Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town”.
Ghost Town by The Specials
This weekend, I had the privilege of attending two screenings (including the World Premiere) of a film called Urban and The Shed Crew, at Leeds International Film Festival. Based on the memoir by Bernard Hare, and set in Leeds, England in the 1990s, it tells the story of a disillusioned ex-social worker who befriends a boy and his gang, the adventures they go on and the lessons they learn from each other. Having read Bernard Hare’s memoir of the same name only a couple of weeks before the screening, I was very curious to see how Hare’s very distinct and witty author’s voice was translated into a gripping screenplay.
What struck me most about the film was the way in which it captured the warmth and affection Hare had for the characters he wrote about. Despite the various characters’ failings, I found each one endearing and relatable to; I wanted them all to find their way. I think this really is the film’s best quality. These children, and those that care for them, are no longer are a statistic, they are human beings with distinct personalities, and this made the film’s message all the more powerful for me. It is very easy in today’s world to forget the thoughts and feelings of others; in fact I would say contemporary culture promotes this. This film demonstrates perfectly how no matter what ones background, we all have concerns and worries, insecurities and shortcomings, and that it is this feature in ourselves we should remember, to help us relate to each other, and in doing so, we may just make each other’s lives just that little bit better.
There were some brilliantly dark comic moments throughout the film, involving face paint, machetes and bouncy castles (not all at once 😉 ), as well as some really artfully written cutting and witty dialogue from adults and children alike. I found myself laughing out loud at times, and then thinking “I probably shouldn’t be laughing about this!” and covering my eyes in shame. I found this incredibly effective in making the subject matter approachable and, in a way, even more hard-hitting than if it had been expressed in a deeply solemn manner; these characters are laughing at themselves and the hardships of their lives, and in a way, so are we, and in doing so we are asked to question that.
There were some really beautiful stand-out performances in this film too. Anna Friel was spunky and feisty as Greta; yet still you got the sense that she genuinely wanted the best for her children, but was so caught up in her own world of escapism that she couldn’t be relied upon to be the bringer of such care. Which is where Chop (played by Richard Armitage and based on Bernard Hare himself) came in. There were some really tender moments between Chop and Urban (Fraser Kelly), and you really got a sense of the interdependence they had on each other. Richard Armitage was the perfect choice for Chop; there was a very trusting tenderness to his performance; I could see how the children would find such a man so approachable. And then there was Urban. I found Fraser Kelly’s performance very self-possessed for one so young, and Urban’s desire to connect to Chop felt very natural and authentic; they had a wonderful relaxed chemistry. I was also very moved by the way in which Urban’s much-loved dog, Tyson, was featured in the film. His presence amongst certain characters on screen, and his natural reactions to the events unfolding around him (unburdened by the human ability to hide ones emotions) added real poignancy to certain tense or emotional moments in the film.
There was one aspect of Hare’s memoir which I noticed was distinctly lacking from the film, and though a very sensitive and difficult subject matter to explore, I felt an opportunity was missed to explore it here. In Hare’s memoir, he talks about his shock at discovering that some of the younger children of the gang are already leading sexually active lives, and that some of them were victims of sexual abuse as children. This subject matter has been much discussed in recent years, and though incredibly difficult to face, is clearly a reality for some children (perhaps for more children than we would like to admit). I feel the film missed an opportunity to explore this subject matter. I think Bernard Hare very artfully explored the subject in his memoir through recounting discussions he has with the children and the implications of those discussions, with very little graphic detail needed at all, which could have worked in the film’s context. Clearly this is an extremely sensitive issue, and perhaps the film makers felt it would affect the overall message of the film, or that perhaps it was too topical, but personally I think an opportunity was missed to explore how abuse can be a snowball for inwardly and outwardly destructive behaviour.
Overall, Urban and the Shed Crew felt incredibly authentic; there was a compassion in the film-making, without compromising the subject matter. It was a bittersweet Ode to the city of Leeds. It’s so fitting that the film premiered in Leeds itself. It is a film well worth watching and one I would happily watch again. It’s message, sadly, is universal – there are always those who are let down by the system, and it is vitally important that we remember these people and each do our bit to help them, as we would hope others would do for us if we were in the same situation. I think it highlights the importance of community, and how in a post-Thatcher world, that quality is distinctly lacking. I think it remains fiercely loyal to the voice and essence of Bernard Hare’s beautifully written memoir, and I truly hope it is seen by many more people in the years to come.
Watch the film’s trailer below: