From Feltham Sings

Pre-titles shot of a corridor at Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Hill likes to get shots such as these as ‘cutaways’ for the distinctiveness of the sounds within institutions as much as for the sights.

Pre-titles: prisoner Cass performs the self-written rap number ‘This is Me!’

Cass: ‘For the next three years/ I face my fears/ And all my tears/ have been shed.’

Paul – sentenced to 12 months for burglary.

Paul’s song ‘Boomerang Boy’: ‘All my crowd been crooked from the start/ It’s hard to go straight when you’ve got a crooked heart.’

‘I might be a titch but I can handle myself/ I’m a one man menace to the National Health.’

Sniffer dog Dylan looks for drugs in a Feltham cell.

An official notice.

On v/o, a spoof advert from the inmates’ radio station, Feltham 999, says: ‘Every room has its own state-of-the-art entertainment system including 32" home cinema with surroundsound…’
[999 is the UK’s equivalent of 911 – the police and emergency services line].

Linden’s rap about prison rules ‘Surviving Feltham’, was also self-written. It is underscored by ironic captions. This is rule 3 about washing. He raps: ‘keep yourself clean…wash those pits and the bits in between…’

Rule 6: ‘don’t do tricks.’

New Zealander James, arrested at a Brixton nightclub on drugs offences during his gap year, has this photo of himself on his cell wall.

In his poem James talks of his dreams of being a pilot but: ‘I’m a Kiwi, I’m grounded, with peacocks outside.’

Kenroy Cole, once a jailed drug-user himself, now head of drug counselling at Feltham.

Kenroy’s reggae number: ‘We can teach about good/ But it’s not a reflex/ We can learn to love/ But it’s not in your double helix.’

Prison Officer Dave Worley, in charge of physical education, sings ‘Two steps forward (and three steps back).'

‘Boys with stabs and slashes in their skin/ The naked truth comes out in the gym.’

Cass asks Linden; ‘Do you feel any remorse for what you done?’

Linden: ‘In a way I feel sorry for the victims ‘cos they didn’t deserve it, you get me?’

Terell: ‘I’m in a business where it’s called basically car crime.’

Terell’s song ‘On Road’ is one of several in which Hill uses a split-screen in imitation of music video.

Robin is the ‘Nightwatch Man’ because the authorities fear he may attempt suicide.

Two officers outside Robin’s cell sing: ‘We watch him at night/ He’s the nightwatch man.’

While another voice intones the numbers, Robin sings: ‘Six – I’d never top myself, that’s just madness. Five – these cuts you see are from thorns and brambles.’

The ubiquitous Feltham peacocks – Robin for one says he would cheerfully kill them for the noise they make every morning.

Terell gets ‘on road’ as he is released at the conclusion of Feltham Sings. Linden explains: ‘Anything beyond that gate is ‘road’! It’s freedom, man!’

The two friends and cell-mates Cass and Linden reprise the rap ‘This is Me!’…

‘This is me/ I know you don’t see what I see/ In HMP/ Can’t wait for that day when free.’ [ HMP = Her Majesty’s Prison, as in HMP Feltham]


Feltham Sings (2002)

Hill and Armitage took more risks in Feltham Sings (commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 in 2002). Initially the network was approached by veteran documentary-maker Roger Graef, who had gained access to Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Situated in West London, near Heathrow Airport this facility is the largest youth detention center in Europe. Hill acknowledges that the collaboration with Graef’s "Films of Record" company was an uneasy one, because Graef had a very different film in mind. It was the network’s idea to get Graef and Hill to combine forces.[16]

Feltham is a prison known for its high suicide rate and difficult conditions. Most of the young inmates have been sentenced for drug-related offences, theft, and both petty and violent crime. While there is a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, the majority of offenders are black and working class. Because of negative publicity over the years, Feltham is also camera shy. Hill told us:

"We had such a tough time in Feltham – the governor didn’t want us there, the senior management team didn’t want us there. But they were told from on high [i.e. the British Government’s Home Office]: 'You will have these people!' It was very difficult in Feltham, we were very restricted as to where we could go."

Expansion of the musical element was to some degree to compensate for these restrictions.

Feltham Sings virtually reverses Drinking for England’s balance of poetry and song. There is one poem and seven songs, sung by inmates, prison warders and a social worker. Music video aesthetics were expanded, with split-screens and further text-on-screen graphics decorating the songs. "Dextrous" (a.k.a. Errol Francis) was chosen as composer because of his expertise with reggae, rap, hip-hop and drum‘n’bass music. All these styles have roots in experiences of oppression and have a long history of telling alternative stories, especially of young people. They were appropriated to allow a selection of the inmates to tell their stories and to talk about their experiences as "outlaws." The songs work with and sometimes against the stories’ content.

