||PENZANCE may be 300 miles from London
but that doesn’t mean there are no opportunities for local filmmakers or
high-status screenings for film buffs to attend.
Two days ahead of national release, film fans were treated to a screening of Mike Leigh’s latest film. The award-winning Penwith Film Society co-hosted the event with the Cornwall Film Festival which is about to enter its seventh consecutive year. The event was attended by the film’s producer, Simon Channing-Williams, who introduced the film, hosted a Q&A after the screening and showed off a selection of film awards after the programme.
You don’t have to be in the presence of Channing-Williams, Penwith Film Society Chairman Steve Payne, or Cornwall Film Festival Chair Denzil Monk long to realise just how passionate they are about the industry they work in. Denzil is a huge Mike Leigh fan himself and said: “Leigh is the kind of filmmaker who always sparks controversy. Whether he’s writing about a woman carrying out backstreet abortions or a quirky teacher learning the flamenco, this master storyteller conjures characters and worlds with an integrity and meaning that is lacking in so many other films which populate our screens.”
Happy-Go-Lucky is Mike and Simon’s eleventh film together. They met while working for the BBC and formed Thin Man Films in 1988, producing critically acclaimed, award-winning films such as Secrets and Lies, Career Girls and Vera Drake. Simon also formed an independent production company, Potboiler Productions, with his business partner Gail Egan. They are currently working on Blindness with The Constant Gardener director Fernando Meirelles. They also own the rights to the John Le Carré novel The Mission Song.
The screening received a massive turnout with some travelling from Exeter and beyond to hear what Simon had to say about his career and his latest film with Mike Leigh. Simon has appeared at the Savoy in Penzance before, for the release of The Constant Gardener. “I am Cornish by heart but not by birth,” he commented. “The Savoy holds a special place in my heart.”
It was Simon who approached the Penwith Film Society. He donated some money to their fund and offered to host a gala preview in exchange for a life membership. Chairman Steve Payne said it is incredibly important for them to able to put together such programmes. “To educate and entertain is our unofficial motto as we like to show films in a kind of context,” he said. “It is also important to realise that a producer is a normal kind of guy”.
A normal guy he may be, but Simon is far from your aloof media type. During his time in Cornwall, he went to talk to budding young filmmakers at Mounts Bay School and also spoke to me after the screening. Not many people who have worked in the industry for so long would be willing to do such things, not to mention offering to do it as opposed to being invited. He said: “It is so important to be able to pass on to younger people my passion and belief in the industry. It is genuinely important to be able to pass on whatever information I’ve got.”
Happy-Go-Lucky is a far cry from Leigh’s usual gritty dramas. Primary school teacher Poppy is a genuinely positive character who, despite the issues that affect the important people in her life, maintains her cheery disposition with her infectious smile rarely leaving her face.
Sally Hawkins has already won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for her performance as Poppy and Leigh was nominated for a Golden Bear. Three of Leigh’s films have been nominated for Oscars and six have been nominated for BAFTAs, including two wins. Although the films don’t generate huge box office results, they receive a lot of acclaim, are popular with critics and Leigh has developed a massive following.
Despite the comedy and general brightness of Happy-Go-Lucky, Simon still considers the film to be quite dark and not totally atypical of Leigh. “It’s about the darker side of life,” he commented, “things we will all come up against. It’s about hope and adversity. We all get a lot of muck and shit thrown at us but we can overcome that.”
What was important for Mike and Simon was to be able to do something that was uncharacteristic. “We wanted to work with new people, with a young cast and get away from a period piece,” Simon said. “We wanted to do something that is modern and more youthful than what we have done in the past and I think it has worked really well.”
Asked if he thinks that the world has become so depressing that even Mike Leigh has resorted to trying to cheer us up? Simon laughed and replied: “I like the idea that things are so desperate that we need cheering up, but I think it is very much a film of its time. I think it challenges you the audience and the society in which we live. You do push things to real extremes. I think that the idea of using young people in the situation we find Poppy and her friends is interesting and it portrays a lot of what the audience is feeling. You associate with Poppy’s eternal optimism.”
It is refreshing to meet someone in the industry who is still clearly passionate about their work and interested in the way filmmaking is constantly evolving. At the age of 62 and with 27 films under his belt, Simon is as enthusiastic today as he was twenty years ago and talks fondly of Leigh and the way he works. “Many people say they work like Mike but they don’t. He works hard on improvising each individual character. The actors are word perfect and confident with the characters they play and I think that’s extraordinary,” he commented.
Talking about the event Steve Payne said: “It’s a huge privilege for the Penwith Film Society and its entire membership. Simon has offered us a rare gift and we’re tremendously grateful to him. This gala screening caps a terrific year for us.
“Last year we were awarded top prize for Best Film Programming by the British Federation of Film Societies, and our current membership is at record levels. Life is good for the Penwith Film Society right now.”
The Penwith Film Society may be going from strength to strength, but films such as Happy-Go-Lucky are still receiving a fairly limited audience. Simon thinks this could be because we simply don’t love English cinema enough. “We would rather go to a multiplex and see four versions of Star Wars and you find that Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake and Michael Winterbottom films are put lower down the order. Our films are played for three or four days. We can’t get the figures that match the Jedi.”
The Penwith Film Society’s current season
of films is still running, including screenings of The Orphanage and Paranoid
Park. If you fancy your chances at this year’s Cornwall Film Festival,
it takes place 6-9 November 2008, and entries are now being accepted.
For more information visit www.cornwallfilmfestival.com.
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