Updated: Saturday, 4th July 2020 @ 11:37am

Ex-Spandau Ballet and Eastenders star Martin Kemp relishes being on the other side of the camera

Ex-Spandau Ballet and Eastenders star Martin Kemp relishes being on the other side of the camera

By Karl Dyer

Sweaty palms, heart beat racing, a lump in the throat. These are all classic signs of a person fraught with  anxiety.

For me, as I enter a darkened room at the back of a casino, I am the archetypal nervous wreck.

It’s not necessarily because this situation feels eerily like a scene from a gangster film, it’s simply because this is my first face-to-face interview and I’ll admit it, I’m a little starstruck when I shake the hand of a still handsome fifty-year-old man.

“Hi, nice to meet you.” Martin Kemp is warm and welcoming. He looks absolutely shattered but he’s still enthusiastic and seems happy to be here talking about his directorial debut Stalker before it’s British premiere at Manchester’s own horror film festival Grimm Up North.

I’m told it’s been a long day and I’ve only got a few minutes so I dive right in.

So is directing a feature something Martin’s always wanted to do?

“Yeah of course, I mean, I’ve been in entertainment now since I was seven so that’s a long time on the other side of the camera and it was just the right time for me to go behind and to direct.

“I’ve been writing quite a lot for years and when you writer something you direct in your head as you go. You see it as if it’s up there on the screen.

“A lot of kids say to me ‘Oh I’d love to be a director, what do you do?’ The first thing I say is, you’ve got to write a script. It’s the first level of being able to direct, because you can see what you want in your mind’s eye and you’re directing it as you write.”

He’s a man of many talents. Spandau Ballet were huge in the 80s and amongst the younger generations his role in EastEnders is what he’s most famous for. So why not star in Stalker as well as direct it?

“For my first one I didn’t want to do that. I was already involved in the production of it and I could quite easily have said I’ll be in it as well.

“But I didn’t want the film to look like it was a big Martin Kemp package, saying this is me. I didn’t want that. The idea of directing for me was that I wanted to turn up in my jeans and my fleece top and direct other people.”

He tells me Stalker’s an adaptation of an old classic called House On The Straw Hill. I’m not exactly horror film savvy so he explains at length about the premise and it’s clear to me, even in his exhausted state, that he’s extremely passionate about his film and the industry.

“For me, the film business is a hobby I’d happily be doing for nothing, it’s not about earning money out of it.

“When we made this film we slept in the house on location with everyone on top of each other. But it was fantastic fun because you’re getting up in the morning and making a movie and that’s what you want to do.”

I ‘m fully aware of the sorry state of the British film industry and it’s a big part of the reason as to why I wanted the interview in the first place.

The once thriving UK Film Council, which had a hand in funding such great British hits as Armando Iannucci's In The Loop, Sam Taylor Wood's Nowhere Boy and Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, was disbanded under the coalition government in March 2011.

Chief Executive Officer at the time, John Woodward, said that the decision had been made with no notice and no consultation. A furore ensued when a Guardian report suggested that shutting down the Council would cost more than four times their annual budget.

The reigns of film financing have now been taken up by the British Film Institute which has gone on to fund critically acclaimed projects such as Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur and Steve McQueen’s Shame, although question marks still exist over the way independent British film is supported.

Although Martin says he’d happily go to work and make no money, I’m quietly confident his fellow producers wouldn’t be so keen for that type of arrangement and I’m keen to find out if money was an issue with Stalker. Was a man of Martin’s stature a help or hinderance to the project? Or did the controversial BFI help out in any way?

Luckily I grab a few minutes with producer Jonathan Sothcott and actor Billy Murray – who along with Kemp – form the team behind Stalker’s production company Black and Blue Films.

“It’s really really hard to get movies financed in this country,” Johnathan tells me. Well that’s that then.

I probe a little further. I feel strongly about the film industry so I take it as a positive that Jonathan’s just as enthusiastic about film as Martin was.

“Especially low budget independent ones, a lot of people got burned really badly in the ‘90s for tax scams when investing in movies.”

What about the BFI and the government though? Didn’t they get any help from them?

“The kind of movie we make doesn’t get supported by the government it’s not a big business like it is in California so it’s a struggle.

