There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of a film about women boxers would have raised a few eyebrows.
Thankfully these are more enlightened days (in some regards at least) and trailblazers like Leeds-born boxer Nicola Adams have not only become sporting heroes but role models to girls all over the country.
Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed 2004 film Million Dollar Baby, about an underdog amateur boxer battling to achieve her dream of becoming a professional, earned Hilary Swank an Oscar for Best Actress, and boxing features heavily in Jessica Hynes’ new film – The Fight – which is released tomorrow.
For actress and writer Hynes, best known as the co-creator and star of the sitcom Spaced and for the satirical TV series W1A, the film is also her directorial debut.
It’s not, she’s keen to point out, a boxing film in the traditional sense. “Although I very much enjoy them and have been inspired by the many boxing films I have seen over the years, I wanted to make one about someone like me – a middle-aged woman with children trying to keep things together.”
So rather than being at the heart of the film it forms more of a backdrop to the ups and downs of family life as the main protagonist Tina Bell, played by Hynes, attempts to juggle work and children without losing sight of who she is.
Hynes will be in Yorkshire later this month when she will be discussing her film with Maxine Peake at the inaugural Hebden Bridge Film Festival.
The Fight premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and received a glowing review from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, and Hynes is looking forward to bringing it to West Yorkshire.
“One of the best things about getting to this point and having a film on release is to be able to do these kind of little tours, so I’m really looking forward to coming to Hebden Bridge because it’s a really good way of talking to people and getting more people to see your film. Which is what every director wants.”
The idea for the story came to her while she was at the gym. “I was doing a boxfit class and there were all these women sparring and using the punch bags and at the end of the class women who were professional boxers would come and get into the ring and I was captivated by this. It was a traditional gym with really red walls and I started to think about these female boxers and thought I’d love to create a story about a woman, like me, who’s a middle aged mum and who makes that transition and what would drive her to do that.”
It’s the first time she’s been behind the camera, as opposed to in front of it, and found it a joyous experience. “It was thrilling and uplifting. I’d wanted to direct from the beginning because as a writer I thought it was something I could do, but it’s difficult to get that opportunity.
“I’d suggested it in the past but I’d kind of given up on the idea. I thought once I was in my forties it wasn’t going to happen, so when the opportunity arose it was great.”
The film was produced on a small budget and remarkably took just 12 days to shoot. “Like all film-makers whether you’ve got a hundred grand budget or £100 million, it’s always about problem solving and making decisions and seeing it through,” she says.
As well as Hebden Bridge, Hynes is also heading to Leeds, a city she’s familiar with having spent a season at Leeds Playhouse in the early 90s. “I’d been working for a year or so by then and I did The Plough and the Stars and Fiddler on the Roof and I spent some time living in Kirkstall.
“I enjoyed my time there. I liked going to the market and there were great club nights in the city back in those days.”
During her time in Leeds she also came across an unusual ‘custom’. “I didn’t realise there was a tradition in Leeds (and I don’t know if people in the city know that other people don’t do this) of ‘Mischief Night’ where people go out and throw eggs and flour at each other. So one day I was cycling home from the theatre and I got flour and egged not knowing about this. I stopped and said ‘what the hell are you doing?’ and they said ‘it’s Mischief Night…’”
These days Hynes, 46, is a familiar face on our TV screens and says her interest in acting goes back to her school days.
“I did drama classes and I had a great teacher who was very supportive. She stuck her neck out and even said to me when I was in primary school that she thought I could be an actor, which was pretty mind-blowing for me, and I took her at her word and thought ‘ok, I will.’”
Having cut her teeth at places like the Playhouse, Hynes made her name in Spaced, the comedy series she co-created with Simon Pegg 20 years ago. “I’m so proud of that. I feel like writing and creating that and being in it really formed me because it led on to so many other things. It was probably then that I first thought about the idea of directing because when you write something you have such a clear idea of what you’re doing that it almost leads on to directing in a way.”
The show quickly gained a cult following and is still popular today. “We knew it was different and we knew there was nothing else like it and we conceived it with this in mind, but we didn’t know if that would work for us or against us but in the end I think the fact that it was unique and a bit eccentric, but also honest, worked for us.”
It was the springboard to a career that has seen her appear in TV shows such as The Royle Family and a number of films including Burke and Hare and Paddington 2.
With The Fight she wanted to make a film that championed ordinary women. “I wanted middle-aged mums who go to boxing classes to have their own Rocky. I wanted to make something where you could go along and see someone who looks like a normal person and for them to triumph.”
This was the underlying motive for the film. “I thought how great it would be if we could elevate an ordinary woman into that central role, like Rocky, and have her fighting her demons and using boxing as the metaphor. So it’s not about winning the boxing matches, it’s about beating your demons – that’s what I wanted to do.”
She feels it’s important that stories like this get told. “They connect us. At their best they give us a better understanding of the world and other people’s situations.
“I’m moved by films made by people who are trying to tell their story and one that I might not know about. I’m all about understanding and tolerance and all those things that bring us closer together, so the more films that unite us in our common experiences can never be a bad thing.”
The Fight is released tomorrow. Jessica Hynes will be doing a Q&A as part of the Hebden Bridge Film Festival on March 24 at 6pm. For tickets go to www.hebdenbridgefilmfestival.org