Big Society - The Musical

FACT, Liverpool
17th August 2014

Reviewed by Tommy Calderbank

Now THIS was a gathering of the tribe, and no mistake. More than just a film screening, it was a genuine event, and I’m so glad I was part of it.

It struck me that the audience here tonight were a really vivid example of the very thing the film was about. We’ve been doing social development and community support for umpteen years, without calling it a stupid name.

And surely there was a vindicated and hollow laugh from the cast and crew that just last month, "The Independent" ran a story on how the Big Society Network is being investigated for what amounts to the daylight robbery of £2.5m.

What? You mean this whole BS thing was a sham?!

Time to make a song and dance about it…

So this was IT. Presented as part of the Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF), this was the Liverpool premiere of a very Liverpool film. How could it be anything but? With a cast of over 300 local people, most of us here tonight are actually in it! Not me, though (I coulda been a contender!). I’m there in spirit.

Almost 4 years since Director Lynne Harwood first had the funny and mischievous idea of turning David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ into a musical, this was where we’d see if all the volunteered blood, sweat and tears that followed were worth it. Let me cut right to the chase and tell you the answer: a resounding YES!

Through talented film production company First Take, she mobilized the cream of the city’s acting and musical talent (as well as the necessary funders and supporters), and together, they have created a work of burning passion and intensity. This is a work that demands to be seen, not only in every community in the country affected by the Coalition Government’s austerity programme (and that’s EVERYWHERE , but also –dare I say it – in the Cabinet Office itself. It’s a film that bravely speaks truth to power, and reminds those in power about the human cost of their decisions.

I was partly dreading it, to be honest.

Only because the subject is no laughing matter (they call it ‘gritty’ for a reason), and knowing how great some of the actors in it are, I was expecting both a kick and a kiss. I wasn’t disappointed on that score.

Producer Jenny Monks welcomed us all and introduced the film. She outlined the project’s genesis, and described it as “Liverpool’s response to something ridiculous. A creative response.” This is exemplified by the film’s tag-line, “When no one hear you shout….sing!” Then the lights went down and it was time.

The film is dedicated to Geoff Hanley, who died in 2012. He was a much-loved member of the City’s maritime community. It’s a particularly fitting tribute, as Geoff’s work with the historic tall ship Zebu did (and does) so much to get young people involved in positive activities around tall ship training, and away from the social evils portrayed in the film.

It begins with a close up of ‘the man on the telly’, our beloved Prime Minister David Cameron, making his infamous speech introducing ‘the Big Society’. “It’s time for something different, something bold…”

Yes, Call Me Dave. It certainly is. Though not in the way you might expect…

Then we move to a climbing wall, where we meet our main characters, Linda and Connor (played by Paula Simms and Joe Maddocks). Linda is a social worker, working with young offenders; Connor is one. From the off, she’s trying to help him to climb higher, achieve more. Whilst belting out a great song about Climbing The Wall. On a boss day out on the Zebu, she’s literally showing him the ropes, the pair of them singing their heads off, shaking the sky and made up. The other lads locked up with Connor resent him for getting the special attention. The song ‘We’re All In This Together’ is genuinely haunting, with an isolated Connor singing:

“We’re all in this together
That’s what the man on the TV said.
We’re on our own down here…”

This doesn’t bode well for the future….

Here’s where the marriage of drama and song really works. Once you get over the initial shock of people bursting into song, you just accept it 3 or 4 songs in. The cinematography by Jane Farley is excellent, with some real ‘goosebumps’ moments (like when you see Connor’s face reflected in the police cell window and Duncan’s face appears suddenly). The way its been edited rapidly whenever a character faces some bad news or a crucial decision is brilliant.

When the cuts start to bite at the sharp end, despite demonstrating against the closure of the youth centre, the team gamble their fate on one last throw of the dice: one of those 3-year bids for funding we’re all so fond of in the ‘3rd Sector’. Bad news. The man from Del Monte, he say no.

Before we leave them in the story, I must just pay tribute to Linda’s team. I’d have loved to have had a team like this. Jennifer John plays Lorraine, head of the team, determined to succeed against all the odds. As a first time actor on the big screen, our Jennifer shines. As a singer, of course her numbers are brilliant. All the voices were brilliant in this, well served by great songs by the very wonderful Andy Frizell. We never got to ask a question in the Q & A afterwards, but I would have liked to have asked for the Original Soundtrack on CD, please.

The rest of the team consists of Martyn Williams (who plays Bill with proper, old Scouse owl-arsyness), Carl John and Carl Cochran. They are all completely believable, and their scenes together are excellent.

So Linda finds herself unemployed and her connection with Connor severed. As the film unfolds, Linda’s life unravels. She badgers her reticent police husband, Duncan, to adopt Connor, and things become strained when she jumps the gun in arranging a little chat about it with her social worker mate. Dunc is not best pleased. Linda moves out of the house in her anger. Her dedication to helping Connor risks not only her relationship and home, but also her reputation and sanity. As a film, it refuses to get too polemical: the people in it are no mere ciphers, here to mouth lofty political soundbites, but genuinely believable characters. The team of fantastic writers have seen to that. Linda is all too human, depicted in an astonishing lead performance by one of the best actors of her generation, Paula Simms. I’ll never forget seeing her as The Fool in Kaboodle’s production of King Lear at The Everyman years ago. The first and only time I’ve ever seen a woman in the role, and she was stunning. Since then, I’ve always thought she’s never had the acclaim she deserved. Hopefully this film will change all that. Her portrayal of Love In Times Of Austerity is heart-wrenching as it is captivating. And although we deeply sympathise with her character, and her motivations, she makes some deluded assumptions and bad decisions that put her own life – as well as those she loves - on the skids.

