A still from the film "Big Society the Musical"
London Labour Film Festival opener is a musical to make a difference
First Take is a filmmaking organisation based in Liverpool. Working solely in the community, with diverse groups and on films for social good, our ethos is to make films that make a difference.
In July 2010 David Cameron came to Liverpool to make his speech about the ‘Big Society’, as Liverpool was to be one of the places where the idea of the ‘Big Society’ would be launched. At First Take (as in many community and arts organisations throughout the city) we were bemused, isn’t this how we’d been living and working all these years? Working in the community? Making a difference? But then if the government was supporting this ethos surely it was a good thing? Surely it would mean more funding to enable the work we, and others, do, to thrive?
By the end of 2010 we knew not only was it empty rhetoric, but a blatant insult, as the very organisations that for years had been working in the communities were being threatened. For First Take this was made apparent when we lost our Area Based Grant for First Take’s project ‘Rainbow Lives’, which was to make films to raise awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in later life when they need home care or go into residential care.
It was January 2011 that I came up with the idea of ‘Big Society The Musical’; it would be our artistic response to the cuts, it would be a feature length film, based in reality in Liverpool in 2011 as the cuts were being implemented. It would tell the story of how these cuts were affecting individuals. It would be a piece of social realism, but with surreal all singing all dancing moments. I pitched it to the others at First Take. Everyone agreed we should try to make it happen.
In order to make the film a reality we had to convince people to get on board, to support the film, to volunteer, to give their time. I pitched the idea to Paula Simms, a great friend and an amazing woman who, when I first heard her sing her voice touched my very soul. I knew if she was up for it then we’d be in with a chance of making it happen. She was.
By February 2011 Liverpool opted out of ‘Big Society’ as the government was cutting funding from the very organisations that make the idea of ‘big society’ a possibility.
The first Liverpool march against the cuts took place on 5th February 2011 and it was the first time we filmed any footage for the film. This was the idea: Paula looks like any other person marching, with her coat and scarf. But during the march she stops and turns in the opposite direction to the other marchers, and whilst they are passing by, she takes off her coat revealing a bright red dress that she is wearing and she takes off her scarf, revealing tape covering her mouth. The other marchers stare at her but continue marching. I edited the piece together and used it as a sort of promo scene to get others interested in becoming involved in the film. It worked. Every time we pitched the film we showed the scene. The scene still exists in the film and the image is used as the image to publicise the film.
It was from this humble beginning that the snowball effect started. And built and built. The film was a musical so we obviously needed a composer and Paula introduced us to Andy Frizell, a wonderful genius of a composer and obviously the man for the job. I pitched the intended film and showed him the red dress scene. He was up for it. In all he has composed and recorded 16 original tracks for the film.
A lot of his inspiration came from subverting Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech from Liverpool 2010. For instance the 15 year old young offender, Connor, played by Joe Maddocks, locked in his cell, sings “we’re all in this together, that’s what the man on the TV says…” and in one of the numbers the lead character Linda, played by Paula Simms, when she finds out she has lost her job working with young offenders and young people at risk, sings “they coined the phrase the Big Society but our actions speak louder than their words…”
It was 5th February 2011 when we shot the first footage for the film and it was 2nd March 2014, over 3 years later, when we shot the last. It must be some kind of record. And during that time First Take worked on the project with over 350 members of the community, 9 writers, 23 trainee filmmakers, 28 actors, 1 composer, 1 choreographer, 41 dancers, 25 singers, 5 skateboarders, 2 skaters and 27 local businesses and community centres, including Mersey Fire and Rescue who helped us pull off a major pyrotechnics stunt setting a car ablaze. We received some great support from local organisations, including UNISON North West. Everybody volunteering. Everybody working to the same end; to create a piece of work in response to the austerity measures, and to try to make a difference.
The amazing news is the film has already met with success – it has been chosen to open the London Labour Film Festival 2014, which is a festival of cinema celebrating working people. Last year it was a Ken Loach film that opened the festival, so how brilliant is that? And we are hoping that this is just the beginning.
It’s been an amazing journey where the kindness, the creativity, the talent, the willingness and the tenacity of all those involved has been overwhelming. We did it! It’s hard to believe but we actually did it! Now we are hoping our voices will be heard. As one of the characters in the film puts it:
“if they don’t see us march, then we’ll dance. If they don’t hear us shout, then we’ll sing…’
The journey for this film isn’t over yet, we need to get the film out there, we need the audiences to snowball and we need everyone’s help to make this happen. We’ve made the film – now it has to make a difference.
Big Society the Musical opens the London Labour Film Festival later on 28 April – a union-backed series of screenings celebrating work and the lives of working people. To find out more and get tickets, visit londonlabourfilmfest.com