Armed only with box sets of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, a political novice took on a heavyweight while making a film about his fight to be an MP. Lucy Richardson reports.

WHEN award-winning documentary maker John Walsh decided to stand at last year’s General Election, his campaign trail was overtaken with a self-confessed obsession.

He was determined to track down his main rival, Sir Stuart Bell, who had held the safe seat of Middlesbrough for 28 years, yet few people he spoke to had ever seen him.

The film that resulted – ToryBoy: The Movie – which he thinks could force a by-election, aims to expose Sir Stuart as an absentee MP.

Mr Walsh says on camera: “On paper, Stuart Bell is as popular as Santa at Christmas but, in reality, he is as popular as a fart in a phone box.

“Middlesbrough is like a town that politics forgot. It is like a Fifties sci-fi movie, people have been brainwashed by Labour.”

Mr Walsh was a staunch Labour supporter until the MPs’ expenses scandal broke and he saw the “dysfunctionality” of Downing Street under Prime Minister Gordon Brown while filming there.

The 41-year-old working-class London boy with Irish roots has built up a successful production company, Walsh Bros, with brother David, which makes documentaries about social issues for the BBC and Channel 4.

At Cineworld, in Middlesbrough, alongside summer blockbusters Transformers 3 and Kung Fu Panda 2, more than 180 local people sat back to watch the premiere of his film – a mixture of film footage, newsreel images and animation.

The film, which is peppered with expletives, opens with Mr Walsh talking about preparing for his first job interview in ten years – a grilling in front of a Conservative party selection panel.

He says: “I come from a Labour-supporting family, I never dreamt I would be switching teams this late on.”

After he is chosen as a prospective parliamentary candidate, he visits his first Conservative Party conference, which he compares to his experiences at the Cannes Film Festival: “This is like showbusiness for ugly people.”

He bags the Conservative candidacy for Middlesbrough, the first seat he applies for, and hotfoots it from the capital to Teesside.

There he starts to delve into the past of his seemingly insurmountable opponent, Sir Stuart.

The former frontbencher, 73, who once wrote a pornographic novel called Paris Sixty-Nine, was knighted for services to Parliament in 2004 and was the longest-serving Second Church Estates Commissioner in history.

He was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest accolade, by President Jacques Chirac in 2006 and is a member of the French think tank the Fondation Pour l’Innovation Politique.

HOWEVER, Mr Walsh is shocked to discover that, not only had Sir Stuart not held a surgery in the town for more than 15 years but few people he asked in Middlesbrough, or Paris where he spends time, even recognised him.

Throughout ToryBoy: The Movie he repeatedly telephones Sir Stuart, but every time he rings, his call goes to voicemail.

“He is content with being just a shadow,” he says in disbelief.

Mr Walsh is clearly frustrated by the apathetic voters he comes across on the streets, who say they would not change the way they vote, and shrug at Mr Walsh’s horror about the way he thinks they are being treated.

He rents a flat in the run-down Gresham area and starts holding surgeries, which Sir Stuart has stated in the past he does not legally have to do.

At a question and answer session following the screening, Mr Walsh says: “There’s nobody speaking up for this town and it’s the worse for it. If the Government cuts are bad everywhere else, here they are going to be horrific.”

At the pre-election hustings, where Sir Stuart does not make an appearance, he tells voters that he will have Sir Stuart jailed before Christmas if elected, a statement he later admits was “a bit of an exaggeration”.

Sir Stuart’s absence is also felt on the dismal day the Corus steelworks is mothballed with the loss of 1,700 local jobs.

“Vera Baird was there at Corus that day, she risked her neck and lost her head,” Mr Walsh says of the Redcar MP, who was toppled at the election by Lib Dem Ian Swales.

At the climax of the film, which cost him £150,000 to make, Mr Walsh eventually meets Sir Stuart at the election count.

The two clash when Mr Walsh overhears Sir Stuart tell a reporter that he had run a “pernicious campaign” to which he retorts: “You cannot treat me like the people of Middlesbrough.”

Their run-in ends after Sir Stuart’s son, Malcolm, becomes involved. He was sentenced to 60 days in prison in 2002 after stealing more than £8,000 from other politicians while working for his father as a House of Commons researcher.

He tells Mr Walsh “F**k off w****r” before smirking and sticking two fingers up at the camera while being ushered out of Middlesbrough Town Hall by Sir Stuart.

Sir Stuart notched up his seventh General Election victory in the town, where 16 out of its 23 wards are classed as deprived, albeit with a reduced majority.

He secured 15,351 votes, more than double the number polled by his nearest rival, Lib Dem candidate Chris Foote-Wood, on 6,662. Mr Walsh came third with 6,283.

Mr Walsh said Cineworld wants to show the film for a few weeks, Channel Four and BBC executives are interested in securing it and it will be shown at film festivals this autumn.

He tells the audience: “It’s up to you now. The die has been cast. Spread the word about the film and the change will start this evening.”

What does Sir Stuart make of his film stardom?

He was unavailable for comment when The Northern Echo tried to contact him.