Blog. Do you remember The Misfits (1961)? The last film Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable ever made before their untimely deaths shortly after the film’s completion. There, Hollywood gave us two movie giants, struggling in the heat of the Nevada desert, but also struggling offset with their pesky inner demons. Only in Hollywood could Monroe and Gable qualify as ‘misfits.’
If you want to check out a band of non-Hollywood style misfits, then rush along to a screening of A Bunch of Amateurs (aka The Northern Misfits) as I did on the 2nd Feb during a trip up north. For there, up on the silver screen, you will find the lost and the lonely; the deluded and the defiant; the brave and the bereft. That probably amounts to just about all of us though, doesn’t it? But you’ll also, thankfully, find laugh out loud shenanigans and there’s not an actor in sight…….well, that’s not quite true. The cast do quite a bit of acting, but I’m sticking with my statement that there’s not an actor in sight.
I was chauffeured to the quite lovely, and cathedral-like in its proportions, Square Chapel Arts Centre where the film was being shown. Square Chapel Arts Centre is a non-profit theatre complex (with bar) situated within the impressive Piece Hall in Halifax. Extended family and I were attending the screening of A Bunch of Amateurs, to be followed by a Q&A with the cast, led by my niece, who did a splendiferous and most professional job in keeping both cast and audience participants in order.
A Bunch of Amateurs is a documentary (hence it’s actor-less) made by director Kim Hopkins of Labour of Love Films productions. It centres on the members of the Bradford Movie Makers Club, one of the oldest amateur film making clubs in the world. Kim is a filmic force to be reckoned with (I reckon) and I’d never even heard of her – because not for me the art house productions; not for me the documentary genre (I like to escape, not wallow in wretched reality.) But how wrong I was. For A Bunch of Amateurs wipes the cutting room floor with those Hollywood blockbusters; with those Netflix series; with almighty Sky Cinema. And it does it with a cast of such epic misfits (I can ‘say’ this, being a fully paid-up member of the misfit club myself) that you can only but wonder at the cinematic magic at play here. For, instead of inviting derision (in different hands the BMMC could definitely stand in for one of Dante’s circles of Hell) Ms Hopkins (who bears a striking similarity to her cast, both in appearance and demeanour) decided to pull on our heartstrings; draw on our empathy and transform ordinary lives into something approaching cinematic Art.
We need a list of BMMC cast members here; complete with some very rudimentary research I did for this post (I read one article in The Guardian) due to being laid up with yet another dastardly and obnoxious virus intent I’m sure, like the Rev Thomas Malthus, on decreasing the surplus population.
Some Cast Members
Colin Egglestone – Nonagenarian, elder statesman, ex-carpenter, former Club president in better days; loses his wife during filming; heroically paints over graffiti that regularly appears on the club house doors; stoically (if definitely misguidedly) regularly climbs his Everest of a rock garden at home in order to plant daffodils in his dead wife’s memory – this is edge of your seat stuff as you wonder if Colin won’t be joining her soon should he take a tumble; does bits of carpentry in his shed while you look on uneasily as his unsteady hands (he’s already minus half a thumb) handle an electric saw; Colin is also easily the most likable and endearing club member.
Philip Wainman – The club’s enfant terrible (except not so ‘enfant’ anymore); given to prima donna outbursts; is loquacious; has moments of acute self-awareness re: his lonely, possibly wasted life; is also brutally honest about his own life, for example, during a media interview one member quotes ‘Phil’ as having said ‘I’ve got all my friends here at the club’, to which Phil replied ‘what I meant was that I have no other friends outside the club.’ Ouch. Phil certainly isn’t one to put a positive spin on anything. A man after my own dismal heart actually.
Harry Nicholls – octogenarian; magic circle member; keyboard player; lost his wife during the making of the film, also his younger brother and, tragically, his daughter. Now the club is his lifeline. Harry’s desire to re-make the opening scene of Oklahoma, in homage to his wife, provides the comedic thread throughout the film.
Joe Ogden – the club’s CGI expert; given to quoting Proust; has found love in late middle-age with his female doppelganger; his facebook post about loneliness sparked Kim Hopkins’ interest.
