Penny Woolcock is a writer and director with a background in radical theatre and the trade union movement. She has worked across film, television, radio, and live opera, and made both fiction films and documentaries. She is best known for the “Tina” trilogy – Tina Goes Shopping, Tina Takes a Break and Mischief Night – and for her recent work with young people navigating urban life, in the musical film 1Day, documentary One Mile Away (which won Best British Feature at Edinburgh 2012) and installation Utopia. In 2012, she won the Inspiration Award from Sheffield Doc/Fest.
What really needs thinking about is how to welcome parents and carers back into the workforce after taking a break without penalising them.
What impact, if any, did being a single parent have on your decision to work in media, and on doing that work?
I became a single mother at nineteen and I was really skint and working at a series of crappy, low paid jobs – I worked in a hospital kitchen for years, picked blackcurrants, worked in a circuit board factory, waitressed, worked in a red light district bar in Barcelona – as well as being an artist, a trade union shop steward and a political activist. I am so happy that I had this time as it has informed all my work. I didn’t feel any less human or that my life lacked colour during that period, I just struggled paying bills! I think everyone should have some real life experience if they are going to try and tell stories about other people’s lives.
What about being a grandparent – how does that extend your view or change the stories you tell or shape your working practice?
Well it’s all about love isn’t it? I love my granddaughters and as it happens I have been writing a trilogy for BBC3 about young teenagers in the digital world and the youngest has been my best source of stories. I have talked to dozens of other kids from different backgrounds too but having her on tap has been brilliant. She texts me when something happens that she thinks I will be interested in. But because of the things that interest me and the kind of work I do I have a lot of real friends across a wide age range and backgrounds which keeps me grounded in the world.
I am so happy that I had this time [as a young single mother] as it has informed all my work. I didn’t feel any less human or that my life lacked colour during that period, I just struggled paying bills!
You’ve been working in British film and television as a director, writer and producer for nearly 30 years now. Have you seen any change in who gets to make work over that time — for better or worse?
I haven’t seen much change. There are women in some top jobs but they also come from a very narrow social class and the same universities. In terms of genuine diversity in the mainstream there has been no change apart from a lot of hot air and bluster. The film industry reflects society at large so those in power are primarily white men from privileged backgrounds. It’s just the way it is.
How have you sustained your career over that time?
I work across different mediums and I just choose the best way to tell a particular story. I make documentaries and fictions, which are mainly street cast, I’ve made archive films, I have written and directed a couple of radio plays and directed operas at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and for the English National Opera in London as well as The Passion in Manchester with Streetwise and The Sixteen. I never had a cunning plan, I always do things that I have a passion for but I think it has probably helped me survive as I am not dependent on one kind of funding.
I am lucky to be interested in things that become current, I have loved grime for many years and now it’s big that means I am in a good position to make work about it. You just have to hold your nerve.
I always do things that I have a passion for but I think it has probably helped me survive as I am not dependent on one kind of funding.
In the “Tina” trilogy, you follow a working-class single mother (played by Kelli Hollis) over nearly a decade, from a young mum of one to a mother of three looking back at her past relationships in Mischief Night. Why did you choose that character for such a sustained project, and how did you work with Hollis to bring her to life?
Initially I was interested in making a film that wasn’t sentimental about a place where opportunities for employment had vanished after Thatcher had de-industrialised this country. I felt that work that simply showed people as victims longing for the opportunity to go down a mine did not paint a truthful picture. I saw that a whole new culture had grown up, mainly around illegal activities and that it was resourceful and inventive. Tina Goes Shopping grew out of hanging about on various estates and becoming friendly with women who were making things up as they went along. I loved their humour and I liked Kelli as soon as I met her. I saw her recently and she is still as wild as ever.
Have you worked with parents or carers on any of your films, as cast or crew? What was that like? What were you able to do to accommodate their needs? Do you think that there is anything that funders or producers could do to enable more parents and carers could work in film and TV?
Kelli had a daughter but she was in a community where there are always people willing to look after each other’s kids. I have worked with women whose children were already teenagers and young women with no children but I honestly can’t think that I have worked with any women with babies or young children.
Oh… I tell a lie… there was an editor in Bristol and she needed to leave at a certain time for her children and needed advance warning if we had to work late. One. And editing can be more regulated. I have known producers with children but not crew. I write my own material but I believe there are women writers who can combine work and child rearing.
Of course I have worked with many men who had children of all ages and wives at home to take care of them.
In my experience filmmaking is a rabbit hole you disappear into and I don’t think it is compatible with having small children unless you are happy not to see them. So maybe what really needs thinking about is how to welcome parents and carers back into the workforce after taking a break without penalising them.
You’ve said in an interview that the education system isn’t working: can film and television offer alternative visions that engage young people? How might a more inclusive film and TV industry affect or produce those alternative visions?
Well, I didn’t go to film school so I can’t sit here and say it’s essential. I think having a group of peers can be very helpful and that’s something I never had, I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t understand how the system worked. But having a film school that valued different kinds of experiences, that was properly funded and went out to recruit the people who think it is not for them would change some things. I know from my own work that if you put out an open call you are basically inviting middle-class people to come forward. Nobody else will think it applies to them. You have to get off your arse and go to where the others are and encourage them. Things are getting worse if anything because unless a young person can afford to do several unpaid internships supported by their parents they can’t even get a foot in the door.
For UTOPIA, 1DAY and ONE MILE AWAY, you worked collaboratively with young people from marginalised communities: what did they bring to the production and why did you want to work with them? What made it possible to work with them, in terms of funding/support?
I am not sure I would call it collaborative because the work is mine in that I make the creative and editing decisions and shape the final film or piece. What I do is listen very carefully and make a space for people to tell their own stories as beautifully and authentically as possible. I only work with people who interest me, whose lives intrigue and inspire me, the people I fall in love with and make me want to know more about them, whose stories I want to tell. Getting funding for projects varies. Utopia was funded by the Roundhouse, 1 Day by Channel/Film 4 and One Mile Away by a myriad of different places and people. I have some projects I have been trying to get off the ground for six years but I’m not giving up.
Things are getting worse if anything because unless a young person can afford to do several unpaid internships supported by their parents they can’t even get a foot in the door.
For ONE MILE AWAY you were an early user of crowdfunding to get the film to audiences that needed to see it, particularly for screenings in schools and prisons. Did you find crowdfunding effective as a way to get alternate content to wider audiences?
Crowdfunding is a lot of work. Britdoc, who were amazing, assigned someone who was on the case every single day pushing the message out there. You can’t just put a video online and expect people to come to it. It was an eyeopener how much work went into raising £20,000. We were raising the money so we could offer screenings with speakers to places in inner city areas where we felt the film would be useful.
While many more film schools have sprung up since you started making films, the evening classes and workshops that got you started have lost funding and access to big producers. Given that, where will the next generation of radical and alternative filmmakers come from?
There will always be a group of insane people who will go for it despite all the obstacles. I did four two hour evening classes at the Oxford Film Makers workshop which is still going so it took me years to know what I was doing and I still don’t. If I knew I’d be bored. These days people can make films on their phones and edit on their laptops. There are radical grassroots movements emerging outside the repressive power structures and the most interesting things are happening out there.