Following a successful run at cinemas and film festivals, Voices from the Knitting Circle was screened online between 5 October and 15 November 2020.

Through this online activity we wanted to pay tribute to the women who survived life in asylums and to everyone who had gifted us their stories to share with the world.

On Thursday 12 November we hosted an online discussion panel and live Q&A event with the cast, who recreated the remarkable voices depicted on film, and the director of the documentary, Julie Mc.  The team talked about their  process and discoveries on the journey to making this documentary, exposing shocking truths about the long-care system, and making links with current concerns about the impact of the pandemic on disabled people’s rights.

The discussion panel comprised actors Mandy Colleran (playing Lizzie Jakes on film), Deni Francis (playing Celia Small on film) and Penelope Freeman (playing Nan Sweeney on film). The team was joined by Clare Edwards, British Sign Language interpreter.

You can watch a recording of the event below. It is approximately one hour long and it includes subtitles.

As it often happens with live events, there are more questions and thoughts to share than time allows us to do so. We have collated these questions on this page and Julie Mc has provided answers.

 

Credits

Video edit: Phil Bearman

Voice over: Rhiannon Kelly

With thanks to MyClearText for providing live captions during the event.

 

Questions from the audience

 

1. Do you have all the stories recorded (filmed)? Would you like to have them preserved in full form?

No. The stories belong to the people who gave them. I don’t need to ‘have them preserved’. They exist in our hearts and minds. Those of us who were witnesses became careful custodians of people’s lived experiences. These stories were gifted for the purpose of bringing them to the attention of a wider public, for a staged piece of theatre. I imagine if I’d asked for the stories to be preserved (presumably on film?) we would have had very different results. All stories were accepted between 2009 and 2011 on Marantz recorder (voice print only) with hand-written notes. These were all destroyed after use. The selected stories we went on to film were recorded in 2015 and 2016 in their entirety and edited for the purposes of the documentary. The final edit was completed in 2018.

 

2. Julie you worked with long stay locked in individuals, do you think a similar project could be done now to expose the revolving door / repeated short stay ‘admissions’ from hospital / home / possible homelessness?

Yes, I do. I worked with people in long stay hospitals, but many were ‘revolving door patients’, so-called because they could not settle out in the community, often because they were inappropriately placed and many just wanted the security of what they had come to know as ‘home’. Deni Francis who worked with us on every stage of The Knitting Circle and on the documentary film, was part of a team running the Greek Street women’s hostel in Soho for women who had all too often been bounced out of the long care system into homelessness. Little has changed!

 

3. How did you gather the stories? Were they all from people you worked with? How did you get consent from everyone to use their stories for the piece?

Firstly, I uncovered an old cassette recorder in my basement, which was sadly destroyed through playing over and over and of course, it was in poor condition as it was recorded in 1983. That recording was of the voices of 9 people I had worked with, from the original Knitting Circle in the hospital. I didn’t want the script I wrote to be limited to my own inevitable flawed memory of events or to those few voices on the cassette, precious though they are. So, I put a call out through national Mind and other mental health networks, Survivors Speak Out, Survivors Poetry, Out of Sight Out of Mind, One-to-One, and personal connections through Women in Mental Health. It was a massive piece of research and I recruited Lesley Willis to support me. She was a very thorough research assistant and uncovered some extraordinary stories on my behalf, she traced my original line Manager from the long care hospital and uncovered the story of Dorothy Lawrence, whom we created a play for in 2014. We had over 70 responses. Some people just wanted to talk. They wanted somebody to hear what they had been through, to take them seriously and to offer some crumb of comfort.

I was sent poems, sketches, stories in writing, letters, postcards, invitations to meetings, a reunion on the grounds of Harperbury Hospital (currently known as Kingsley Green) which we did not film and my favourite: the most extraordinary celebration of Christmas in July. In all cases, I accepted what I was offered and always went back to the person concerned, via their legal advocate or support worker. In all but one case, we changed the names and identifying characteristics of the person who gave us their story. We also made sure consent forms were written in plain English, explained carefully and the material was signed off for release, for use in the documentary Voices from the Knitting Circle.