All but two of the songs had lyrics written by Armitage. Inmates Cass Galton and Linden George turned his lyrics down and wanted to write their own. The working process in documusical allows plenty of room for negotiation so they were given their head. Cass’s rap "This is Me" is good enough to be repeated three times in the course of the film (once as a duet with Linden). Good as both their songs are, however, they do close Linden and Cass off. The two of them reveal more of themselves in interview than in their self-penned songs. Their lyrics comprise a relatively commonplace lexicon of hip-hop/rap. While Armitage readily admitted he "could never have written anything with that rhythm," the songs do not crystallize character in quite the way songs in documusicals often do.

Paul McBride’s song (a particular favorite of director Brian Hill) is a case in point. McBride’s understated vocals for "Boomerang Boy" contrast with the harshness of his surroundings, the severity of his sentence, and the nature of his crimes. The latter are detailed in the lyric, and include attacking someone with a cricket bat. He sings of drugs, violence and the vicious circle of multiple re-entries to the world of prison. Drawn in by the visual aesthetics of the music video, it is difficult not to engage with song and singer – "a boy," he sings, "born in Holloway." A pop star for three minutes, McBride is still recognizably a vulnerable amateur singer. When the words kick in with the harder story that they tell, delivered by a disarmingly uncertain singer, they challenge the viewer to a complex response.[17]

Hill mixes locations and camera set-ups. As McBride talks and sings about his life, images are at one moment documentary and at another music video in style. McBride speaks and sings in his cell, in corridors with bars, in the prison games room (surrounded by warders who become his backing singers). Most poignantly he sings in the empty Visitors’ Room. Here, waiting for a mother who fails to turn up he sings:

"Your ma says she’ll visit, then suddenly she can’t,
So you’re sat for an hour in a corner like a cunt.
Wanna be a chef, wanna be a stuntman.
Don’t wanna sit in a corner like a cunt, man."

Lyric and performance add a distinctive layer to McBride’s presentation of self.

A further note on process

Armitage’s aim in all his lyrics has been to uncover the subjects' distinctive speech pattern and mannerisms – the signature tune, as it were, behind their every utterance. Feltham prisoner Terell Theusday offers a good example. Terell used "what-not" as a speech-filler in the way many people would say "blah, blah, blah." The lyric of Terell’s song "On Road" seizes on and makes a feature of this verbal tic. Early in the development of the methodology, Armitage worked from interview transcripts. He could, he told us, hear enough of a voice even through a transcript, provided it was a good one. If someone had "tidied" the language, or edited to reflect their own view of what was important, the voice tended to be lost so transcripts were never ideal.[18]

The evolved process of making documusicals can best be illustrated by reference to the work-in-progress Songbirds. Hill’s researchers first find participants for these very special films. For Feltham Sings, there were two researchers, working over a six-month period. Songbirds, says Hill, "had an assistant producer, a producer and a researcher going out for a period of about 6-8 weeks." Their task was to go into Downview, a women’s prison in South London, to find individuals prepared both to talk and eventually to sing. From a total prison population of about 230 prison inmates and about 150 actual interviewees Hill was trying to find:

"a variety of characters, [with] a variety of ages, of crimes – women who were interesting, had issues and wanted to talk about things."

Interviews in depth were conducted with about 20 women with the aim "to find the best material for Simon Armitage." Mini-disc is now the team’s preferred option to transcripts. Eventually four individuals featured prominently in the film, transmitted on 15 December 2005 on the UK’s Channel 4.

Armitage spoke to us of the danger of being "overwhelmed" by some of the stories – especially those from Feltham and Downview. He feels a strong need to maintain critical distance from often harrowing material.[19] He also sees himself as "still learning" to write lyrics that will achieve the compacted revelation of the best popular songs: "I have a project to be simple and clear, to get out of the poetry mindset when I’m writing lyrics." A developing relationship with Simon Boswell (the only musician to work on two documusicals) means that by this point:

"I offer the stuff to him as fabric, really. I don’t see it as fixed and unchangeable like my poems are when I send them to the publisher. I don’t see this stuff like that at all."

‘Producing text for [a] musician" is not, as he remarked, the kind of thing most poets want to do, but it is essential to the pared-down nature of the song lyric

While the lyric is being written, the creative team negotiates a style with the selected singer. Simon Boswell composes a tune, and then records a demo version so the participants can hear, comment on and own their song. The singers subsequently work with a singing coach, Barb Jungr. Hill says that she is:

"a fantastic singer herself, but more important she’s a brilliant teacher. She did Feltham too – which was a bit tricky because the lads’ attitude was 'I don’t need no fucking singing coach, I can sing anyway!'"

