Brett Gregory was recently interviewed about Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist, a self-funded film that has won a host of international awards. Starring David Howell (Brassic), Reuben Clarke (Peaky Blinders) and Wendy Patterson (Spencer), it's a thought-provoking and powerful working-class feature film exploring solitude, sanity and suffering under the British state. It's loosely based on Hieronymus Bosch's 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', John Bunyan's 'A Pilgrim's Progress' and Albert Camus' 'The Myth of Sisyphus'.
The interview is also available in audiovisual form at the end of this article and here.
CM: You wrote and directed this film, which is is available to watch on Amazon Prime. What’s it about?
BG: The film is about class and morality, about how those in power treat us and about how we treat each other. It’s also about abandonment, loneliness, mental health and a breakdown in communication between the working and middle classes. In turn, always in the background, is the North/South divide – how this is continually reinforced by right-wing ideological forces in order to distract and weaken any serious collective opposition to the systematic asset-stripping of what remains of the United Kingdom.
In terms of plot, it starts with Old Jack in his gloomy flat in Hulme in 2020 under Boris Johnson’s rule as he appears to wake from a fever dream about sex and murder in Manchester, overshadowed by the city’s Gothic architecture, civic statues and towering skyscrapers. He reads an old text from the wife of a good friend who informs him that her husband is on a ventilator with COVID and that she is struggling to breathe herself. He also discovers that he has an unwelcome voicemail on his phone from his long-lost grandmother in Oxford who wishes to secretly meet up with him after four decades, before she dies. All of this proves too much for him however, and he takes a fistful of anti-depressants and washes them down with a mug of vodka.
Thus begins his descent into his own private rabbit-hole, where he meets himself as a young boy in 1984, living on a rundown council estate under Margaret Thatcher during the Miners’ Strike, and fantasising about escaping into a world of fiction and illusion.
He is then later confronted by himself as a university student in 1992 during John Major’s tenure, riddled with Class A drugs, alienated from his peers and his studies, and questioning his purpose and sanity in violent messianic outbursts. These psychotic visitations are intercut with imagined, Brechtian interviews with a number of women from Old Jack’s past who seem to appear not only as witnesses, but also as judge and jury: his half-sister, his old English teacher, his former college manager, his ex-girlfriend’s Christian mother, and his nervous next-door neighbour.
Overcome by the weight of his own history in a country where he doesn’t believe he belongs, Old Jack finally embarks on a pilgrimage to the historical Stoodley Pike monument in West Yorkshire, on the outskirts of society, to find some sort of answer which will put an end to his misery.
What were you aiming for with the film, and what were the reactions to the film from critics and from working-class people?
A crucial aim of the film was to represent the Northern working class on screen with intelligence, authenticity and dignity, in direct opposition to the demeaning stereotypes and caricatures which are regularly churned out by the corporate mainstream media based in London.
Such a genuinely independent, counter-cultural creative decision directly challenges the status quo currently being maintained by the ideological state apparatus in the cultural industries and so, of course, we received no funding or investment or support from any public or private organisation.
As a result, what changed was not only the timescale of the production from one year to six and half years, but also my personal finances. Even though every one of the cast and crew members committed their time and talents for free – a testament to the ongoing industriousness and inventiveness of Greater Manchester by the way – the production still left me around £36,000 in debt by way of personal loans, two credit cards and two overdrafts.
Since its release on Amazon Prime in May 2022 we have won over 50 international film festival awards and nominations, and received over 100 informed and passionate reviews on IMDb, Letterboxd and various culture websites. In the main these reviews praise the film’s anger, insight and originality, its production values, its performances and its soundtrack, comparing it to the works of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke and even Theodor Dreyer.
Standout quotes such as ‘a searing portrait of modern Britain’ are incredibly validating and prove that a large international audience – who are also going through their own individual horrors under globalised capitalism – need authentic stories like this to remind them that they’re not alone and they’re not going mad.