“I think they should be doing a lot more, they help a certain type of art-house movie, a dead cert movie that’s obviously going to clean up. But I think they don’t really help high concept, commercial, low budget movies like we make.

“It would be nice if they did more, if they took it seriously. Making movies in this country is more of an expensive hobby than a business.”

Billy then offers his thoughts on Perfect Sense, a government funded movie starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green.

“It’s backed by different people who give grants, like the film council and the BBC. Because it’s a certain type of film and they get behind that because they think £10m pounds is low budget.

 "We could’ve made that film for £500,000,” he adds defiantly.

Jonathan’s a little more realistic and level-headed yet his gripes with film funding are just as strongly felt as Billy’s.

“I would imagine it was £3m for Perfect Sense. For us it was shocking, two fantastic A List actors, but it was absolutely rubbish and I don’t think anyone will go and see it. But the film council gave them a marketing grant of £130k, which is crazy, I really don’t get it.

“It’ll lose money and then people won’t have any faith in investing in films.”

If financing a project’s so difficult then surely word of mouth and showing the finished article off to as many people as possible must be vital to reclaim all that money that producers plough into a film from their own pockets.

So I ask the three of them how important film festivals, like the one we’re at, are in distributing an independent film. On the surface it seems as though festivals are just part of the run of the mill procedure that producers go through but I soon start to realise how crucial they are to a film’s success.

“It’s a snowball effect,” Billy tells me.

“Word of mouth really matters,” Jonathan adds. “Film festival’s are crucial, they’re the only way to get the message across.

“We don’t get red carpet Leicester Square premieres but when you make genre films you get a very loyal and dedicated following that come to the events.

“There’s FrightFest in London, there’s this one, Abertoir in Aberystwyth and we see all the same people because they love it. What the guys have pulled off here in the middle of Manchester is amazing.”

Later on when I catch up with Grimm Up North’s director Simeon Halligan and programmer Steve Balshaw they tell me how proud they are of their festival and how much it helps films like Stalker to be seen by as many fans of the genre as possible.

“We consider what we are doing to be vital. The festival started in the first place because we saw the need for it,” Simeon tells me.

“The initial thought was to do a one-off Halloween screening and it just grew from there. As soon as the word got out that Grimm was happening, people started getting in touch and it snowballed into a four day, twenty odd film festival.

“We built it, and they came. Because the need was there.”

It’s the passion, the enthusiasm, the love for film on the whole that’s the most striking aspect of talking to everyone and Simeon seems dead set on drilling home the festival’s importance. I soon find myself agreeing with him, becoming more and more convinced.

“What does need to be said, is that with fewer and fewer options available to see films on the big screen, festivals, whatever their size and niche, have a more important role to play than ever.”

This is what stays with me after I’ve left the festival. It’s easy to think of these comments as just typical promotion spin reeled off by the organisers to make their event seem more interesting than it is. After talking to Martin, Jonathan and Billy though I can tell that it is real. Festivals are vital when funding for British independent film is so poor.

A few weeks later I speak to Simeon again. Grimm Up North has go on to hold themed nights, screening Horror classics and cult favourites during Halloween and now Christmas but I’m interested to find out how Grimm will progress in the future.

He tells me that monthly double bill screenings at different venues across Manchester are in the pipeline while special themed events will continue.

What’s the ultimate goal though?

“We hope to keep building on what we’ve done thus far. We think Grimm has the potential to be a major international film festival.

“We’d like to have a buyers and distributors market attached, so that Grimm, and thus Manchester, becomes established as a major destination for those seeking the best new genre work, be they fans or industry professionals or both.”

Coming away from that festival and understanding the work they continue to do teamed with the clearly strong views of the guys at Black and Blue, I fully understand that it’s these people that are the integral ones to British cinema.

The fans, of course, need to support these niche events and spread the word, whether that be through word of mouth or social networking. But the real nucleus are those guys who are passionate about film and spend a large amount of their time doing something they love, fighting to ensure that this waning industry doesn’t completely crumble.

It’s something that Steve Balshaw said to me prior to Grimm Up North that continues to ring in my ears though and it’s something we should all take on board.

“Those of us who love cinema, in all its forms have to continue to fight for it, to write about it, blog about it, use all of the traditional and new media outlets to promote the kinds of films that people might not otherwise have heard about.”