Radio Times, Dec 16-22, 2006, by John Naughton

Nowhere like home
40 years since the seminal Cathy Comes Home a new TV drama takes up the cause of the homeless. John Naughton talked to writer-director Dominic Savage and two of its stars, Anne-Marie Duff and, first, Colin Firth.


On seeing Colin Firth in Dominic Savage’s powerful tale of homelessness, Born Equal, you could be forgiven for thinking the part he takes is hardly a stretch. After all, as Mark, a City hedge fund manager, stricken by guilt at his own wealth and with a desire to help London’s most needy, Firth, 46, appears to be playing the kind of comfortable, urban, middle-class role that over the years has been, if not his bread and butter, then certainly his focaccia and olive oil.

But, as the actor is at pains to point out, the role took him outside his comfort zone in more ways than one. It’s been suggested that to play a City boy with a conscience could be the ultimate challenge for any actor, but Firth found it difficult initially because the world of finance is a mystery to him.

“I don’t know people from that world at all,” he says. “I don’t understand it. I look at those screens and the figures and I feel like I’m drowning.”

This unfamiliarity became more of a problem because of Dominic Savage’s improvisational method of film-making. The director discussed with his cast the outline of the drama, which sees Mark befriend teenage runaway Zoë (Goldplated’s Nichola Burley) sleeping rough in London, but left it up to them to come up with their own dialogue.

“I don’t have anything in common with that character except that we might share an English accent,” explains Firth. “And that makes finding his words difficult. My way into the character was to see him as a guy for whom something snaps and his excuses don’t add up, whether it’s fear of fatherhood [Mark’s wife is pregnant] or just finding life empty. That’s something almost everybody has experienced at some time.”

With admirable candour, however, Firth—whose grandparents were Congregationalist missionaries—admits that his character is that, unlike Mark, he doesn’t have a guilty conscience.

“My own view is that Mark is a colossally naive person, and that’s a challenge for me,” he says. “I’m naive about a lot of things, but not in the areas that he is. I did my soul-searching many years ago. Now, when I see there’s something I feel I can do, I just do it and I know it’s inadequate, but I just live with the shortcomings. I throw my hands up and say, ‘Yeah, hypocrite! Contradictions? You’ve got me!’ I live quite comfortably alongside my excuses now. I’m not the soul-searcher I once was.”

Neither is that the only difference between the actor now and in his younger days. Asked if he considered sleeping rough for the purposes of researching his role, he laughs, “The short answer is I wouldn’t dream of it now. But there was a time when I would have leapt at it. Even if the part didn’t require it.”

Born Equal offered Firth the further challenge of shooting on the streets of London. At one point this involved a full-scale row with Nichola Burley’s character.

“There was no closed set,” he explains. “It was just off Marylebone High Street. We just had to do it and b****r off before the neighbours got cross.”

Yet, while the scenes were shot, nobody intervened—a fact that doesn’t surprise Firth. “People don’t want to get involved,” he reasons. “I think it’s embarrassment, which is a British quality. I remember some years ago Ben Elton joking about an untended package on the Tube, saying that British people would probably sit there hoping it would go off rather than face the embarrassment of asking if it belonged to anyone.”

Does this reflect one of the truths at the heart of Born Equal, that people prefer to look the other way, whatever the problem?

“Quite possibly,” he replies. “I remember years ago in [Falklands War drama] Tumbledown the camera was hidden in the roof of a supermarket on the King’s Road. I had half my brain hanging out and was one-handedly wheeling myself across the road. Everyone pretended I didn’t exist.”

Anne-Marie Duff

Anne-Marie Duff remembers Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) as the television drama that first made her aware that “perhaps the world wasn’t that great a place”.

It’s tempting to think that her moving performance in Born Equal may have a similar impact on a younger generation. The 35-year-old plays Michelle, a pregnant single mum who has run away to London with her daughter to escape domestic abuse. Michelle’s just one of the desperate people whose lives collide at a bed-and-breakfast temporarily housing the homeless.

