A Sunderland screening encourages students to aim for the creative sector, says Graeme Thompson
A new film exploring the life of the eccentric Sunderland artist Audrey Amiss was given a special screening in her home city as part of a day exploring breaking down barriers to careers in the creative sector.
The film’s title Typist Artist Pirate King refers to the occupation Amiss (played by Monica Dolan) wrote on her passport. Written and directed by Carol Morley, the narrative imagines a road trip to Sunderland with the artist’s psychiatric support nurse (Kelly Macdonald) as chauffeur.
The screening, organised by Sunderland Shorts and Sunderland Culture, with support from RTS North East and the Borders and Film Hub North, attracted a capacity crowd.
In the Q&A that followed, Morley spoke about the mental health and religious themes which led to Amiss dropping her studies at the Royal Academy and settling on a career as a civil service typist. She died aged 79 in 2013, but recognition of her work as an artist came after her death.
“During my visits to Sunderland and to her archive at the Wellcome Collection, I became even more fascinated by Audrey,” Morley told the audience at the new Fire Station venue in Sunderland. “I also met with her surviving relatives, her few friends and those she had gone to art school with. And, after discussing art and mental health with psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health service users, I became convinced that the film had to be fiction, not a documentary.”
The production, which has an all-female creative team and heads of department, also stars Gina McKee as Amiss’s sister, Dorothy, who met Morley but died before the film’s release. After reading the screenplay she wrote: “Thank you for bringing my Audrey back.”
On location in Sunderland, the director was inspired by the landscape and introduced the audience to two ukulele players she had spotted performing on the seafront. Both men were written into the script and are seen and heard playing in a scene.
The feature, supported by BBC Films and the BFI, was screened as part of a day of activities at the Fire Station. Two hundred students and staff from the five North East universities (Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teesside) took part in a series of presentations about breaking down the barriers to a career in the screen sector.
Among the speakers were RTS Head of Education Emma Nicholson, bursary scholar Saleem Miah and the Chief Executive of North East Screen, Alison Gwynn.
Students were urged to look at all the roles and careers opening up in the sector. TV and film production in the North East is on the increase thanks to an initial £25m investment by the BBC. For those students who stayed on to join the audience for the screening, the end credits provided an example of the range of skills involved in making a feature.
Miah, a second-year film-making student at Manchester Metropolitan University, told his fellow students about the advantages of becoming an RTS Bursary Scholar – not least the chance to be mentored by Sue and Debbie Vertue at Hartswood Films, the producer of Sherlock.
He advised students to join the RTS and consider applying for a bursary: “If you find yourself in a room with people who might help you get a job, swallow your shyness and embarrassment. Go and introduce yourself, talk to them. It’s not daunting because in the end we are all working towards the same vision – having a diversity of voices and stories on screen.”
Artist Typist Pirate King with its focus on a central character diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, certainly illustrates that unconventional characters and narratives resonate with audiences.