We hosted a free screening of the film on a working-class Manchester housing estate in Moston, for instance, and many of the attendees recognised the role poverty, alcoholism, drug use and domestic abuse have played in their day-to-day lives. A few also said that cinema should be ‘entertaining’ and ‘escapist’, and commented on the complex plot and timeshifts in the film
How do you respond to comments on indie and arthouse films, that they're too complicated and hard to understand?
Years ago I used to teach A level Cultural Studies, and whenever a new cohort of 16 year olds would arrive in the classroom in September I’d introduce the subject to them as a brand new way of looking at the world and everything in it. Naturally, the students who could be bothered to glance up from their phones would just pull a face at me.
So I’d start telling them a story about Picasso, the ‘weird’ famous painter who they’d hopefully heard about at school and, on the SMART board, I’d pull up a copy of his 1937 portrait called ‘The Weeping Woman’. The story may or may not be true, but it sounds true and that’s the point.
So it’s 1937 and Picasso is at this big party celebrating the completion of his latest masterpiece, ‘The Weeping Woman’, a study in female suffering. While he’s standing next to his painting, sipping a glass of champagne, a wealthy businessman steps over to speak with him.
‘Picasso,’ he says, ‘your new painting doesn’t make any sense to me at all. It’s called ‘The Weeping Woman’ but it doesn’t look anything like a woman.’
‘What do you mean exactly?’ Picasso asks.
‘Well, she’s all broken up into triangles for starters. And both of her eyes are on the same side of her face!’ he exclaims. ‘It’s ridiculous. She looks like a child’s unfinished jigsaw puzzle.’
‘But, Señor,’ replies Picasso, ‘this is a portrait of my lover who I care about very deeply. And whenever she’s crying, and there’s nothing I can do about it, this is how she appears to me: broken and in pieces.’
On a good day, after I’ve finished telling this story, most of the students who’d been looking down at their phones would now be looking up at Picasso’s painting with a smile on their faces, their eyes illuminated. A female student, usually, would suddenly announce: ‘Ooo … I really like that story!’
So that's why I decided to direct and edit ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ from a similar perspective - because, during the actual process of creation, that's how grief appeared to me. That's how abandonment appeared to me, and how my country appeared to me: broken and in pieces.
What do you think of British cinema and the role it plays in our society?
The history of British cinema can primarily be understood in terms of the way it portrays class and the class divisions which flow from the hierarchical nature of the United Kingdom’s social system and which create advantages and disadvantages for different social groups in different parts of the country.
Many of us alive today first learned of the existence and influence of the rules and rewards of social class as children while watching, for instance, David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ (1946), Carol Reed’s ‘Oliver!’ (1968) or Richard Fleischer’s ‘The Prince and The Pauper’ (1977).
Repeated screenings of these movies usually took place in a school assembly or in the family living room over the Christmas period and, I would argue, such public exhibitions contributed to a cultural normalisation of social prejudice, inequality and exclusion by disguising these conditions as simply an inevitable part of British history and tradition.
While the 1960s’ new wave ‘Angry Young Man’ arrived and blew a plume of cigarette smoke in the face of authority, articulating alternative expectations and aspirations for white working-class British males, such insubordination was given short shrift.
Despite dynamic and memorable performances from Richard Burton in ‘Look Back in Anger’ (1959), Albert Finney in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ (1960) and Richard Harris in ‘This Sporting Life’ (1963), it is telling that their character arcs always concluded with them being either abandoned or emasculated as punishment for not knowing their place.
Against the cartoonish backdrop of the ‘Carry On’ franchise and its production line of pathetic proletariats, the trajectory of Michael Caine’s filmography throughout the 1970s provides an interesting counterpoint in that his commercial success rested largely upon the re-appropriation of his Cockney origins, persona and on-screen roles.
For example, only five or so years after the incendiary, anti-establishment release of ‘Get Carter’ (1971), he was suddenly battling on behalf of Queen and Country in ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ (1975) and ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (1976). So it is no surprise that when he left to further pursue the capitalist dream of Hollywood fame and fortune later in the decade, he was more or less deified by the country’s mainstream media.
