men might feel more comfortable talking to a man and it would make it easier to go into pubs together. Actually being a woman works better – you're not a physical threat to anybody and that’s a protection. But nobody trusts you, male or female. Generally these council estates are not on the way to anywhere so residents are suspicious of random professional types turning up because they are always on a punitive mission, social workers coming to take people’s children away, snoopers coming to check on false benefit claims, bailiffs coming to chuck them out of their houses or police arriving to arrest them.
What I do is get my story out there as quickly as possible. Unlikely as it sounds I am there to make a film about real life, looking for stories and actors to play in them. I tell this to anybody I meet on the street, in the shops in a pub or community centre, anywhere my story can spread along with the rumour that I am an undercover policewoman. Sooner or later I meet someone I click with and then it’s all fine. They believe me because I am telling the truth and introduce me to others as a friend. Until then it’s hell, I am shunned and continues miling and being friendly, acting the part of a dreadful, gormless idiot who doesn’t get that everyone wants me to Go Away. In my ordinary life I would rather die than force myself on people like this but I know if I want to cross the barrier from my world to theirs I have to do it. I don’t want to live in a bubble however easy that is.
Hal the first one was really a producer anyway and wandering around housing estates being snarled at by pitbulls and threatened by members of Combat 18 was not his idea of fun. He backed out after a couple of days.
My second researcher was my friend Nick who had worked on Shakespeare on the Estate. He backed out for ethical reasons. We went into a pub in Holbeck in Leeds and the publican warned us, “It’s a good idea but whatever you do, don’t go to Halton Moor.” As we stepped out, Nick who knows me too well said, “We’re going there aren’t we?” Of course we were. But Nick couldn’t understand why I wanted to make this film. The chances of it ending up confirming the worst Daily Mail stereotypes about benefit scroungers were huge. I said I wanted to tell the truth. “But why?” He sweetly said that if anybody could do it without playing into the hands of the right wing tabloids I could but he didn’t want to take that risk and I still respect him for that.
Then there was another one whose name I have forgotten who said he wasn’t feeling well after a couple of hours on Halton Moor and retreated back to the hotel.
The fourth I don’t want to embarrass but he freaked out at the local pub. When we walked in, the raucous pub went silent like that scene in American Werewolf, nobody would catch my eye so I plonked myself down next to a poor woman who was mortified and struck up a strained conversation. Then my assistant started screaming that his beer and been spiked and I had to drive him to St James’ Hospital. They put electrodes on his chest and his heart rate raced into the stratosphere but his pupils were reacting to light and the doctor explained that he was having a panic attack and asked whether he had done anything stressful recently.
After that I just continued on my own. There were a few sticky moments and a period when I was staying in a very cheap hotel in a room with no windows and a shower cubicle. Great big dogs prowled outside my door growling all night long and I lay there wondering what had happened to my life and what the hell I was doing.
I will always be grateful to Gwen Nelson who played Queenie who immediately trusted me and let me camp out at her house and invited her friends to come and tell me stories. Gwen’s own story about a leg of lamb that had fallen off a lorry and been sold around the estate for a fiver was amalgamated with another story I had been told about cow rustling. The men who did it tried chopping the cow up in the woods but didn’t realise that butchery is a skill, that cows have buckets of entrails and kind of blow up and explode. But you have to watch the film to find out what happened.
So after hearing lots of stories I went home and spent a few weeks wrestling them into a sort of screenplay. I wrote scenes in which I explained what needed to happen without any dialogue as I thought that it might make the performances wooden if people who hadn’t acted before were trying to remember lines. I wrote parts for specific people that I knew they could play. Sometimes the parts were very close to the actor, the Monday Man had told me the story of beating up someone in a pub for stealing an old lady’s purse and his phone ringing in the middle of it. But Kelli wasn’t a shop lifter although she bought stuff off them.
Don in real life has subsequently served time for drug dealing but he certainly wasn’t selling fivers of weed to lads. The first night I met him and his friends they had been on a bender, what they called power drinking, for several days. At about four in the morning we were sitting in a small house somewhere and I heard Gwynne shout, “It was when they killed the fucking Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914!” I realized they were talking about the origins of the first world war. I had also heard them arguing about contemporary art. So in the script I wrote they were talking about these topics because I knew they could do it! It was that first night when they were all drunk and I wasn’t and I was busy writing down their stories in my little notebook when it crossed my mind that they might wonder who I was and what I was really doing after they sobered up. So when a line of cocaine came around I snorted it although coke isn’t really my thing. It was just as well I did because I bumped into Gordon a week or so later, he was off to do 25 years for something or other and he said, “At first I thought you were a slip (snitch) but when you did that line I knew you were a diamond geezer.” I did it because I wanted them to have something on me, it was an instinct and it’s always best to follow your instincts.
There weren't too many scary moments. I did get jumped one night and my gear stolen. I saw it happening. One of the boys I didn’t really like strolled in when I was at Liz Temple’s house and had a look at the equipment and walked out. I then foolishly let myself be taken to a house on the other side of the estate. When I was ready to leave, Simon, a nice boy, picked up the camera bag. I thought he might run off with it but he didn’t. As we were crossing the green three balaclava’d figures ran out. I saw him pretend to fall and let the bag go. As they ran off I decided – not decided, it was instinct again – to run after them and I rugby tackled the one with the bag. He dragged me along the road for a bit and then I let go. The only damage was a scraped knee and a hole in the dress I was wearing.
