When he set out to make a documentary about Teesside folk legend Vin Garbutt, film-maker Craig Hornby didn’t expect to get personally involved.
Then, he tells Steve Pratt, a story from his family’s past brought them together unexpectedly.
THIRTY years ago, the Teesside legend that is South Bank-born folk singer Vin Garbutt was so moved by the story of a local woman who fought for the right of her son, born with spina bifida, to live that he wrote a song about it.
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He called the woman Linda and her son Kevin. The song proved one of his most popular, with him recalling that after singing it on Danish radio, the station received the most calls they’d ever had in response to a song.
What he couldn’t have predicted was the reaction three decades later when he showed Saltburn film-maker Craig Hornby a songbook containing the stories behind some of his most famous songs. It emerged that Linda was Hornby’s aunt and Kevin his cousin.
“He had no idea,” says Garbutt. “He just recognised the characters in the song and said that’s my auntie and my cousin. It was quite a surprise. I’ve sung that song all over the world.”
Hornby was taken aback by the discovery. “It was the strangest thing, we didn’t know anything about the song in the family,” he says. “I told my auntie about it, but she died soon after and so never got to meet Vin.”
What brought the two men together was making a documentary feature about Garbutt’s 40 years of performing and taking the voice of Teesside around the world. It began with the singer wanting to make a concert DVD.
“I did a little bit of filming down in York but the quality was rubbish and at that point Craig came on the scene,” Garbutt recalls.
He knew of Hornby – who also comes from South Bank and went to the same school – through his documentary A Century In Stone. This story of the rise of Eston’s iron and steel industry earned a local cinema release and then sold well on DVD.
Initially, the idea was to do a documentary style show for TV but Garbutt had reservations.
“I’m not sure TV people know me. I might have a great audience and have played to hundreds of thousands of people live so they know me. But on TV I think I would be Vin who?,” he says.
So they made a documentary, Vin Garbutt: Teesside Troubadour, which premieres tonight at Middlesbrough Cineworld and will be then be given a week’s run at the cinema.
That’s quite an achievement for a locally-produced documentary.
Hornby says, “I’ve always known about Vin because we went to the same school, although he’s 20 years older – I’m 43, he’s 63. When A Century In Stone came out in 2004 a mutual friend put us in touch.
“At the end of 2006 I started off with the idea to sporadically produce a film about Vin by following him around the world and the North- East to shoot bits and bobs as his story unfolded.
“I was fascinated by showing this area in an impressive way. When I started making films in the late Eighties I wanted to make films about the area because you don’t see it much on film.
It’s a thrill to see the area presented in that way and Vin is part of that as a cultural icon for Teesside.”
Filming has taken him to capture Garbutt performing in Australia, Malaysia, Canada, Holland, Belgium, Belfast, London, Loftus, Eston and South Bank. “It’s a landmark documentary about a legend – a North-East story that needed to be told, and told properly,” says Hornby.
The documentary also featurs rare archive footage of Garbutt, including a early clip from a private party above a shop in South Bank.
“A lot of archive photographs have turned up,”
says Hornby. “I’d go round his house and me and Pat, his wife, would go through looking for old photographs. I’ve also interviewed fans and peers like Martin Mc- Carthy.
“It’s about what makes him tick, his inspirations and the controversial things that have ruffled a few feathers over the years. It’s not just a promotional thing, but a proper documentary.”
Hornby admits that Garbutt’s music didn’t appeal to him when he was younger. “I wasn’t into folk music, I was into punk and the whole social commentary thing. It was really music from the street. Folk music was this old-fashioned thing and I wasn’t into it.
“When I went to see him in Loftus I was absolutely knocked out by the passion of the man.
He’d been on the road for 35 years and still giving real gusto and passion. He was singing about social issues with zany patter between incredibly serious songs.
“He’s authentic, from South Bank. He’s intensely local, not parochial but global.
“He’s from Teesside, loves the place and went global with it. I’ve seen him have people abroad in hysterics with his Teesside patter.”
He found Garbutt, after some initial doubts, a willing subject for the documentary. “He was pretty open to everything. I’m a bit obsessive and wanted to know everything about everything,”
“The guy is incredibly easy to get on with.
There’s no one in the world he doesn’t get on with. I sat him in the hot seat loads of times and grilled him.”
Garbutt’s only worry is seeing himself on the big screen at tonight’s premiere. “That’s the most embarrassing part,” he admits. “I’ve only seen the film on a small screen in Craig’s studio.
It’s going to be embarrassing watching with an audience when it’s about me.”
After the screening he’ll be performing in a cinema for the first time – singing a few songs and answering questions from the sellout crowd.
■ Vin Garbutt: Teesside Troubadour is showing at Middlesbrough Cineworld from tomorrow until next Thursday, at 2.30pm and 7.30pm daily. Tickets: 0871-200-2000. Online: cineworld.com