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A leap of faith
10:00am Saturday 26th September 2009 in In The Picture
LAWYER and banker turned actor Charles Thomas Oldham – Chaz to his friends – came across Morris dancing through the family with whom he lodged as a teenager.
He was reminded of this peculiarly British traditional pastime when Lord of the Dance was played at a friend’s wedding. The same song had been played at the funeral of Don Campbell, the enthusiast whose home he’d shared and who had introduced him to Morris.
“The tune kept going round in his head and he wanted to honour Don,”
explains actress and wife Lucy Akhurst. “So the film is a tribute to Don and celebrating everyone’s right to be eccentric.”
Both she and Oldham grew up in the North-East. He was born in Gateshead, spending his early years there before moving south (“but I consider myself a Geordie”), while she moved with her family to Newcastle at the age of three. The pair met years later and married.
Oldham went to Cambridge, graduated with a law degree and was briefly a lawyer before becoming an investment banker and entrepreneur.
He gave that up to act.
“I’d left drama school late – I was 32 – and when you’re 6ft 3in and have red hair, you struggle. I was enjoying a good degree of success with voiceovers and decided to try to get something of my own done,” he says.
Eventually, he opted for a film centred around Morris dancers. He wrote, produced and stars in Morris: A Life With Bells On as Derecq Twist, leader of the Millsham Morris men, who clashes with the Morris establishment and goes to California to promote a new form of the dance, Extreme Morris.
The film is shot as a mockumentary which Akhurst – who directs and has a small role – points out means the documentary form is being mocked not the Morris tradition.
“I think of it more as a spoof documentary. It’s gentle and very affectionate, we’re celebrating the eccentric and what people do with their lives,” says Akhurst, who got her TV break in Tim Firth’s series All Quiet on the Preston Front.
Morris: A Life With Bells marks her feature film directorial debut.
She didn’t particularly harbour any directing ambitions. Quite the opposite.
“I remember directing something at the People’s Youth Theatre, in Newcastle, and I hated it. I was dreadful, the worst director on the planet.
It was something I never wanted to repeat,” she says.
“But Chaz’s script was so good, which is half the battle. We had interest from a couple of people of note and I thought, this is so important to Chaz I don’t want anyone else to make this into something he doesn’t want.”
One day, she offered to direct the film and, to her surprise, he didn’t hesitate to say yes. They were aware of the dangers of a couple working together. “People have said how come you’re still married but it’s actually been sickeningly easy,” he says.
Akhurst agrees: “I trust his instincts as an actor and he trusts mine as a director. Coming from an actor’s background, I know how to talk to actors.
Some of the best directors I’ve been directed by have come from acting backgrounds.”
As well as Oldham, the cast include Derek Jacobi, Naomie Harris, Ian Hart, Sophie Thompson, Aidan McArdle, Harriet Walter and Greg Wise.
The film was made for £500,000 but its look doesn’t betray the small budget.
It looks like it cost a lot more, even if the makers used the South Coast for “California”, cramming three days shooting into one day to take advantage of the blue skies.
Oldham’s background helped when it came to raising money for the movie. Akhurst says: “Chaz started as a lawyer and investment banker, so he was the perfect person to go into our chief investor’s office and say I want your money. He talks their language. We’ve run this film company as a business and kept our investors abreast of every change and treated them with respect.”
They were aware that getting the finished film distributed wasn’t going to be easy. Independent films have a notoriously difficult time getting the big distributors and cinema chains to show them. Despite good reaction at test screenings, some distributors insisted there wasn’t an audience for this type of film.
Oldham believes that it appeals not just to the Morris and folk world, but the type of cinemagoers – the more mature Calendar Girls audience, as he defines it – neglected by multiplex planners in their desire to aim for younger cinemagoers.
Oldham and Akhurst began with test screenings in the South-West where reaction proved amazing. Most of the 32 screenings sold out, giving them a better seat average than musical blockbuster Mamma Mia.
Their faith in the project has been repaid by the Picturehouse chain which booked the film for screenings and, with healthy advance bookings, have extended the runs even before the film has opened. The release has grown from 18 screens to 50 this week, with about 100 venues due to show the film during the autumn.
“We have the most amazing following,”
says Akhurst. “Ordinary people seem to go nuts with this film. In the South-West, some people saw it three times and have booked to see it again.
It’s the most amazing people pleaser.”
■ Morris: A Life With Bells On (12A) shows at York City Screen tomorrow and Newcastle Tyneside on October 17 and 18.