For the women of Songbirds:

"I introduced them to Barb, and they’d be nervous and say, "I can’t sing!’…and an hour later these women were totally transformed – you could see them blossoming. [20]

"Blossoming" and "finding a voice" was something in which the whole team believed passionately. Simon Boswell said:

"These women have been put in prison and denied a voice, so giving them a song is a process of giving them self-esteem. I’ve worked with and watched a lot of professional singers, and what strikes me is that if they’re any good they are both confident in what they’re doing and at the same time vulnerable … These [documusical] performers are amateurs and you’ve got to help to shore up their vulnerability. The song is about them, an endorsement of their lives. If they can do it – if they can sing it – it gives them self-belief."

A belief in the restorative, therapeutic power of the work was strong in the creative team. "Being given a song," Boswell remarked,

"is a short cut to the real emotional hub of what you’re about. I think the audience get this, because of that combination in singing of being vulnerable and showing bravery."

Armitage too believes the respect one feels for people who put themselves out on a limb in this way has a pay-off:

"We talk a lot [when were making the films] about whether we are taking advantage of people. We’re really conscious of this. At the same time, we’re not social workers of TV, and we do get people to tell their stories. Through this maybe they have a moment of revelation, or recovery. I think it is a form of help for some people – a form of healing even."

Feltham Sings exemplified this factor for Armitage because the young offenders "have been effectively written off as useless by society. The film shows they can do something."[21]

Pornography the musical (2003)

With Pornography the Musical (Channel 4, 2003) Hill and his team entered territory even more ethically challenging than alcohol abuse and youth imprisonment. Simon Armitage admits:

"I was nervous of the subject, especially given that our treatment is pretty extravagant and graphic."

Predictably, perhaps, the film got the highest visibility of all the documentary musicals in press reviews and TV discussion programs. Reviews tended to polarize around attitudes to the subject of pornography. As Armitage remarked, sex is a subject that British people especially become "very weird about and have great difficulty with." On transmission, Channel 4’s continuity announcer gave warnings about content not only before the start but also at the end of each of the three ad breaks. The team claim neutrality on the subject. Brian Hill told the 2004 Sydney Symposium: "What I was trying to say was, 'This is their world. This is the work they do!'" But with a subject like pornography the non-judgmental approach, however sincerely held, will never satisfy everyone.

There are seven songs (plus one reprise over the closing credits) in Pornography – the Musical all composed by Armitage/Boswell. We take as our example the first song "Where is the heart?" sung by "semi-retired porn star" Kelly Cooke (who sings three songs altogether). In the "Where is the heart?" sequence she talks first about how she got involved in the industry. We move rapidly to a highly stylized and clearly staged musical rendition of her introductory thoughts. Hill shows two Kellys: a young (acted) Kelly and a watching, older, (real) Kelly. Young Kelly plays out the approach from someone in a bar that leads to increasingly "heartless," increasingly pornographic, increasingly painful physical and mental experiences. Older Kelly watches and reflects on what is happening/has happened. As the expectations of what young Kelly will "reveal" become more and more gynecological, the lyric makes acerbic comments:

"It’s a bit like an X-Ray, a bit like Art.
But where is the heart, man? Where is the heart?"

In the interview sequence that follows the song, Kelly comments wryly on her life as a porn star. She concludes (and with a significant Freudian slip):

"Everyone always says, 'You should write down your story!' But I just think there are so many of those kind of stories out there, you know? I don’t want to be a hard luck story. I wanna be… Like anyone else out there I want a certain degree of success, and look how I got it! I wish I’d gotten my sex/success another way."

Porn stars like Kelly, Michelle, Rebekah and Faye are used to performing. To tell their stories through overt performance was not such a huge step as it had been for Hill’s drinkers and young offenders. The level of performance was accordingly ratcheted up in this film, which is more staged than either Drinking for England or Feltham Sings. In Pornography – the Musical the styles and the sets used reflect more overtly the codes and conventions of musical theater and film.[22]

But there is a generic similarity with the other films. Pornography – the Musical facilitates a similar extension of voice through the song. The barrier between audience and documentary subject/ performer/ participant is once again lowered and the level of formal and ethical complexity raised. In this film the viewer is forced into a rather uncomfortable position. Formally, there are even similarities to the final scenes of a film such as Man Bites Dog. Suddenly an accusatory finger is pointed at an audience simultaneously consuming a kind of porn while (supposedly) considering soberly the porn industry. We see an old-fashioned critique given new potency through innovative filmmaking in Pornography – the Musical.[23]