Back at Liz’s I explained I needed to report the theft to the police for insurance purposes. Two police turned up, nervous about being in Halton Moor at night. I covered for Simon who claimed he had been punched to the ground and went back to my hotel. By now I was in a slightly better hotel and I sat in a hot bath and rang my son Dylan for advice. I explained that I knew who had orchestrated the theft and that it had been done in a way that wasn’t going to harm me but I couldn’t let it go because I’d be seen as weak. Neither could I tell the police what I knew or nobody would ever trust me again. Dylan said, “No point accusing them to their faces because they will deny it and you will look a fool. You just have to let them know that you know and make some kind of threat.”
So the next day I went back to Gwen’s sitting room. The naughty boys (not the ring leader) turned up as usual and lined up by the mantle. Gwen’s eldest, Mark said, “So filming is off now Penny? You won’t be coming back after what happened.” I replied firmly. “Fuck that. Filming is still on. And what’s more I know exactly what happened and who was involved.” There was a pause and a bit of squirming. “I appreciate it was done without hurting me but I’m telling you now that although I’m going to let it go this one time I'm telling you that I know geezers with shooters and it happens again I’m calling them in.” There was a ripple of approval. “Good on you Penny.” Or Penneh as it’s pronounced in Yorkshire. And that was that.
In Halton Moor I never got to know the big men on the estate but in Beeston where Gwynne lived there was never any trouble because he and his crew put the word out that this was their film and the toerags would have them to deal with if they messed with me.
The night before the shoot I panicked and actually threw up. I didn’t have a shot list and I didn’t have a clue whether it was going to work. I calmed myself down and remembered that I was taking a risk.
The first thing we shot was the first scene in the film where Kelli Hollis playing Tina speaks to camera as she pushes her buggy. I told her more or less what to say, she nodded and we shot it and she was great. I almost had a melt down with relief. “It worked!” I said it out loud and the crew looked at me with horror. I had persuaded them all it was going to work and they had no idea about the bag of doubts I had.
I told all the actors what the story was but I didn’t show them the script because I didn’t want them thinking about it too much. They all wore the same clothes all the time if they were in more than once scene. I would tell the actors what we were shooting the next day. I’ll never forget explaining to Gwen that we were shooting a scene where a debt collector is coming to break her legs and she had to persuade him to lay off. We arrived the next morning and she was in a state. “You have to shoot it now because I’m ready.” She had been thinking about a dead child. I rushed outside and told the Monday Man – played by Colin Nutton who had never met Gwen or been to Halton Moor in his life – that he was to storm into that house there, there were several women in the front room and the one lying on the couch owed him money. He was go to in hard but she was going to tell him a story and he was going to believe it. I asked Graham the cameraman to major the first take mostly on Gwen. Liz who was sitting next to her believed her story and a beautiful tear rolled down her cheek.
We would shoot a scene close up first because performances tended to be better and have more energy. Then we would do it again a few times, varying the shots and end on a wide. Almost always the performers said virtually the same things and went to the same places without having marks to hit. I don’t know how or why this happens but it does.
Acting is almost all about casting. As a director you can fuck it up of course but if you have cast it right all you need do is create a space in which actors can do their thing, be their best selves. And not everyone can do it. Acting is a gift, being able to be natural in front of a camera and make the audience believe that the camera isn’t there, is a gift, one that many of us don’t have. It really infuriates me when first time actors – as I prefer to call them, rather than non-professionals – are not given credit for their work.
Tina Goes Shopping was a success although many people watching it thought they were watching a documentary, which still astonishes me – how could we be in so many places at the same time? The Channel 4 switchboard was jammed by angry calls from people who genuinely thought they had seen us murder a cow in front of their eyes and they found this more upsetting than anything. (The abbatoir chose a brown cow they were going to kill anyway, we found a live one that looked like it and Dylan Fielding who played Aaron so beautifully chased this one around and led it around the estate and it was then returned to its field. The original cow was killed at the abbatoir and chopped up. We had to shoot the scene in the abbatoir so the only constructed set in that film was Tina’s kitchen which Jo Baker recreated in a freezer in the abbatoir. It was Dylan’s idea to wear the yellow marigold gloves and Kelli had not seen the kitchen before we filmed her reaction. All I suggested to him was that he had done this because he loved her.
When we showed the film to those who were in it a few days before transmission a riot broke out in the pub where we were screening it, not because people disapproved of it but over ownership. There were two or three estates featured in the film and some of the Halton Moor boys objected to the title and thought it should have been called All Roads Lead to Queenie’s. I ended up in the car park with a few drunken teenagers yelling, “We’ll firebomb your pub you fat fucker”. When the police screeched up I explained that it was a Channel 4 screening and they were so surprised they backed off.
Tina Goes Shopping was nominated for a Bafta and Kelli Hollis came wearing a River Island green dress she had bought off a shoplifter which seemed perfect.
I went back to Leeds for three more films, TINA TAKES A BREAK and the feature film MISCHIEF NIGHT and I am still in touch with many people after twenty years. You can tell the truth as long as you are not mocking or condescending. Nobody enjoys being pitied.