The Selfish Giant: Kings of the trash heap

Clio Barnard's tale of two Bradford boys, literally on the scrapheap, has little in common with the Oscar Wilde fairytale that gave it its name.

The Selfish Giant (15)
dir: Clio Barnard

Clio Barnard, who made her debut with The Arbor, an innovative drama-documentary about the playwright Andrea Dunbar, has done her second picture no favours by naming it after Oscar Wilde’s short story. Time spent puzzling over what the parallels might be between the tale of an ogre who outlaws children from his garden and this film about two Bradford boys scavenging for scrap metal is time wasted. The film is its own beast with its own beauty, and a spirit that’s wild rather than Wildean.

A sole point of contact between story and film is the idea of exclusion, of children banished into the wilderness. The heroes of The Selfish Giant are a non-matching set of little-and-large urchins: Swifty (Shaun Thomas), an overgrown packhorse of a lad, and Arbor (Conner Chapman), a pipsqueak with a pickaxe face. Every avenue in which these boys might explore childhood has been closed off to them. At 13, they are debt-payers, working stiffs, parents to their own parents.

The first shot shows Arbor in a rage under his bed, pummelling the wooden slats as though he has awoken to find himself the victim of premature burial. He hasn’t been taking his ADHD medication, though his problems are not exclusively clinical. With no father in sight, he has appointed himself the man of the family. When his mother (Rebecca Manley) won’t accept the money he’s earned selling scrap, Arbor fumes, “I worked my arse off for this!”

The disparity between his belligerent phrasing and his sparrow-weight frame is obliquely amusing. It’s played more broadly for laughs when he barks instructions at a police officer entering the house: “Shoes off!” He can be adult in his tenderness, too. When his mother is crying, he cradles her head and pats it softly in a manner he could only have learned from her.

Childhood is no rosier for Swifty. The electricity has been cut off at home and his father (Steve Evets) is flogging the furniture. Even the taunts traded in the school playground feel shaped by adult concerns. “Your family’s gonna be in debt for ever!” says a bully to his victim. Whatever happened to mocking a classmate’s nose or ears, or impugning his mother’s sexual conduct?

The nearest that Swifty and Arbor get to innocent play is when they lounge sleepily together on a broken trampoline. Energy they should be expending climbing trees or playing football is channelled into moneymaking schemes.

The boys fall in with Kitten (Sean Gilder), the volatile owner of a local scrapyard. He has a fearsome-looking machine with gnashing teeth for extracting aluminium wire. It seems entirely possible that Arbor and Swifty will be fed to this monster if they step out of line.

Over a landscape of gnarled metal stand rows of electricity pylons, humming insidiously. The cinematographer Mike Eley sometimes shoots with a long lens through grass so that a subtle green fuzz is visible at the edges of a frame otherwise dominated by greys and rusted bronzes. The enduring struggle between human cruelty and nature’s consolations is nicely captured in such compositions.

But there is an inevitability to the fates of Arbor and Swifty that feels too easy, dramatically speaking. Barnard’s previous film used transformative techniques to lift the material out of the kitchen sink: actors lip-synced to recordings of the story’s real-life subjects, while a performance of Andrea Dunbar’s writing was staged on the Bradford estate where she once ruled over her children, booze in hand.

The Selfish Giant falls back instead on a familiar stylistic palette (the dramatic DNA of Ken Loach, the stalking camera of the Dardenne brothers) every bit as orthodox as the portrayal of no-income families steeped in misery, crime and cold baked beans.

At least Dunbar coaxes a pair of miraculous performances from her young lead actors, both of whom make their feature debut here. And she remains alert to the telling visual details that lend exotic flavours to a drab image: a Lottery sign glowing sinisterly along a precinct of iron shutters, or the care with which a plump sofa is manoeuvred out of a doorway like a vital organ extracted in a game of “Operation”.

Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and Arbor (Conner Chapman) in The Selfish Giant. Image: BFI.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.