How we made a film with the Turner Prize winners


We’ve just made a film with Assemble, the extraordinary collective of artists, designers and architects who won the 2015 Turner Prize.

The film looks at the developing relationship between Assemble, the residents of Granby Four Streets in Liverpool and the beautiful products coming out of the workshop they jointly run. Products you can buy from their website, I hasten to add.

The difficult thing was nailing the story. It was a bit like putting up a tent. You look at the instructions. You see what’s come out of the bag. And you realise it’s much bigger and more complex than you initially thought.

The story behind this years Turner Prize is one of ‘bloody minded’ residents and creative visionaries working together in the service of a community that’s been under siege for decades. In 1981, after years of overt racism and neglect, the patience of Toxteth had run out. The people rioted. Afterwards things got even worse. Wave after wave of urban planning seemed to have only one objective: demoralise the people, tear it all up and start all over again. (Ok, that’s three objectives but you get my drift). The thing is, the people who lived there didn’t want to start all over again. This was their home. Jump forward thirty-five years and the residents of Granby Four Streets are already turning things around. When Assemble arrive, the once beaten up, bullied and neglected neighbourhood has become the fabric they can work on together.

My journey started on a bright day in November a couple of weeks before the Turner Prize was announced. I was meeting Lewis Jones and Fran Edgerley of Assemble at their studio in Stratford to discus a film. Assemble wanted something that would focus on the workshop and get people excited by the products. And for good reason. Assemble are nothing if not altruistic and the money going into the workshop goes back into the community and the project.

Great stuff. Although I could see a problem. The Guardian quoted someone from Assemble saying they are “sort of architects, sort of not, sort of maybe”. I’m sure this is a reflection of their self-effacing approach to life and work. But if I wasn’t careful I’d be making a “sort of, sort of not, sort of maybe advert”. Assemble naturally shy away from anything that’s superficial or glossy. So do I. I loathe the advertising industry and the out-dated dinosaurs and concepts still lumbering around. Everything is about the big idea. In this world it’s easy for anything that’s real, authentic or genuinely insightful to be replaced by lazy stereotypes, beautiful cinematography and phoney emotional moments.

Personally I believe what makes a film great is its story. And to truly believe and trust that story it needs to be based on real experiences and real insights. People and places you can recognise, identify with and like. Otherwise it becomes just another advert selling just another lie. In contrast I want to deliver something that’s timely, relevant and authentic.

Six days later and I’m in Liverpool to do some research. I’m having a breakfast meet with Fran before she walks me round the neighbourhood. We talk about the film. We agree that, although it’s about the workshop, the heart of it should be the people who work there and the residents who’ve been its inspiration throughout. Maybe it is an advert. Maybe it’s not. But it’s a film with a great back-story — ‘stubborn and audacious’ residents imbued with a spirit of making, who chose creativity as their weapon of choice.

Afterwards Fran shows me the workshop and introduces me to some key people in the community. All of them are happy to talk and welcome me into their homes. They tell me how they fought back against the insidious attempts to nudge them out. They planted gardens in the pavement. They painted murals. They campaigned. They reclaimed their streets and ushered in Assemble, who immediately ‘got them’ and worked with them as partners to refurbish the homes.

Despite all this I was struggling to construct an elegant visual ‘fit’ between the workshop and the community. And then finally I met Eleanor, a razor sharp woman with a great sense of humour, who’s lived in Granby since the mid 70s. Eleanor talked about the workshop in a way that reminded me of something I’d read previously. In the early days you could walk into the workshop — a converted newsagents by the way — and upstairs there would be artists creating beautiful herringbone fabrics while downstairs Assemble and the residents would pass around the biscuits, talk, laugh and share ideas. The workshop had become a social and creative hub.

And for me this is what the film became. A film about people. About hopes and dreams. About strength and determination. About making. About creativity. And the DIY spirit which Assemble recognised and loved and which is now continuing with the workshop. This space, once a functional necessity — making the tables, chairs, fireplaces, door knobs and lampshades that replaced the ones stripped out from the homes — is now one of the most vibrant legacies of their relationship. Based on designs generated by Assemble it employs local artists, trains young residents and produces things that are delightful and useful.

What I hope the film shows is that Assemble and the people of Granby are re-imagining what a neighbourhood can look like. The 15 or so members who make up the collective are brilliant ideas people who, amongst other things, love to collaborate with communities. They turn cities into more human, inspiring and enjoyable places to live.

The film’s perhaps longer than my friends at Assemble wanted. But it’s a film that’s enriched by the experiences and anecdotes of real people. Their history. Their story. And hopefully a happy ending which has grown out of so much hardship.

To see and buy the beautiful, handmade products made at the workshop please do visit the website.