Of course, everything exploded when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and cultural war was openly declared on the men and women of the labour movement and their representation across Britain’s sterling silver screens. In the blue corner were David Puttnam, Richard Attenborough and Merchant-Ivory, and in the red corner were Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter and Alan Clarke.
Noticeably, state school kids were far too busy reciting profanities in the playground from ‘Scum’ (1979) or ‘Made in Britain’ (1982) to give a toss about the posh swag bag of Academy Awards accrued by state-supported nostalgia narratives such as ‘Chariots of Fire’ (1981) or ‘Gandhi’ (1982). I should note here that Michael Caine did go some way to redeem himself in this decade by supporting Julie Walters’ wonderful working-class lead in Willy Russell’s intellectually aspirational ‘Educating Rita’ in 1983.
Under the tenures of John Major and Tony Blair in the 1990s the changing of the guard necessarily took place, and Richard Curtis and Kenneth Branagh dutifully took up their well-financed positions with ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’ (1994) and ‘Notting Hill’ (1999), ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993) and ‘Hamlet’ (1996). Meanwhile, as a reflection of the ongoing embourgeoisement of mainstream British culture and society, authentic working-class cinema not only had to search for its roots and values in the iconography of the underclass or ‘poverty porn’, it had to also search for its funding abroad.
Films such as Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’ (1993), Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ (1996), Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil by Mouth’ (1997) and Ken Loach’s ‘My Name is Joe’ (1998) highlighted that the remnants of working-class togetherness and community could now only subsist on the margins by way of the narrative ritualisation of petty crime, drugs or alcohol.
During the 21st century, as the British Empire suffers its death throes and the country’s post-Elizabethan standing on the world stage rapidly dwindles away, the Establishment in its attempt to remain in power has in general reacted by re-asserting outmoded notions of cinematic representation that are increasingly reductive, intolerant and undemocratic.
While commercially successful film franchises like ‘James Bond’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘The Crown’ continue to suffocate the growing diversity and demands of our shared culture, the mediated elevation of privately educated white male screen actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston has seemingly transported us back to the post-war performances of Lawrence Olivier, Alec Guinness and David Niven.
To end, it is no coincidence that the working-class white male protagonist in my film has no community around him: he sleeps alone, he drinks alone and he weeps alone. He lives in a society that disrespects, mocks and ignores working people’s invaluable economic and cultural contributions to the nation. He feels that nobody loves him, and he doesn’t deserve to exist.
How could trade unions and activists get involved with the film, and films generally?
A first step would be for trade unions to show active support for ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ by directly recommending it to their members, their friends and their families. The film explicitly explores in detail issues that are close to working-class experience – the human consequences of redundancy, unemployment and the debilitating process of claiming Universal Credit, for example.
Finally, you can always watch the film right now on Amazon Prime for around £4.
Such a public display of support from the trade unions would alert other working-class filmmakers and documentarians up and down the country that there exists a real-world authoritative alternative to the ‘colour-by-numbers’ period dramas, CGI extravaganzas and quirky lifestyle stories plopped out by the BBC, Sky, Channel 4 and the British Film Institute. It will inspire them to work with trade unions to create challenging and humane narratives from a non-corporate perspective so the effects of, say, austerity cuts, COVID corruption and the cost-of-living crisis can be rigorously and memorably explored as we continue to suffer under this nice and shiny neoliberal kleptocracy of ours.
Just look at the ruckus RMT leader, Mick Lynch, has been causing on a weekly basis on inane television programmes like ITV’s ‘This Morning’ or ‘BBC Breakfast’, and the real hope this has inspired in ordinary people sitting at home.
Just think about what else we could do – about how much further we could go to bring back honour, dignity, fairness and intelligence back to the British Isles.
The soundtrack to the film is on Spotify.
and below is the audivisual version of the interview.