Friday, 5 June 2015

The Tina Trilogy (1999-2006)

From 1999 to 2006, writer and director Penny Woolcock made three films that encompassed both TV and cinema featuring a Leeds based working class 'heroine' entitled Tina played by Kelli Hollis. This blog post covers all three films.

Tina Goes Shopping made for Channel 4 in 1999 is ostensibly a drama shot in the fly on the wall documentary style, using the actual inhabitants of a tough and deprived Leeds council estate in the leading roles, drawing heavily on their own experiences as inspiration for the story. 

Our central character is Tina played by Kelli Hollis, a young single mum who steals to order for her own 'shopping' business. Her drug-addict boyfriend Aaron (Dylan Fielding) is a 'cockney waster' who is planning the theft of a cow so he can sell the meat to the neighbours. Lastly there's Tina's father Don played by Gwynne Hollis, Kelli's real father. He's the king of the estate, controlling the local drugs trade and holding court in the local boozer on topics ranging from art to films - Casablanca and Oliver! being his personal favourites.

The first in what became a trilogy of films, this is a grittily authentic production that pre-empted the likes of Shameless by five years and carried the traditions of Rita, Sue and Bob Too author Andrea Dunbar in its vivid, honest depiction of northern sink estate life. 

Tina Goes Shopping helped launch Kelli Hollis' career, she had never acted prior to this and now boasts a CV that includes regular roles in Shameless, Playing The Field and Emmerdale. Her father however has carried on much as before, as reported here

The second in Penny Woolcock's Tina trilogy, Tina Takes A Break was made in 2001 and is the best of the TV outings.

Set on a tough housing estate in Beeston, Leeds and employing the real folk who live their to play the characters, the first film had a Shameless like exuberance that depicted the residents as akin to rough diamonds, doing what they had to to survive. This second film is the other side of the coin, opting for poignancy as the rough and ready lifestyle of the estate is shown through the eyes of infants, Tina's two children Kimberley played by 7 year old Sally Garrod and Tyler played by Nathaniel Robson aged 8.

Since the last film, time has moved on for Tina and her fortunes have plummeted. She is now, as her father Don aka The Don, the estate's kingpin, puts it 'a junkie mother' shooting heroin and falling to provide for her two children who dream of a trip to Blackpool. Desperate to grant them their wish, Tina launches an unsuccessful attempt at holding up the local newsagents and is sent to prison. Kimberley and Tyler are sent to live with their estranged father, an old boyfriend of Tina's  called Kev. They view life there as infinitely better, despite Kev's cruelly warning them of the bogeyman who lives upstairs and will suck their brains out with a straw if they misbehave, and the endless porn movies he watches on the sofa with them by his side, seemingly unperturbed. Disturbing stuff, yet what is more disturbing is that we can see this is indeed a slightly more preferable life to the ones they had previously led. When Kimberley later claims one day was the best she had ever had, because 'no one shouted at us or hit us' you have a clear indication of what misery they have endured in their young lives. Equally they are wise beyond their years too; when their grandfather Don reveals he's going away soon, their immediate reply is "Are you going inside again?" when in actuality, he's simply going abroad on holiday.

The plot progresses via a bag of money Don and his right hand man The Monday Man (so called because he's a loanshark who collects payment on that day) have left with Kev for safekeeping. Pocketing a wedge for himself, Kev goes AWOL on a bender that lasts for days leaving Kimberley and Tyler home alone until their wayward older friend Muffy, a joyriding cocksure tearaway played by Lee Brimble, turns up and, seeing the loot, makes their wish come true and takes them to Blackpool with it.

Woolcock focuses more on the harsh social reality here and it really pays off, making it feel more like Ken Loach at times than Shameless, but it isn't without its really funny moments too. It's also a much tighter, polished production in which the acting has improved immeasurably (Skint Eastwood as The Monday Man being a real case in point here since the last film) and the acting of the children, especially Garrod, is simply outstanding. The natural dialogue, combined with these brilliant untutored performances make Tina Takes A Break an unsentimental and affecting experience.

Despite the bumpy ride for the characters, there is something of a happy ending which confirms that - for some at least - life goes on the same crazy way it always does on the estate on what appears to be 'mischief night' which sets us up rather neatly for the final entry in the trilogy and the only one to be made for cinema release....

2006's Mischief Night saw writer/director bring her creations from the TV films kicking and screaming onto the big screen and, in doing so, produced a superb, refreshing issues based comedy.

The poster gleefully proclaims that this is 'from the producers of Shameless' and whilst Tina actually came about some five years before the exploits of the rowdy Gallagher clan, Mischief Night certainly capitalises on the success of that Channel 4 series and brings some of its vibrant rough and ready spirit to the cinema.

For anyone who has seen the previous two TV films we're back in familiar territory on a rundown disadvantaged estate in Beeston, Leeds. But Mischief Night is full of...well, mischief, making it a different beast to the starker previous instalments in the trilogy (especially Tina Takes A Break) and breath of fresh air. Tina is still with Kev - just about - and long off the drugs, but she know has three children; teenage Tyler, the eldest, Kimberley and Macaulay. Her dad Don still runs the estate, but this time around he has a tacit agreement to deal drugs and get up to no good only on his side of the park, the other Asian side being owned by Qasim, a young drug dealer who, as a child dreamt of being a doctor and making people better like any good Asian boy, but now knows all he does is make people sick.

In opening up the story to the big screen, Woolcock explores the racial segregation and the Asian community for the first time. She's particularly interested in the growing inception of such divisions in communities, specifically the school segregation which came to light following New Labour's introduction of single faith schools in the late 1990s. It's all a strange new world for Tina, who once again serves as the film's narrator and its heart, packing her kids off to a predominantly white school every day, when she attended school and mixed freely with her Asian neighbours when she was young. A little too freely we come to learn as Kimberley discovers that her biological father, whom she was brought up to believe was dead, is actually an Asian still living in the neighbourhood - but who?  This desire to find out the truth is just one of several plot strands to the film that comes to a head on one boisterous mischief night (like Halloween, an annual Yorkshire celebration of delinquency which sees kids egging cars and setting fire to a collected heap of dog shit on someone's doorstep) that brings the divide tumbling down.

Woolcock shows an assured light touch here but she continues to tackle gritty hard hitting subjects such as radicalised Muslims, a local paedophile, drug dealing OAPs and junkie mums who are too preoccupied with their next hit to notice their baby is at risk, but in a more comedic fashion than before and, as ever, it is all based in truth.

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