Set in his native city of Hull during its year in the spotlight as City of Culture (McAllister was creative director of the spectacularly successful opening show, Made in Hull), the film’s central protagonist, Steve Arnott, is a factory worker nurturing a long-held ambition to take hip-hop to the deprived estates of the city. His employers donate a van which is converted into a recording studio and decorated with graffiti. The Beats Bus is taken by Steve and his team of volunteers into schools with the aim of engaging disadvantaged youngsters, with the film vividly demonstrating how music and culture has the potential to transform young people’s lives.
At the same time, the film explores the everyday reality of life for many workers up and down the country, trapped by debt and low pay, unable to break free from the restrictions poverty places on them. "How long do you hold on to your dream?" Steve asks.
Why make this film?
McAllister’s motivation in making A Northern Soul was to explore beyond the dismal mainstream media stereotyping of Britain’s poor and to challenge the prevalence of 'poverty porn' typified by programmes like Benefits Street. For McAllister, "The mediating of the working-class voice is failing in British TV and film as it’s reliant on cheap stereotypes that are either funny or grim. So, I look for a human character that can connect with middle-England. How do I make middle-England understand the north beyond the cheeky-chappie working-class stereotypes?".
The answer, it appears, is by presenting characters like Steve in A Northern Soul. "Steve is a white working-class bloke with tattoos on his neck," McAllister explains. "But when you start peeling back the layers of his character, he’s a hip-hopper, he’s helping kids, he’s working hard but he falls into poverty. It’s a great recipe for making people care and making middle-England understand, and empathise with, the northern working class."
A Northern Soul aims to give those misrepresented communities a voice. "I’ve never been drawn to filming victims," McAllister says. "Television is full of victims." In presenting Steve Arnott as struggling to overcome his circumstances and make a positive contribution to society, A Northern Soul’s ultimate message is one of hope. According to Steve:
The documentary has totally changed my life and perspective of what is achievable in life. If I had never met Sean, my story would have stayed untold like so many others. Meeting and working with Sean has made me believe in myself and motivated me to step out of the normality of corporate control to take a chance on my dream. For that I am truly grateful and thankful. I am now manager of Beats Bus Ltd and have just opened a record label, Beats Bus Records, to help young people in my city and the UK. The documentary has brought me to life, helping me to find my true self. I hope it inspires all people to fight for what they believe because dreams can come true.
The film's impact
A Northern Soul was premiered at the Sheffield Doc-Fest in June. Since its release, the film has gone on to play to packed crowds up-and-down the country and received critical acclaim. For a documentary film independently distributed by McAllister’s own company 10Ft Films, the achievements of A Northern Soul are remarkable. Charlie Phillips in the Guardian described A Northern Soul as a ‘great work of radical empathy’ proceeding to argue that, ‘This is not a story we see enough, despite the heritage of British documentary in this space - a deeply explored character journey through poverty in which those affected tell their own stories with dignity and respect. We don’t see it enough because there aren’t many other film-makers like McAllister, himself from a working-class background and having worked in a warehouse.’ And there’s the rub.
When delivering the film to the BBC, McAllister claims that a BBC executive told him that "It was when I saw this film that I realised the wrong people had been making films about the working classes for thirty years."
As the film-maker himself puts it: "It is clear that there are not enough working-class voices making films about themselves." Currently, the BFI are running a season of films, Working Class Heroes, at BFI Southbank. However, as the foreword to Danny Leigh’s article in October’s Sight and Sound states: ‘The working-class actors and directors who helped revitalise British filmmaking in the Woodfall era of the 1960s now feel like a product of a golden age of social mobility, which only serves to underscore the dismal paucity of working-class talent and stories within UK film culture today.’
The continued success of the film suggests that there is an appetite for this kind filmmaking, proving beyond little doubt that there is a desire from audiences to engage with these stories. Moreover, if TV and film commissioners and funders are genuinely concerned with the social mobility and diversity within the industry, and really want to see more programmes and theatrical releases like A Northern Soul on the screen, then maybe they ought to start listening to film-makers like Sean McAllister.
In order to increase the representation of working people, McAllister plans to set up a production training company based in Hull. It is an ambitious venture which deserves support from the industry. Speaking on his experience with the film, and suggesting a possible way out of the impasse, McAllister says:
Primarily I am interested in film working as film. People say when they leave the cinema that they have tears, they have laughter and they feel uplifted. That is exactly what a good cinematic experience should do. So, for me, primarily the film should work as a film: with laughter, tears, emotion, empathy and depth, asking questions of how we are living as a society today. With A Northern Soul we have created something that has a buzz and film funders should understand how it came about. It didn’t happen overnight. We need other funders to step into the space in which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have. There’s space out there to be filled with positive messages and representations of the working-class world. Unless we fill these spaces, others will and they will fill it with their own message. So, I see it as a battle for that space. We need to be empowered by funders that will support good and positive work, to mediate the voice of the working class in the mainstream media today.
Controversy: the film and the British Board of Film Classification
A Northern Soul’s authentic portrayal of the northern working-class milieu has brought the film-makers into dispute with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Citing the occasional bad language in the film, the BBFC have given A Northern Soul a 15 certification.
The makers of the film have challenged the BBFC’s ruling, resulting in 13 local authorities reclassifying A Northern Soul as a 12A (Hull, Lambeth, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Southampton, Hackney, Bradford, Calderdale, Halifax, Coventry, York and Doncaster) despite suggestions that they would uphold the BBFC classification.
McAllister believes that the ratings dispute with the BBFC is indicative of the "disconnected UK we live in." It is disappointing to the film-makers that by concentrating on the language deployed in the film, the BBFC has overlooked its positive and inspiring message, revealing how these communities are misunderstood and misrepresented by the mainstream media. In order to redress this issue, McAllister and JRF believe that we need more films produced like A Northern Soul.
To facilitate discussion about the voice of the working class in mainstream media, Sean's team started a postcard campaign encouraging and enabling their audience to share their thoughts on this issue with the BBFC. It's an important step because the BBFC makes assessments based on ongoing public consultation. JRF also invite people to voice their opinions on the matter, as the postcard campaign is a way of gathering public opinion and involving people in the decisions made to represent their best interests.
Ultimately, JRF would be happy to become part of a 'collective movement' of partners: funders, creators, spokespeople, ambassadors, storytellers, people in poverty, people with power and influence, organisations, and campaigns. This movement would connect the public with policy asks, or the demand for a shift in what are accepted as cultural norms.
The film and the Beats Bus
In addition to the impact A Northern Soul has had on debates around poverty and the representation of working people in the media, the film proves how an engagement with people like Steve has the potential to improve their opportunities in life.
For Steve, "The message of the film isn’t about poverty, class, a fight to change the certification to 12A, or austerity. The most important message is the transformation of the young people and how important community work at a young age is to give a child belief and confidence to change their lives."
The publicity that A Northern Soul has generated, and Steve’s involvement in the screenings and post-film discussions, has raised the profile of the Beats Bus project. As a result, Steve has now decided to leave his job to become managing director of Beats Bus Ltd, which is now an independent social enterprise. The company has raised its funding, enabling them to purchase more equipment, and has won two contracts in the city with the Hull and East Yorkshire Children’s University and Hull City Football Club.
The venture has also been nominated for two business awards in the city - and won Arts and Culture Business of 2018 in the East Yorkshire Business Awards.
Written by Lee Freeman.