I’ll stop there, as the other club members had minimum impact (at least for me) and I couldn’t remember their names. But, with just that cast list, you’d have had the makings of a weird and inaccessible Ingmar Bergman film right there, had Bergman not been Swedish but raised instead in the depths of Bradford. No wonder Ms Hopkins grabbed the BMMC and ran with it. Also, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t mentioned in the film, there is the curious fact that the BMMC apparently had many more members before Ms Hopkins got her hands on them but had split into two warring factions. The old guard faction wanted to use the club house simply to sit about watching old movies and drink tea. The rest (our cast) wanted to carry on making films. This standoff resulted in the old guard deserting a sinking ship, but not before calling Colin, Phil et al ‘a bunch of amateurs.’ That there’s more than a modicum of truth in this insult didn’t deter Ms Hopkins from her quest to turn our amateur filmmakers into celluloid heroes, or to use the amateurs insult as the title for her film.
The bunch of amateurs in question meet in the ancient and dilapidated hallowed hall of the Bradford Movie Makers Club. I recognised many of the Bradford locations, it being an area I grew up around. The film begins with the BMMC members sitting around on ancient, threadbare seats, watching Oklahoma on a screen hanging on a clapped-out wall and singing along to Oh What a Beautiful Morning (in varying degrees of tunefulness.) Bickering between members then ensues (another thread throughout the film) and multiple cups of tea are drunk. So far….so like just about any other club out there.
Oh, what a gor-orm-less bu-unch, I inwardly sang to myself, a la Oklahoma, until the camera confronted us (via panning down from the club building’s appropriately knackered weather-vane) with Harry’s wife, bed-ridden with dementia for 8 years in their lounge, her huge bed taking up space like a sort of sick room throne. And we saw Harry coming out of his tiny kitchen, carrying a drink for his wife, in the manner of a servant approaching the throne, and patting her fondly on her balding head before offering the cup to her lips. And then we saw Harry playing a keyboard, next to the gigantic bed, serenading both his oblivious wife and the movie going public.
This sudden and absolute change in tone; this unfiltered reality, caused me to sit up in my seat. This is different, thought I. Not what I was expecting at all. A true reality show, not the manufactured TV variety. Our BMMC cast were free of make up; their hair either hanging lank, or sticking up in alarming tufts, or bushing up and outwards like a human bearskin hat. Why, it was all nearly Dickensian. All seemed to be strangers to the concept of the hairbrush, as the sister noted. Their clothes were the worse for wear; their spirits mostly broken, but all had enough courage, enough determination, enough conviction (albeit it misguided – to put the critical boot in) in their filmic skills to keep on trucking, to keep on turning up to their equally broken BMMC home.
And we saw Philip at home, caring for his disabled brother, achingly aware of his confined, lonely situation in life. And we saw Colin, visiting his wife in a care home. Sitting on the edge of her bed in painful silence as she sat in a chair quietly oblivious. And he combed her hair and thought about going back to an empty house alone.
And Harry (already a knight in shining armour on his white horse, where his wife is concerned) wanting to ride a white stallion in a cowboy hat, a la Oklahoma, in honour of his wife, before realising that he’d probably die trying. Harry, endlessly bickering with Philip and Philip, endlessly bickering with just about everybody else.
And Colin, the nonagenarian, painting over the graffiti on the club house door (only for it to reappear the next day) and bemoaning the fly tipping at the side of the BMMC building, and wielding tools he’s no business to be wielding, in an effort to clean things up, in an effort to set this often crappy world to rights. What a role model, I say. To still care enough in your 90s, to still be passionate.
None of this sounds remotely interesting, or remotely cinematic. And yet somehow it was. I won’t forget the music either. The soundtrack is masterful. A sort of weird and edgy conglomeration of northern brass bands, a bit of Wallace and Gromit and the occasional ghostly wailing of strings and horns, the sort you’d get in your average horror flick which, dare I say it, A Bunch of Amateurs could so easily have been, in different hands. And I give a final nod to the genius editing.
So. A Bunch of Amateurs. Ordinary people. Ordinary lives. Extraordinary film.
2 thoughts on “A Bunch of Amateurs – Oh, What a Beautiful (if slightly weird) Film”
In the words of the great Lady G – “tolerance and acceptance and love is something that feeds every community” – fuelled by the very British cup of tea consumed with an appropriately stiff upper lip , BoA embodies community spirit and the ability to ‘keep on keeping on’.
It sure does. As our choir leader is always shouting: ‘we’re a family people, not just a choir!’ before everyone heads off for their cup of tea – not me, however, far too much enforced socialising in the dreaded tea break