Once denigrated as the province of cranky old men, allotments are back in style, even employed as therapy for traumatised asylum seekers. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce tells Leigh Singer why the film Grow Your Own has very British roots.
June 11 – 17 2007
If an Englishman’s home is his castle, what does that make his allotment? Historically a preserve for the poor, “allotted” legal rights to their own green space, allotments quickly became more than mere vegetable patches for parochial giant marrow competitions. They’re a retreat, a haven, for nurturing and nourishing both the soil and the soul; fertile ground, then, for homespun drama, like new British comedy film Grow Your Own.
Written by acclaimed screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce and Carl Hunter, former musician in Liverpool band The Farm, the film may be a fictional, but its appealing premise is very much based on real life. Hunter discovered a pioneering project in Liverpool set up to aid asylum seekers. Unable to work while their claims were assessed, psychotherapist Margrit Ruegg’s scheme gave the often-traumatised refugees a plot of land in an allotment to cultivate: basically, gardening as therapy.
While Hunter originally conceived of the project as a documentary, the limitations of this approach soon became evident. “Asylum seekers don’t want to be in documentaries,” notes Cottrell Boyce matter-of-factly. “Whether they have concerns about immigration or whatever. Carl’s a very sensitive bloke, but the bottom line is these people are so paranoid and so stressed, I think he felt he was adding to their stress.”
“The other thing is that the scheme is very successful. So two things would happen: you’d win over their trust and then they’d be deported; or you’d win over their trust and suddenly they didn’t need to be on the scheme anymore and had moved on. It has quite a fast turnover.”
All this made the move from fact to fiction seems like a natural evolution. A close friend of Hunter’s, Cottrell Boyce, for many years Michael Winterbottom’s writer on films including Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story, took up the challenge of dramatizing the scenario. While the real Liverpool scheme was mainly occupied by Kosovans, Cottrell Boyce’s screen refugees have a broader international scope: there’s grief-stricken, near-catatonic Chinese Kung-Sang (Benedict Wong) and his two young children; fragile Miriam (Diveen Henry) and her son from Zimbabwe; and Iranian refugee doctor Ali (Omid Djalili) and his family.
Alongside these new arrivals, Cottrell Boyce also wanted to examine another marginalised minority that flourishes around allotments up and down the country: the great British eccentric. “I spent time on other allotments with a bunch of strange old men,” the writer remembers. “They’re kind of threatened too. I’ve been watching allotments become trendy – they’re hugely trendy in London, but less so in Bootle and in Bootle there’s still that kind of little band of old-age pensioners. But you know that’s not going to last.”
The scene is then set: Little Englanders (populated by a crack cast including Eddie Marsan and Hot Fuzz’s Olivia Coleman) tending and protecting their patch, suddenly beset by exotic neighbours, as well as both groups coming under threat from a mobile phone company keen to plant a power mast on their turf. It’s the kind of social commentary Cottrell Boyce excels at and the forty-six-year old Liverpudlian, a former writer on Brookside and Coronation Street and TV critic for Marxism Today (a copy of which could always be found in Corrie’s newsagent while he wrote for the show), is probably Britain’s most versatile and in-demand screenwriter as a result.
His effervescent, Danny Boyle-directed kids film Millions may have focused on two young brothers coming across stolen money, but it was also a subtle appraisal of Britain and the Euro. Grow Your Own has evident parallels to current immigration issues – though again Cottrell Boyce was keen to avoid any obvious arable parable.
“I think there is a film that you could write very easily about allotments,” he points out in his lilting voice, “which is, a bunch of white racists learn to love their new incomers. But it isn’t really like that at the real allotments; people are actually even more conservative.” Indeed many of the strictly upheld codes of conduct – uniform colour of shed, venerable rulebooks – come directly from observation. “Whoever you are, you’ve got to prove yourself. You could be somebody’s twin brother and you’ve still have to grow something before they respect you. Then they melt.”
Indeed, laudable as the asylum seekers scheme is, the film also examines wider issues, pertinent to everyone in today’s increasingly environmentally aware climate. For Cottrell Boyce, the message is in the film’s title – a heading once under threat from such frankly baffling (and hopefully tongue-in-cheek) alternatives as Sod’s Law and Sprouting Tiger, Hidden Cabbage.
“Grow Your Own is such a great slogan.” he enthuses. “The film’s trying to do lots of different things but one thing it taps into is that kind of slow living, less-is-more that I find a lot in people much younger than me. Some of the people working on the film were in their 20s and when I was in my 20s working in film, loads of people were after ‘more more more’. Many younger people now are keen to have less, to grow their own and not be a sucker for consumerism. I’d love to think the tide was turning.”
All this talk of political point-scoring and social issue raising shouldn’t detract from the sense of enjoyment conveyed by both the film and the notion of getting your hands dirty and growing your own produce. “It’s also about how much pleasure you get from it,” agrees Cottrell Boyce. “The stuff that you get does taste better, it’s stupid to say otherwise. And it keeps you fit.”
So can we expect an allotment in his future? “I’ve got quite a big garden and I do grow vegetables,” he allows with a laugh. “We tried to have an allotment for the film, a year before we started shooting, but it is a lot of work, so we kind of made a cock-up of that.” Still, that’s the wonderful thing about nature’s cyclical nature: what grows around can always come around again.
Grow Your Own opens June 15th.