REWIND FEATURE: TORYBOY - INTERVIEW WITH JOHN WALSH

With the United Kingdom general election taking place on the 7th May, Sam Scott chats to director of ToryBoy: The Movie about his 2010 documentary, and his favourite political films.

When John Walsh’s political satire was first released in cinemas its revelations sent shockwaves through the political establishment. It exposed Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell’s alarming neglect of one of the poorest constituencies in the country, resulting in Ed Miliband’s office disciplining him over the scandal and the press labelled him “Britain’s Laziest MP”. The film is back in cinemas before the General Election to remind audiences that tribal voting communities are easy places for bad MPs to hide.

A Labour supporter all his life, filmmaker John Walsh had become disillusioned with the Party, so when David Cameron opened the door to new members to join the Tories ahead of the 2010 General Election, Walsh decided to do just that. Within weeks he became the Conservative candidate for Middlesbrough. What started out as a documentary about a rookie political candidate soon became far more controversial when Walsh discovered that local MP Sir Stuart Bell, had not held a single surgery in the past 15 years……but that was just the beginning.

Q) In ToryBoy: The Movie, it is very obvious that before 2010, you were a life long Labour supporter. What made you not only move to the Conservatives, but gave you the push to step up as a potential MP?

A) I was making a film for Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister in 2009, following first year University students on ‘gap year’ work experiences in the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil. As a small business I think I always had dormant conservative political leanings. After this experience with the then PM Brown, I was convinced that Labour was not fit to run the country. The final film called The Prime Minister’s Global Fellowship was costly and disorganised affair. Much of which could have been avoided if they took the advice they had paid me to give. When David Cameron opened up the candidates list to all, I thought I would give it a go. I never thought I would get this far or I would do this well. I was completely up front about my past and the party welcomed me.

Q) In the film, it becomes plainly obvious that Sir Stuart Bell had largely neglected his electorate by failing to hold surgeries, yet some people didn't seem to care. What do you think is the best way to get people more politically aware, in particular, younger people?

A) Having young people more involved is essential. But to do that we need to look at the way that most young people see politics and political news. At the moment it is dominated by white middle class men across all the main channels. Debates and discussions are often chaired with former MPs, who also fall within this narrow social group. Also the vehicle for news and politics needs to be more engaging. Half of the cinema audiences for ToryBoy The Movie came along out of loyalty to their politico partners who were keen to see the film. Yet often it was these reluctant audience members who enjoyed it the most. It was so outside their expectation and experience of political journalism, they were transfixed by the story. We sold out The Tricycle Cinema last week when the film came back to cinemas ahead of the election.

Q) Can you tell us in some detail about the aftermath of your film, and how it was perceived in the local area, and the UK as a whole?

A) Once the film came out there was a national debate in the papers and on television about Sir Stuart Bell and the label of “Britain’s laziest MP” stuck with him from there on. The Labour Party Chief Whip Rosie Winterton did have a meeting with Bell, but he was not prepared to listen and refused to accept any punishment for his dereliction of duty. The local Gazette newspaper did their own investigation after seeing my film and called him 100 times over 100 days. Each time they left a message and none of the calls were returned. He did not change his ways. In October 2012 he was diagnosed with cancer and dies 12 days later. A screening asked for by Tee Side University on the 28th April this year has been banned by the local Labour council on the grounds that it might be political biased. This is a shame as the film has been shown to colleges and Universities up and down the country. Clearly they do not want the story of rogue MP Sir Stuart Bell a constant reminder at election times. There has been an outcry again in the local press from students and locals alike.

Q) Do you have any plans to step in to the political arena again, and if so, would it still be for the Conservatives?

A) The Conservatives have asked me to stand again. I am hugely flattered to be asked and there is even some talk of a safe seat. I have no immediate plans to return to politics as my film work is taking up so much of my time. Now that I am a Trustee of the Ray Harryhausen Foundation, I have some grand plans to bring a wider audience to Ray’s work in the lead up to his centenary in 2020. Politics will have to wait a while.

Q) Is there anything you said or did in the film, that you look back at and think you were just caught up in the moment, such as the "jail" speech at a local meeting?

The jail comment came from the anger and frustration I felt in the room, so in a sense I was influenced by the temperament in the hall at the time. Despite getting a standing ovation from everyone, I know the audience were reacting to the sentiment of my words rather than me as a Tory candidate. That said I do not regret saying it and had I been elected I would have tried to have Bell pay back some of the money, if only to remind voters of his poor record and distain for one of the poorest town’s in the UK. It does speak volumes that a Conservative candidate would get such a positive reaction on ‘enemy’ ground such as Middlesbrough. It proves that politics is about engaging with people on an individual basis. My documentary work has given a voice to the voiceless over the years. This is a transferable skill to politics too. Whether I pick up the rosettes and megaphone again in the future may well depend on what happens next to my film making plans.

Q) What are your top 5 favourite political films and why?

1) Nixon – Oliver Stone has made many political films with JFK being his most accessible, but I think political failure is a fascinating area and Anthony Hopkin’s performance here is amongst the best of his career. It’s a long film and the Blu Ray has some great deleted scenes too.

2) Brazil – Terry Gilliam has always been one of my favourite directors. I recently met with him as I am now Trustee of the Ray Harryhausen Foundation. This comedic version of 1984 has its aim clearly pointed at the post war bureaucracy that has ballooned in the civil service. Terry had a political battle with the studio to just get the film released which mirrored the struggle of the films protagonist played by Jonathan Pryce.

3) The Ides of March - A lesser known George Clooney film but one that is much more concerned with the inner working and back room story about spin doctors. A fascinating and gripping thriller with a great turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman.

4) All Presidents Men – How Nixon was brought down in the old fashioned print media is reminder how powerful the press was back in the 1970s and this makes a great companion piece for Nixon too. It shows how controls on the media in the US would have meant this story would have been buried. A warning perhaps for not over regulating the UK print media.

5) Fahrenheit 9/11 – After my film ToryBoy The Movie hit cinemas, I had been called “a British Michael Moore”. I might not share his left wing views, but I am a strong believer in the power of the authored documentary. What Moore exposes about the story leading up to the most devastating US attack in peacetime still makes for compelling viewing. I took it a step further and became part of my own narrative too. Luckily for me, my Executive Producer Roger James (who had worked as Ken Loach’s Editor) kept the film on an editorially balanced and even keel.

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