PAUL Andrew Williams, director of Song For Marion, looked like a pretty cool dude, lounging in the corner of the bar at Durham’s Gala Theatre with his cap worn at a jaunty angle.
Not the type, you’d guess, to have written and directed an intimate film about a devoted elderly couple and an amateur choir.
Familiarity with his first feature film wouldn’t necessarily rid you of that preconception. The award-winning London To Brighton is a tough, breathless tale of gangsters and prostitution.
But the film-maker, born in Portsmouth in 1973, wrote and directed both of these films so clearly he’s no one-trick pony.
He was in Durham for the regional premiere of Song For Marion and to answer questions about a film that saw local extras joining a starry cast headed by Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp on location around the North East.
“We filmed it here about a year-and-a-half ago but I wrote it six years ago,” he said. “It takes that long to get a film made.
“The fact we’ve reached the position to be able to show it here is really cool.”
Redgrave plays Marion, a very sick but strong-willed lady who is heavily dependent on her husband, George (Stamp), who seems to have made grumpiness his life’s calling.
Marion is also dependent on a choir of pensioners who meet in a community centre to be coached by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), a school music teacher young enough to be their granddaughter.
It sounds very sweet, at least compared with London To Brighton.
“Yes, I’ve made films before that have had blood and guts and stuff,” acknowledged the director.
“But this was a film that I thought would be more accessible to a wider group of people. It wasn’t going to be offensive to anyone. It was a sort of nicer tale. I always think there’s room for everything.
“People make stuff because there’s an audience for it but this film is personal in lots of ways, as everything is to some degree.”
Explaining that the starting point for a film was always a story, he went on: “The idea was always to write and make a film about this man and the choir. The man’s relationship with his wife was always incredibly important too.
“I was wondering what would make an old man like my grandad come out of his shell to the extent that he could sing in front of people. That was really where it came from.”
But why a choir? Was this from personal experience?
“I used to do amateur dramatics back in the day, in Teignmouth, Devon, where I spent my teenage years.
“I sang in choruses and groups but I’m too much of an ego-maniac to want to share any kind of spotlight.
“I really admire the idea of a choir because it’s such a shared thing. You can’t stand out... actually, the only reason you can stand out is for very negative reasons. In a way, in a big choir the quality of your voice is less important than the experience of being in the group.”
Paul said another spark for the film had been a choir competition, Let’s Get Lyrical, staged in aid of St Oswald’s Hospice in Gosforth.
“We (himself and producer Ken Marshall) went to watch it and those guys were great. That’s where we met Richard Scott who became the choir organiser and arranged the music.
“We held auditions and it became quite difficult to make choices. There were so many up-for-it kind of people and that made it exciting for me, that so many people actually wanted to be part of it. And they’re all still alive... which is fantastic!”
It says much about his script and his track record that Paul was able to attract such big-name actors as Redgrave and Stamp.
“They’re icons,” he agreed. “They do have a mystique about them but when you meet them you realise they’re pretty normal. They have the same insecurities as all the actors you work with.
“But they brought so much to the film. They trusted me and I trusted them and the bottom line is that we had a great cast who added some real rock ’n’ roll.”
Christopher Eccleston also lends some gravitas in the role of James, garage mechanic son of George and Marion who does not see eye-to-eye with his dad.
Paul said he had visited the North East before but mostly on football-driven missions (he’s a fan of Liverpool). Back in 1996, though, he did attend a gala screening of London To Brighton at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, telling me then: “You can make a film for 20 quid.”
On this occasion, though, his company got £150,000 from the Finance for Business: North East Creative Content Fund, an investment pool set up by Northern Film & Media and venture capital firm Northstar Ventures.
There were effusive thanks for these bodies from the stage of the Gala Theatre and also for Durham County Council which had helped to smooth the path from script to screen.
Paul said: “This was not an area-specific film so there’s no mention of the place at all. But we were very lucky to have the support of lots of people and organisations in the North East.
“I think in an area where there isn’t so much filming you find people are much more helpful and less cynical.
“Besides, I love it here. I really like Durham very much. It’s quite a little place but it’s got a great deal, places for peace and quiet and other places where you can go mental if you like.”
Song For Marion had a high profile world premiere, being chosen to close the Toronto Film Festival last year.
Having been picked up for distribution by the astute and influential Weinstein Company, Song For Marion opens nationwide on February 22, but in the North East on Friday.
LOCALE NOT FOCAL TO CHORAL DRAMA
Song for Marion (certificate PG)
Audiences in the North East will be the first to see Paul Andrew Williams’ new film, and better placed than any to comment on accents and locations.
While it was shot in Newcastle and County Durham, the story of devoted pensioners Marion and George could be set in any working class location.
There are no iconic shots of The Angel of the North or Durham Cathedral, and the accents of the principal characters are not Geordie, Mackem, Northumbrian or even noticeably North Eastern.
And eyebrows will shoot up at the sight of people going in through the front doors of Newcastle City Hall and taking their seats in the Tyne Theatre.
What does seem authentically local is the strong community spirit which sees a young teacher coaching a choir of pensioners in her spare time and encouraging them to embrace the challenge of a competition.
On the face of it, Terence Stamp’s George is an abrasive old bugger but there are signs of a soft centre. Marion (Redgrave) dotes on him and the affection is mutual. The softening of George is the main theme of the film after Marion succumbs to an illness from which there is no escape.
There are strong performances from the leading actors, with Redgrave and Stamp convincingly evoking a marriage with deep and solid foundations.
My only sense of unease came from the film’s comedy set-pieces, with the choir of pensioners being urged to sing about sex or don heavy metal wigs to perform numbers such as Ace of Spades.
The dignity in old age is not much in evidence in these scenes, but there’s another thing: Ace of Spades was released in 1980 by Motorhead whose lead singer Lemmy is 67.
Many of yesterday’s big-time rockers are today’s pensioners and are still going strong. Maybe, in this regard, Song for Marion subscribes to a rather outmoded view of old age – or a young man’s view, perhaps.