Ethical complexity and
authenticity in performance

We also believe that a rather different evidential quality attaches to all these films. The singers/ documentary subjects are not "just performing." Authenticity inheres in believable performance and credible lyrics from both the musical drama and the documentary angles. Performance and story may have been rehearsed, but convincing performance is predicated on a specific documentary value asserted in the "documentary proper" parts of the films. Also, it not only sounds as if they are using their own words and telling their own stories, they are – thanks to the compositional processes involved. Moments of song cause authentic performance to flicker into life only insofar as they are ratified by a performer’s prior and subsequent documentary presence and by a viewer’s appreciation of the complex codes and conventions being evoked. What Fernando Andacht calls "index appeal" both supplements and bolsters performances that allude simultaneously to music video and music theatre.[24]

At "Visible Evidence" in 2005 Maria Baltar spoke about the "intimacy pact" between a documentary filmmaker and subject and the way this "pact" feeds into what an audience sees on the screen. Our view is that, because the process is one of negotiation and the performance one of demonstrable bravery, the documusical enhances intimacy pacts between participant and creative team and then between audience and film.[25] Hill’s corpus of work bears out his commitment to serious issues, and this commitment is no less strong in the documusicals partly because of the intimacy pact struck with his subjects. But because participants don’t just get their voices heard the different modalities of voice dramatized in the films produce an effect that speaks back to the stereotypes that have hitherto confined them. In "giving voice" in song the participants "enhance and project [their] marginalized identity" in an altogether arresting way.[26]

In the vulnerability of their performances and in their amateurness, the drinkers, Feltham inmates and porn stars are caught in a performative spotlight framed by documentary imperatives. With these films so clearly performed rather than observed at the punctum moment of the songs, the ethical is not just foregrounded as an issue, it is boldly asserted. The ethical is made complex in the song and verse sequences first by modalities of voice – there are significant differences between anyone’s speaking and singing voices (the latter being far more vulnerable). But there are also visual modalities in which the aesthetics of music video collide with documentary and force comparison and contrast both with "documentary proper" and with polished music video.[27]

In the progression evident over time in the three documusicals, there has been a conscious move from documentary underplaying to a melodramatic overplaying. Allied to this, there has been an increasing fabrication of mise-en-scène and a shift into overtly "dramatic" lighting and sound. But there is still a big difference, we believe, between performance in this context and acting a part in a drama. Within these three documusicals, participants perform their identities and tell their stories. But the individual performances serve a broader, edgier narrative. Individual stories are linked into larger narratives nominating social issues and discourses of race, class, and gender. These are referenced via popular forms – musicals, music video, new documentary – that are quoted rather than copied.[28]

Documusicals raise many questions, and provoke a range of emotional and intellectual reactions. Documentary, trailing its history of seriousness, is not usually associated with the delirium of song and poetry. But this melodramatic mode should not be seen as a backdrop to, or a diversion from, "real" documentary stories. Song and verse constitute the very core of these texts. The films are rooted in traditions of documentary, musical theatre and film, poetry and jazz recitals, pub culture, and recent youth subcultures. A very English genealogy can also be traced – to, for example, Humphrey Jennings’ documentary films and Dennis Potter’s television dramas. Both these artists exploited genre in different media by exploring formal boundaries – Jennings with quirky poetic films like Spare Time (1939) and A Diary for Timothy (1945), Potter with his reflexive use of popular song in TV drama series such as Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986).

Hill has a lot in common with Jennings and Potter. Englishness, we feel, has been a factor in several ways. The culture of traditional English pubs and workingmen’s clubs always had a critical, political edge, its entertainments especially able to critique the "boss class." English musical theatre, too, has traditionally been able to encompass a seriousness and depth in works such as Oh What a Lovely War. This 1963 documentary musical, produced by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, was in its time nothing less than a forensic examination of the exploitation by their rulers and commanders of the British and Empire working-class during the slaughter of World War One.[29]

Yet we do not deny that the excess of the documusical troubles our own sense both of what documentary currently consists in and what it may yet become. Hill’s work unsettles expectations and invites us to view the relationship between the documentary image and the "real world" afresh. These works ask us to think about how we evaluate documentary truth and the place of testimony within it. Their innovatory power is poised especially awkwardly between creativity and commodity. In the former sense they drive documentary in the direction of a productive diversity. In the latter sense, they have a kind of "Research and Development" function for an industry ever voracious for ideas. The idea behind Big Brother, for example, has morphed and persisted as the global television industry seeks to maximize its earning potential – and whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter for continuing serious debate.

The current diversity in the expanding field of documentary rests on a presence before camera and microphone that constitutes documentary’s perennial "index appeal." But this very appeal will be seen by some as potentially weaker following importation of codes and conventions from other forms. Our instinct is to accept the performances in documusical as evidential in an altogether new way. Our belief is that documusical enhances both the reach and grasp of documentary. Through this innovation in form, documentary has moved towards a fresh acknowledgement of the complexities in a mediatized society inherent in truth-in-representation.

Continued: Notes

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