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The making of Is Atherstone Losing It?

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Is Athertone Losing It by Patrick Woodcock got a 3-star award at BIAFF 2009.

The making of this film was a mission

Still from 'Is Atherstone Losing It?'. Background

The making of this film was a mission. Firstly, because I had an interest in local theatre and also I believed that this group were being dealt with badly by the local council.

A redundant Victorian school known as Atherstone Arts Centre had been rented by organisers of a Children's Theatre Workshop for more than thirty years. The local council just wanted to close it.

Still from 'Is Atherstone Losing It?'.At the same time, the Coventry based organisation Herbert Media was offering a 'bursary' to local film makers. This would facilitate the making of a community based documentary which would be screened on the Community Channel. One of the bonuses of the 'bursary' was the availability of broadcast standard kit to shoot the film.

As a result of gaining this award, which in cash monetary terms was zero, access was gained to the BBC, who would give advice and support during the making of the film. Another plus, was that the name 'BBC' could be helpful if obstacles were encountered.

The script had been prepared and re-written many times by myself. I had an opportunity of meeting a reporter and script editor from the BBC in Coventry, to discuss it. I expected the result would be "rip it up and start again." Surprisingly, it was very much to the contrary. It was greeted with enthusiasm and "Yes, you are on the right lines here." Any odd point which wanted a bit of a tweak was was dealt with by "Perhaps you need to look at it this way." The result was a constructive and encouraging meeting.

Before filming, everything had to be cleared and everyone's permission had to be obtained in writing. This seemed daunting, but in practice once I started it was really easy. Everyone, of course ,wants be on television.

I felt like shouting "Look! we are from the BBC."

Armed with this enthusiasm and a confidence boost that shooting was being done for the real telly, filming commenced on a cold but bright and sunny January morning. It was decided to start with location shots to give some background to the film's story. The camera and heavy tripod was proudly set up in Atherstone's market square. I felt like shouting "Look! we are from the BBC." Too late! The sight of the camera even on a Sunday morning drew a small group of onlookers. They assumed that we were the local BBC! If they stood in the background, they would be on the 'telly' the next evening with Kay Alexander the local Midlands Today presenter.

Still from 'Is Atherstone Losing It?'.Who would be a professional news gatherer? After countless people enquired; "Where are you from? When will it be on the television? What are you filming? Has there been a murder?" I wonder how these full-time chaps patiently get their work done.

So much for filming with broadcast quality kit in the open air on a Sunday morning. The camera and tripod really proved too unwieldy even for a small team. To keep moving for reframing and setting the white balance, exposure, and aperture with manual setting was a bit of a bind.

Another downside to using the broadcast kit was that it had to be collected and returned each time to the centre of Coventry. To compound the problem, parking was difficult, and someone had to ride shotgun to keep lookout for enthusiastic parking wardens. Even quoting the name 'BBC' would not court any favours when the warden's pen was quivering over a parking ticket.

So, with a bit of persuading and a bit of ruse, I was able to use my newly purchased, much smaller, Panasonic camera. The 'rushes' were reviewed in the studio on a very expensive monitor. This monitor sorted the men out from the boys when it came to judging an acceptable broadcast picture quality. As a result of this, I was happy that my camera could be used as the picture quality was deemed to be acceptable. A smaller camera was easier to use, especially when filming the children in action.

I could not lose sight of the purpose

One of the facts which I could not lose sight of, was the purpose of the documentary. A group of people had pioneered the Atherstone Children's Theatre Workshop at this building and it had been their home for more than thirty years. They were about to lose it.

Still from 'Is atherstone Losing It?'The local council , who were the owners and landlords, were riding roughshod over them. They were not interested in providing an arts facility. They had decided to sell the land for housing. Most annoyingly, the council had used the term 'exit strategy' for closure, concluding that the group could easily relocate to a local school. It was easy to get emotionally attached to the story. I was told by a voice from the BBC "that you will - otherwise you would not be making it."

My vain hope was that somehow, if this was broadcast on BBC Coventry or the community channel, the cause would be given some status and my reward would be a change of official minds.

In shooting, many parts were relatively easy. Several evenings were spent filming in the Arts Centre during the workshop sessions. The children were featured singing, running, performing improvised drama and they excelled at it. My script was a starting point outlining the progress of the story. The people interviewed were excellent performers and they provided all the key phrases I required.
Still from 'Is Atherstone Really Losing It?'. Still from 'Is Atherstone Really Losing It?'.

June Maidens MBE - workshop founder

Kate Wilkinson - teacher

I had planned that the narration would lead into the story rather than be the story its self. In my plan for the film I saw a walk-in narrator from the beginning presenting an outline of this rather picturesque little market town. I had decided to start the opening of film along canal which passes through the centre of Atherstone. My narrator was Angie Mott, from Nuneaton Moviemakers and herself an Atherstone resident. Therefore, she could reasonably ask the question 'Why was her local arts centre being closed down' Not a ploy on my part, as Angie has an active and genuine interest in the local amateur theatre scene.

The 'noises off' were incredible

Portrait of Angie Mott.It was again a bright and sunny spring morning  when we were filming her along the canal side. It became a little breezy to say the least. Although we were using a Sennheiser mic with its hairy wind shield, we still suffered buffeting from time to time from sudden squalls.

The wind was one thing, but the 'noises off' were incredible. Ice-cream vans, lawnmowers, dogs barking, some youngsters in the distance on track bikes, the occasional mainline train and onlookers from passing narrow boats. I tried my best, but in the editing hardly any of this material could be used.