The former Shameless star admits that the drama has been an education, and one that has caused her to question some of her self-confessed “woolly liberal” views.

“I had this scene where I was talking to a real social worker,” recalls Duff. “I was saying, ‘I’m a single mum and I have another child on the way’, and she said, ‘You’ll be looking at three years before you get somewhere to live.’ Facts like that blow your mind. I hope people will be affected.”

From her experience on location she believes, like Colin Firth, that the general public needs to be affected. Duff’s opening scene in the drama was shot on the concourse at London’s King’s Cross station, with cameras in the distance and the actress in apparent distress.

“Nobody, but nobody, asked me if I was all right,” she recalls. “I was a heavily pregnant woman, for all they knew, with a six-year-old girl, sobbing my eyes out, and nobody asked, ‘Excuse me, darling, are you all right?’ I was shocked. You like to think yourself that there’s no way you’d walk past someone like that.”

For Duff, whose next TV appearance will be in ITV1’s more upbeat The History of Mr Polly, due for transmission over Christmas, Born Equal carries a simple but powerful message.

“I suppose the message is that these people are out of sight and out of mind,” she says. “it’s asking us to question that.”

Dominic Savage

It is a measure of Dominic Savage’s life less ordinary that as a child he worked with both the idiosyncratic film director Stanley Kubrick and the hyperactive infant hoofer Bonnie Langford, and survived to tell the tale. The former was as a child actor in the 1975 film of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon; the latter, somewhat less grandly, as an organist on 1970s TV tot-talent programme Junior Showtime. Both were way-stations on his long and winding road to being one of Britain’s most respected film-makers, one associated with hard-hitting, socially conscious films like this latest project, Born Equal.

In work such as Love + Hate and When I Was 12, Savage has marked out his territory—identifying with the underdog and aiming to give a voice to the unheard. His social conscience, he believes, comes from growing up in Margate, Kent, where his father entertained holidaymakers with organ recitals in the summer months, and scratched a precarious living the rest of the year.

Inspired by his childhood meeting with Kubrick, Savage quickly realised, despite a brief stint at stage school, that his future lay behind the camera. After graduating from the National Film School, he began making documentaries—until he was exposed by a tabloid newspaper for having staged scenes in a film called Rough Males, which supposedly followed the lives of a group of Manchester wideboys.

“It hit the front page of the Daily Mirror,” chuckles Savage. “I had that page—‘Fake doc’—framed in my loo for a while.”

Savage abandoned documentaries for dramas, albeit ones shot in his unorthodox fashion, with a strong sense of realism, no rehearsals and improvised dialogue.

His track record made him an obvious choice when the BBC were looking for a new film to mark the 40th anniversary of Ken Loach’s landmark drama Cathy Come Home. Although Born Equal has no direct connection with the original (early, mistaken press reports suggested it was to be a sequel), Savage was delighted to get the call. To Colin Firth and Anne-Marie Duff in his cast of starry British talent, he added David Oyelowo as a Nigerian desperate to bring his father to Britain, and Robert Carlyle as an ex-con trying to find his mother.

“I was very interested in people who just don’t have anything in life,” explains Savage. “No-one to turn to and nowhere to go. Above all, what this film deals with is a lack of love, a lack of family, a lack of everything. It’s not just about not having money, which is bad in itself.”

Like Cathy Come Home, Born Equal at times makes uncomfortable viewing. While the showing of the former famously led to the creation of homeless charity Shelter, what does Savage think his film can achieve?

“As long as we think about those people’s lives, think about this ridiculous gap between the very rich and the very poor and our consciences are stirred, I’ll be happy,” he says. “I think it’s a warming that there by the grace of God go us. It wouldn’t take much for it all to fall apart. There aren’t the safety nets out there that we think there are.”

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