Tina Takes a Break
TINA TAKES A BREAK – 2000
After Tina Goes Shopping I wanted to make a follow-up, still with Kelli as Tina, about the lives of children on these marginalised estates. I had observed child rearing practices which middle class parents would disapprove of but also that these were parents who loved their children and were doing their best to prepare them for life.
I remember the one of the Mums on the white Halton Moor estate explaining that if your child comes home crying because he’s been beaten up the worst thing you can do is console him. However much it hurts you, you grab hold of him, shove him out the door and tell him to fight back. If you have to, lock the door on him. “If you’re a victim around here Penny, you’re dead in the water.” However harsh and unfeeling it looked it was done to protect the child from a lifetime of hell.
Many years later Tobeijah (1 Day, One Mile Away) from the Jamaican heritage community in Birmingham, confirming that you have to learn to take a beating. He had elder brothers and uncles who would punch and beat up the young ones to harden them up, desensitize them. Because if you start crying or feeling sorry for yourself your life will literally not be worth living.
Something else I had noticed in Penrhys (Mad Passionate Dreams) in South Wales was that whenever I attempted to help the children with their homework the mother would interrupt, send the children on an errand or start talking over me. For a time I thought this was a mistake, that they didn’t realise what I was doing. But eventually I realised that they were stopping me from turning their children into geeks, neeks, nerds. Victims.
In Tina Goes Shopping there is a scene in the pub where Jason who is playing Tina’s eldest son – he was actually her nephew – is given a spelling test by Dina and Gwynne who plays Don. This was not scripted – I just asked them to give him random words to spell. He got them all right off the bat as we knew he would. His mother Helen is a lovely Mum, full of life with a smile that flashes two rows of white teeth. She was large at that time and once prevented Kelli (Tina) from beating up her daughter Adele by sitting on her. The Headmaster at Jason’s school realised how clever he was and spoke to a colleague at a private school who offered him a scholarship. Helen didn’t hesitate to turn it down. She knew what would happen to Jason leaving the estate in a posh school uniform every day. He’d be a soft target there and she was also convinced that he would also be a target at school because of his background. He would never be able to bring friends back home and he would fit in nowhere.
My middle class friends are always horrified by this story, feeling that Helen denied her son a huge opportunity but she did what she genuinely felt was best and who are we to know better.
I wrote Tina takes a Break from lots of stories I had heard – although they didn’t all happen to one person - and one of the things about children is how tough they are and how they can survive terrible things.
I initially cast another little girl as Kimberley because she was from that background and she was really good. She turned up on the first day of filming and completely freaked. She ran away giggling every time we tried to film. I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning we had our standby ready but I tried one more time. Sacking a child has to be one of the most painful things I have ever done but the little girl made it easy. We sat in a car and I said, “This isn’t working is it?” “No”, she replied solemnly. “I thought I could do it but I can’t.” And that was that.
Julie Duncan had told me about dragging her Dad down the stairs but I sneaked in the bit about breaking the sofa from a game I had played as a child with my friend Jenny. Her older sister Elizabeth had broken their parent’s bed by diving on it and we propped it up and hoped for the best. Apparently it collapsed in the middle of the night.
When it was time to drive the children to Blackpool for the story it was a compelling moment. The kids got out of the car and freaked. None of them had ever seen the sea before so they just raced off. I got Graham the cameraman to tear after them – Stuart Bell the sound recordist who was excellent but a curmudgeon was yelling at me. “Give me a chance Penny.” But I wanted to catch their first reaction because it was true. You can just hear one of them say, “It’s salty!” It was also absolutely freezing as it often is during my shoots.
Lee Brimble who played Muffy was brilliant and when the film came out there was an agent from Curtis Brown who wanted to sign him up. Lee couldn’t read – he’d not bothered with school – but plenty of actors are dyslexic and there are other ways of learning lines. She came up to Leeds and Kelli came to help and we took him out bowling. He and Kelli talked about how being in front of the camera was their safe place. A couple of weeks later I went up to talk to him about a part but he said he couldn’t do it.
He stood in the open door in his Mum’s kitchen. “I can’t do it Penny.” “Why not Lee?” “I just want to be a gangster.” “But Lee you know you’ll probably end up in jail.” “I know that.” “Don’t you think you will regret this? .” “I know I’ll regret it", he replied. "But I just can’t do it. I don’t want to be known for that. I want to be known as a gangster.”
And that was that. It wasn’t what Lee’s Mum wanted for him but there was nothing any of us could do. Lee was in and out of jail for years and had some kind of car accident in a twock as they called them back then and got some kind of head injury. But he had made his choice and I bet he never regretted it. I need to chase him down and ask him.