Still from 'Is Atherstone Really Losing It?'. Most of the filming was in the can. In order to maintain an essential editorial balance, I needed an interview with a member of the council, preferably the Leader. I had worked in local government and knew my way around the labyrinth of mumbo-jumbo, I thought.

My enquiries proved less than fruitful, even to the point where I was told the subject I was trying to film "was a hot potato" and "top secret" ! I hastily retorted, "That is why I am making a documentary about it!" I told them they were wrong, all the committee papers about the subject are in the public domain.

I tried to arrange an interview with the Leader of the Council or any spokesman but they just refused to respond.

It was a difficult time

Then I had to face another problem, I became rather ill with a nasty internal infection and was hospitalised for more than a month. I could not now take the film to the editing stage.

A second dilemma was that we had decided to move to France in October of that year. It was a difficult time and an uncompleted documentary was the last thing I had on my mind. I came out of hospital in mid -August and had to cancel the planned visit to the UNICA festival in Slovakia in September as I was still too weak to travel.

I learnt that a crunch meeting was planned. The final decision was to be made about closure the arts centre.

Still from 'Is Atherstone Losing It?'.There had been a big public outcry and the local politicians had run for the bunkers.

A rumour was afoot that 'someone' had made a film about it and it was to be televised. Fame at last I thought, but it was now not possible. In fact I knew that I was too late for the schedule anyway. I was approached by June Maidens, the workshop founder. Her son, John, had worked with the BBC and was now freelance. He offered to edit the film over a weekend to make a DVD presentation for the council meeting ... if I would permit him to use my footage. Naturally, I agreed straight away. The purpose of the film had been to move the councillors into changing their minds.

This short version was very well done. Professional, I could say! It conveyed the children in action, the fears of the teachers that the place would fold. Suffice to say that the decision to close was put on hold. I felt reasonably satisfied that the film had achieved its aim and I happily 'put it to bed', concentrated on my recovery and made the move to France.

Some months later, I was now in France and I had a telephone call from the UK telling me that the council had suddenly closed the arts centre. The Children's Theatre Workshop and Dramatic Society, who also used the building, were out on the streets. Everyone was angry, so much so, that the next children's rehearsal was held in the open air in the market place. This gained maximum publicity: the local MP was there, the press, but not my camera, as I was miles away in France.

To make my version available

Still from 'Is Atherstone Losing It?'. I decided to complete the documentary and make my version available, possibly just as DVDs to hand out to reinforce the message, as there was a high level of public support to keep the building open. I set about editing using Premier. I had some older video of past shows and events which I wanted to use. One was in S-VHS the others had been shot in 4:3 on a single chip camera. The quality of the earlier video was a little inferior. So I decided to frame the video on a Photoshop created background image with a blue rectangle to key through a reduced frame image. Still from 'Is Atherstone Losing It?'.

I could not use any of Angi Mott's opening narration because of all the background noises, or now use her for the Voice Over. So I set about it myself. I do not like the sound of my own voice; I lack a really good mike, so all I can say is that I did my best. I had selected the clips first with the comments I needed to build the narrative. I wanted the interviewees to tell the story and the commentary to add the continuity. Once I had built the edited sequences, I listened to it numerous times to get a smooth sound image. The film was completed after hours in the editing process. I entered it into the Nuneaton moviemakers annual competition at the end of 2008. I was surprised that it won the Best Use of Sound award.

I decided to make the film my BIAFF entry for this year for no other reason that I wanted it to be seen. I was happy to be informed that it had been awarded three stars. I duly read the judge's comments.

"This was an engaging and a well made film with a nice mix of VO and live interviews that was effectively cut together"

"The film had some weaknesses"

Herein lays the mystery. I was picked up on some incidents of iffy sound mixing. Mmh! I had laboured hard on the sound and listened only to the sound track over and over again. Perhaps the kit it was being judged on had a rogue connector ! My mask for the archive material was questioned as it was regarded that the picture was too small. Did they not watch The Way We Were on telly. I really pinched the idea from there.

My angle for the face of interviewees was considered too sharp. (They were some impromptu snatched interviews.) Well yes perhaps, but are these things really engraved in stone?

There was a justifiable comment that there were no shots of my narrator - and that it was a bit one sided with no opposing view. Well you now know the good reasons for that.

So, I must congratulate myself on my three stars!

In these days of reality television everyone wants instant fame. My age and experience now tells me, that if I do not blow my own trumpet, no one will do it for me.

Well done!

Winston Churchill was a great man, so much so, that's what he told himself.

It was a good exercise, but more than an exercise. If I had been able complete the documentary at the time I hoped that I could have given the council a real good biff on the nose. I still wonder how much time and money was wasted by the council. I had to moderate my narration but when the councillors had jumped backwards through hoops to try and close this building, they failed. They finally they ran out of options and had to let the Theatre Group or their representatives purchase it. I could not help adding: "Why could they have not done this, in the first place?"

But this is moviemaking. Should I get back to the potting shed or look for the next cause which needs to be exposed?

With many thanks to the tireless workers of the Theatre Workshop: June Maidens, Eileen Barrs, John Parnham, Kate Richardson and the other dedicated volunteers, together with the assistance I had from Angie Mott and Jason Cragg-Sapsford, both members of Nuneaton Moviemakers.

- Patrick Woodcock, Villeurbanne, France, 2009

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