Brian W. Lavery talks to director Sean McAllister, the man behind a documentary revealing the flip side of his home town’s UK City of Culture year. A Northern Soul follows a factory worker’s struggle to pursue what seems like an impossible cultural dream.
A Northern Soul is an apt description for both director Sean McAllister and the title of his documentary. This powerful film – described by Guardian critic Charlie Phillips as a “work of radical empathy” – tells of Hull factory worker Steve Arnott’s last gasp battle to make his hip-hop dream come true in the year his home town became UK City of Culture.
Arnott needs backing for his goal to take music to disadvantaged kids in the city’s schools and to encourage creativity through hip-hop in his Beats Bus – a coach donated by a local firm and converted into a studio. But this is Hull not Hollywood, and happy endings are in short supply.
After his 2015 Sheffield Doc Fest Grand Jury Winner, A Syrian Love Story, McAllister returned home as curator of the opening show of the culture year: a massive cinematic story of his great native port city, projected onto buildings across the city. While working on this he lived with his 90-year-old parents, Joe and Kath, and reflected on changes to his native city hit by cuts, divided by Brexit, and thrust into the world’s spotlight.
McAllister was drawn to the fringes of his home town where he encountered Arnott, a struggling warehouse worker. From here the filmmaker started on his flip-side story of the culture city.
Arnott is a man who can’t makes ends meet. He works all hours in a dead-end job, night after night in a soul-draining factory, while a world away in the same city thousands of air-kisses are exchanged over complimentary drinks during must-see events which put Hull on the map.
McAllister is as honest as his films. He was nearly an hour late when I messaged him to ask why I was still alone waiting to interview him in a place where coffee costs more than beer. He is an acclaimed documentarian – a very busy man. He could have easily made an excuse and I would have believed him. His reply to my text read: “Fuck I forgot! I will jump in the car now.”
A quarter of an hour later and with fresh coffees ordered the filmmaker seemed keen to make up for lost time, and quickly demonstrated the inevitability of the “radical empathy” of his work as described by The Guardian critic. For McAllister’s film reflects not just Arnott’s struggle but also his own, that of his city and his – and my – class.
Artistic dreams pursued by him and hip-hop artist Arnott differ only in genre. Their determination is equal. McAllister had been the factory worker with no way out too. He sees himself in Arnott. McAllister revealed that he’s lucky to be working at all given that he “retired” at 17.
“I left school at 16 with nowt and worked a dead-end factory job for about year. I did not know what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t that.”
After a year of drudgery, he quit and signed on. For nine years, the only work he did was “the season” – summers at Hull’s Birds Eye pea processing plant when hordes of seasonal workers were taken on. During his decade of work avoidance, an angry young McAllister watched his middle-class contemporaries prosper and longed to join them. In one way, he did. His house backed onto the University of Hull campus and the young man pretended to be a philosophy student and blagged his way into student parties.
Like it is said of the Irish writer Brendan Behan, McAllister may not have had an education but he certainly “met the scholars coming home”.
He says: “They seemed to have it easy. I realised I was going to have to do something to get my piece of the cake. I knew I could not go on as I was. I needed to know what they knew.”
He took himself to the local FE college and signed up for A-levels in psychology, sociology and communications. “One of the teachers there, Ron Fairfax, took me under his wing, made me politically aware. There was also a photography teacher there a guy called Phil Cosker. They let me know that maybe there was more for a kid like me.”
But there was no epiphany just yet. McAllister says: “I loved learning, but I never took the exams. The Outreach Community Arts project in Hull’s Northumberland Avenue had a filmmaking project for the unemployed. I had found what I wanted to do. We were a bunch of unemployed losers set loose with cameras. We made films about our city, the demise of the fishing, that sort of thing. Year after year I applied to the National Film and Television School and they just kept telling me to fuck off.”
Ironically, it was the drudgery of being a wage slave that changed his fortunes. Using a small Sony video camera, his first film, The Season, got him into film school in 1991, aged 26. McAllister had written to Sony asking for help and they gave him the camera and editing software. “I was cheeky and asked them for the gear. I will always be grateful to them. That changed my life. I had nowt.”
This was to a literal road to Damascus for McAllister, now a BAFTA–nominated film director whose work has received worldwide acclaim. His 2015 film A Syrian Love Story was made at great personal cost and at one point led to him languishing in a Syrian prison. He was flitting between Hull and Damascus when he met Arnott.
McAllister recalls: “I started out to make a film in Hull about what broadly is going on with working people today. I spent a long time looking for dignified human beings who represent the respectable face of the working class. There had been a torrent of TV shows full of blame – the Benefits Britain kind of shite.
“I put the word out that I was looking for folk to interview. That’s how I find my characters, by ingratiating myself with as many people as possible and telling them what I am after. There’s a very interesting lady in Hull called Rebecca Robins, an artist and a friend of Steve. At the same time, she had told Steve about me. He came up to me in a crowded room after a screening of the Syrian film and said, ‘I think we have a mutual friend called Rebecca’. He had a little piece of paper. He handed it to me and said, ‘this is my city of culture dream’.”
Arnott’s ambition – to take a hip-hop to schoolkids in his Beats Bus – was rejected by the City of Culture. Crowdfunding raised 20 quid. The core of the film, for this writer at least, was when Arnott looked through the camera, seemingly directly at me: “I am 42 and I’ve got fuck all.”
This must also have struck a chord with the director, as he recalls from his time spent editing: “The film I was interested in making suddenly had a much more interesting angle for this year of culture. It was no longer just about the working class or the working poor or the plight of the working class today. It was now about how can we engage with working class people in culture when they are marred and burdened with the difficulties of just getting by. Steve was exactly what I was looking for. He was a factory worker with a cultural dream.”
A Northern Soul had its world premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest earlier this year. It then was ‘re-premiered’ at the University of Hull’s Middleton Hall, followed by eight days of showings to sell-out audiences in Hull’s Vue Cinema. It will also be shown on BBC2 later in the year following a nationwide tour of cinemas, including HOME in Manchester.
By Brian W. Lavery
Brian W. Lavery is a Scottish writer based in Hull, where he runs a community writing project. He also teaches creative writing at the University of Leeds and with the Workers’ Educational Association. He is author of The Headscarf Revolutionaries and The Luckiest Thirteen (Barbican Press) Visit his website at: brianwlavery.com