A country on the verge of civil war - Slung Low film explores a UK divided by political extremism

Community actors participate in the riot scene on the steps of Leeds Town Hall for Slung Low's The Good Book. Picture: Chris Thornton
Community actors participate in the riot scene on the steps of Leeds Town Hall for Slung Low's The Good Book. Picture: Chris Thornton

Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low are making a short film set in the near future with the country on the verge of civil war. Yvette Huddleston reports.

I’m standing in front of Leeds Town Hall on a cold, damp Sunday evening in early February.

Filming of Slung Low's short film The Good Book - rioting outside Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Malcolm Johnson

Filming of Slung Low's short film The Good Book - rioting outside Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Malcolm Johnson

There is a crowd gathered at the bottom of the steps carrying placards bearing slogans such as ‘Virtue Now’ and ‘Burn the Books’. Then a chant begins “Purity! Perfection! Purity! Perfection!” It’s like some awful dystopian nightmare.

A few passers-by linger behind barriers looking a little concerned until they spot the cameras that are trained on the protesters and on the soldiers protecting the front of the building holding riot shields and wearing tunics sporting a red cross. This is the location for one of the scenes in Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low’s latest project – a short film entitled The Good Book, a drama set in Holbeck in the near future when the country, divided by political extremism, is bubbling on the edge of civil war.

Leeds theatre company Slung Low celebrates blue plaque recognition

It features a community cast of around a hundred people, working alongside professional actors, and has been made with funding and support from Leeds 2023.

The script has been written by award-winning playwright James Phillips who has worked with Slung Low on several of the large-scale theatre productions for which they are known including Camelot: The Shining City in Sheffield and Flood for Hull UK City of Culture 2017. “The story of the The Good Book came out of the narrative of Camelot really,” explains Phillips. “That was about a dangerously nostalgic revolution and the corrupting influence of power; the idea of something seductive but perhaps not wise. I loved doing that show and I wanted to continue to explore those ideas, especially as they have become even more pertinent since we did Camelot in 2015. All of the work we do is rooted in current concerns and issues.”

As the rain starts to fall, gently at first and then quite heavily, the ‘protesters’ show total commitment to their task; patiently regrouping for another take, giving their all each and every time. “The community actors are not ‘extras’ they are very much part of the whole process,” says Alan Lane, Slung Low’s artistic director. “It is important that people have a sense of ownership. This is political work talking about big issues – and this is their city. It is really exciting for us to have the opportunity to build this project here in our home city, with the people of Leeds.”

Speaking to two of the community actors, it is clear that the experience has been a hugely positive one for everyone involved.

“It’s been absolutely fantastic, feeling the buzz of creating something together,” says John Poulter, a retired university lecturer who got involved in The Good Book thanks to another Slung Low project – their Cultural Community College. “About a year ago I went on their performance skills course and that was great. They said they were going to be doing a film at the beginning of 2020 and when they did the call-out I put my name down.

“I was expecting to be part of the crowd scenes but they said they thought I would be good as Frank who is a kind of father figure to Avalon, the young woman who is the central character. I’ve loved it, I’ve really got the acting bug, and it’s been a great piece of teamwork.”

How Yorkshire’s theatres are beating austerity cuts for the arts

Also on the team is Sue Talbot, a mental health social worker who has lived in Beeston for nearly forty years. “Slung Low is such a good thing for the area – they have done so much for Holbeck and Beeston, they are really making a difference,” she says. “For me personally, working on this has been absolutely wonderful and really liberating. It has allowed me to tap in to my creativity.

“And the narrative of the film speaks to my sense of social justice and of there being injustices in the world that we need to stand against. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have been a part of it and it’s been really interesting to understand a bit more about how a piece of art is created.”

For professional local actor Riana Duce who plays the lead role of Avalon, the young woman at the centre of the narrative faced with a difficult decision about which faction to support, it has been a valuable experience. “It has been a really wonderful process; the community cast have been just amazing. And the story is so resonant. It feels like we are on the cusp of something and it has been so special to explore that.”

The Good Book will be screening at festivals and will then be made freely available on Slung Low’s website.