England Is Mine: Mancunian Culture On Screen

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“IT’S nice to hear a Manc accent,” Mark Gill tells me over the phone, with a slightly relieved voice. “It reminds me of home.”

Mark, the Oscar-nominated director of new Morrissey biopic England Is Mine, is in the middle of his press tour. England Is Mine is centred around the early days of Steven Morrissey, legendary frontman of Manchester icons The Smiths.

It documents the journey of a tortured young boy as he struggles to reach greatness. Mark, a self-avowed major fan of the band, said:

I was struck by the first two albums at a young age, it really felt like they were talking about Morrissey’s time before The Smiths. That felt like something I wanted to explore.”

The film was shot partly in Manchester, which was very important to the director to get the feel of the city. When asked whether Manchester has a good representation in cinema, Mark said that there is always work to be done to get more stories told in the region. He said the focus was on kitchen sink dramas or gangster films.

The lack of diversity is echoed by Robert Hamilton, a lecturer in film at Manchester Metropolitan University. He said that the ‘mythology’ around Manchester culture is restricted. Rather than the gangsters or ‘northern misery’, Robert said that it is the music culture of Manchester which is over-represented.

At HOME cinema over a cold gin and tonic, Robert spoke of the history of cinema and Manchester. He said it all started with A Taste Of Honey and Charlie Bubbles and moved from there.

Credit: BFI/ British Lion Films

Credit: BFI/ British Lion Films

There’s even a really odd Italian horror film, from the 70s, the beginning is shot in Manchester with a man riding through the city and topless women everywhere. You can see Piccadilly Gardens and other recognisable places.

The film Robert is talking about, I find out later, is Non Si Deve Profanare Il Sonno Dei Morti, or Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, released in 1974. An alternative title is The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue. The opening montage was shot around Manchester city centre, and certain scenes were shot in Cheadle.

After the 70s there is a 20 year gap in the list of films set in Manchester. Naked, directed by Mike Leigh, started things back up in 1993. Leigh is currently making a film on the events of The Peterloo Massacre.

Amongst Manchester’s bustling home of cinema and the arts on a Friday evening, Robert disagreed with Mark when he said that the history of gangs in Manchester are actually under-represented. He said:

England Is Mine

Credit: Pathe

The history that they forget, the gangs and the guns, just after the hacienda period, it wasn’t that great a place. I often wonder whether there will ever be the true history of Manchester on film.

But then is that film’s job? Film’s job is often to create a mythology, and the history of music in the city is a great story.

John Consterdine, a tour-guide of Manchester’s cultural hotspots and BBC Radio Manchester’s expert on all things Mancunian, thinks that there are far more stories to be told than the ones which we’re used to seeing. He said that the representation of Manchester has largely been negative. He said:

Do we actually get a true representation of Manchester on film? No, not really. We get the little bits like 24 Hour Party People, just a small genre. There’s more to Manchester than music, they don’t know what Manchester has done for the modern world. I’ve never seen a film that captures the essence of the city.

John lamented the lack of interest that Manchester’s own people have in other aspects of their history, he stated that when asked about The Peterloo Massacre or Engels and Marx, most would return a blank face.

England Is Mine

Credit: John Consterdine/Facebook

This, said John is the real crime when it comes to the lack of proper representation of Manchester.

This was not always the case. In the 1950s, the Manchester Film Company (based in Rusholme) was dedicated to helping the film industry in Manchester.

Over time, the company became part of the BBC and a studio for Top of the Pops, and it’s operations halted. So despite this history, John explained, there still hasn’t been an accurate representation of Manchester on film. He said:

It’s about getting through to ordinary folk. You don’t often see something positive about Manchester and now Salford is a pseudonym for being rough. It’s not the image that wants to be portrayed.

Despite this, Mark was understandably excited about the prospect for England Is Mine, he seemed to be aware of this history of Manchester.

He said:

What I found interesting about The Smiths was that they were celebratory of what was effectively a post-Victorian wasteland. I’ve tried to work with that, the whole film is that palette.

This isn’t the first time Mark has created films against the back-drop of a Manchester skyline. In 2014, Mark directed The Voorman Problem, a short film starring Martin Freeman that was shot around Strangeways prison and Salford.

The film was nominated for BAFTAs and Oscars, and helped Mark get this feature financed. He said that it proves that great stories, no matter where they’re set, are more important than any location.

Credit: Entertainment One

Credit: Entertainment One

Despite differing opinions on how Manchester appears in film, one thing is clear. All three experts agree that Manchester is yet to be fully represented on the silver screen.

However, Robert remains hopeful for the future. He said:

The future is unwritten, now that MediaCity is here it could encourage filmmakers to come, but the de-funding of the arts means it could go another way – but film has always survived. 

They’re talking about opening an international film school in Manchester that is set to open in the next couple of years so that could change things.

I think Manchester has the possibility to be a great movie place.

England Is Mine is out now in select cinemas.

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