The Tories don’t help, like.

The film tells its story through improvised dramatic scenes, and fourteen brilliant and original musical numbers, which range from hundreds of singing people chanting and dancing down Cairns Street, to surreal ballads. I particularly loved the Cairns Street scene and song (a tip of the busker’s hat here to Dan Wilson from Cubical). Perhaps its because Cairns Street itself is one of the greatest examples of our ‘good society’ at its best. Their monthly markets are priceless, inspirational affairs. As Andy Friz pointed out afterwards, there was something touching about Cameron’s words ‘unleashing social energy’ being illustrated by an old Liverpool lady offering a tray of home made sponge cakes on Cairns Street.

The scenes involving Linda’s dad and his mates down the allotment offer some light relief, as does the karaoke scene in the pub. And any scene involving Lady Sian as Linda’s new neighbour John is completely stolen. His scenes of caberet are up there with Liza Minelli. I would have liked to have seen more of him, especially to find out what had happened after he was rebuffed by Linda. Why did he look so upset? He looked like he needed a friend. John gives Linda a house warming gift of a painting, featuring a man and woman dancing flamenco. The vivid red dress the woman is wearing is the only splash of colour in Linda’s grotty flat. She gets a similar outfit for herself, which becomes a potent symbol. And surely the image of Linda with her mouth taped up, wearing that red dress, is destined for iconic status?As John says: “You can be whoever you want to be. Look at me – I’m Marianne Faithfull.”

There was a real feeling of déjà vu with scenes of both the Royal Wedding (Lady Sian very much approves), and images of the riots of 2011 and newspaper headlines ‘Toxteth Burns Again’. All very reminiscent of 1981.

You can see the trajectory here.

Deep societal problems then are still with us today. The cycles continue. Some deny this and blame the individual. As Bill, the cynical colleague, losing hope of any chance of rehabilitating his charges, says: “Shit. Son of Shit. Grandson of Shit.”

It seems wrong somehow to pick out individuals in what is most definitely a communal effort, but I have to give a special mention to Joe Maddocks, who excels in the role of Connor. Moody, la. I’ve had the pleasure of introducing him at the Out of the Blue festival in Everton Park. Having heard him belt out a mixture of his own tunes, as well as some classics, holding a sizeable audience in the palm of his hand, I can safely say that Joe is one of the city’s brightest musical prospects. After tonight, you can add acting to the stars in his crown. The rest of the film is about what happens when Connor is released, and without giving too much away, it doesn’t end well. A surreal scene in a supermarket near the end had me in bits.

Yet it leaves us on a note full of hope, not despair. The redemptive power of friendship, expressed by Lorraine and John, shows Linda that she’s not alone. And the final scenes where Connor says that “Sorry is not enough, things have to change” is like a warning to the ruling class in this country. If we’re on our own down here, you’re on your own up there. Better pray for better weather…

‘Big Society-The Musical’ insists that the best response to adversity is a CREATIVE one. We need to look grim reality in its ugly little face, and sing our bloody heads off. And if you can’t sing…stick some tape over your mouth and join the Silent Protest Army…

It’s hard to judge right now the future importance of this film. As a depiction of the fall-out from the current cuts crisis, its unswervingly honest and brutal. This is a film that could have the social impact that Ken Loach’s ‘Cathy Come Home’ had in the 1960’s. In its use of song and drama, it’s also keeping up a tradition that would make Dennis Potter proud.

It also reminded me of Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’, particularly the episode ‘Chrissie’s Story’. In their similar look, tone and locations, they tick every ‘gritty Northern drama’ box, but also share that humour and humanity that run through all the great Liverpool films and TV. The city itself is one of the stars, as it should be, with full use of iconic locations such as The Bombed Out Church and Albert Dock.

It’s not perfect by any means. The lack of a bigger budget shows in some scenes, and I do wonder how much good character and plot detail was lost in the final edit. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more interaction between Duncan and Connor (did this play a bigger role than we are shown, in the film’s climactic event?).

The makers should be hugely congratulated on lighting a brilliant candle, and not just cursing the darkness. Well done to all concerned.


A final point. First Take are looking to distribute this film in a different way. They are encouraging communities across the country affected by the cuts to have showings where they live. By this, they hope to be part of a movement to reinvent what cinema means in our communities. Help them realise their dream of getting this film out there and seen by the greatest number of people possible. If you are interested, contact:

Jennifer Monks
Producer - Big Society The Musical

First Take
Share the Trailer:

NERVE supports workers struggling for a living wage. For more information see:

Printer friendly page

Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Diane jansen on 20th August, 2014 at 17:59
I couldn't make the film but I am part of Cairns St Market and I really enjoyed reading your review, very well written. Thank you

Comment left by Wendy Teal on 22nd August, 2014 at 13:18
As one of 3 sister's of Paula Simms who plays Linda I thank you for your review. We are very proud of what not just Paula has achieved but everyone connected, especially visiting the set one day and seeing what hard work and devotion went into making this film. Congratulations to all and only mirror your final pointto help them realise their dream

Comment left by Rick Livingstone on 15th September, 2014 at 13:56
we need a Butterfly Revolution in England & Wales.....

Comment left by Alan walsh on 15th September, 2014 at 14:02
A nice review and all credit to Lynne ,Jennifer and the First Take Crew for the effort they made to ensure a professional finished product and for their faith in using local talent. Thank You!

Comment left by Steve Nolan on 16th September, 2014 at 9:18
Sounds brilliant - but how do I get to see it ?