 

4. How much do you think fear of the unknown and ignorance plays a part in enabling people to not give vulnerable people and disabled people a chance to engage in society.

I think fear of the unknown, and ignorance of people we ‘other’ and dehumanise, sits at the root of most destructive human behaviour. There is also the ingrained belief, currently enjoying a resurgence, in popularity, that some lives are ‘unworthy of life’ – simply not worth supporting, or grieving over.

 

5. Although it might give the great piece another feel, I would’ve loved to have seen the story of the ‘travelled perpetrators’ journey/expression of how (big word!) they found themselves to be an abuser in the mental health system and what the realisation of what they had done felt like. It’s not an easy view at all but so important for us to hear their stories.

We heard some of that through Derek McCarthy’s story, who started as a 19 year old young man working at High Royds Hospital in West Yorkshire. He served 54 years in the care system and turned everything he learned about abuse (some of which he had colluded with in his earlier years) to make radical changes in the system as Chair of the Care Quality Commission. I think we can only do so much in a short form documentary, or it starts creaking at the seams. Maybe the journey of the perpetrators’ stories will be told elsewhere? Have a look at Jules Hussy’s film: ‘Forgiven’  (2007) which was made for Channel 4.

 

6. What can teachers and school staff do to support pupils whose parents / carers have mental health needs?
They can create support networks inside the culture of the education system. Most young carers feel isolated. They need a ‘buddy system’, someone to talk to who understands, and link-ups online or via regular phone calls. We all need to educate and inform our staff teams, our pupils and ourselves. We need to support young carers at home with parents who are living with mental health issues.
7. How can we break the unspeakable circle of institutional abuse revealed by an excellent piece?
Speak out. Educate and agitate. Touch people’s hearts and change their minds.
8. Can you revive the live plays to be filmed in entirety ?
Sadly no. It would be way too expensive. The last iteration of The Knitting Circle had 8 people on stage. To fund a new creative team, rehearsal process and suitable venue for filming would cost over £35,000

 

9. How many survivors of colour were included in the interviews that informed the initial script and how many were invited to be part of the documentary?

I would need to go back through the original research notes from 2009, but off the top of my head, roughly 10 people out of 72 presented as people of colour. All were patients. Four were invited to be part of the documentary and two accepted.

 

10. How hard was it to decide to leave out the extreme sexual abuse stories?

We didn’t leave them out. Gertrude Grey re-tells the rape stories from Broadmoor Hospital when she describes what happened to the ‘Grey Women’ and the staff who colluded with the repeated assaults on those women held in the basement. I did however decide to frame those interviews really carefully, as I believe there is a penchant for bruised female flesh in the media. We do not need further stories of extreme sexual abuse.

 

Join the acting cast who recreated these remarkable voices depicted on film, talking with director Julie Mc, who describes the extraordinary seven-year journey of this documentary, exposing shocking stories that uncover unpalatable truths about the long-care system.

 

Julie McNamara, Vital Xposure’s Artistic Director, created The Knitting Circle in 2011, a theatre production based on the testimonies of people who survived the long care asylums closed in the 1980s. Each of the actors were matched with people who lived or worked inside long stay hospitals.

Voices from the Knitting Circle was created a few years later, a documentary film that follows the voices of some of the amazing people who entrusted us with their life stories. What reverberates is the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit, and the art of laughter amongst the tears.

Following a successful run at cinemas and film festivals, the documentary premiered online in autumn 2020 and is available to watch for free until Sunday 15 November via our YouTube channel

The discussion and live Q&A will be hosted on Zoom, on Thursday 12 November, at 5.30pm.

 

HOW TO JOIN

Please sign up via Eventbrite.

If you already registered on Eventbrite for the online premiere earlier this autumn, you do not need to do anything further. You will receive the event’s link directly to your inbox closer to the date.

The event will include British Sign Language interpretation and live captions.

 

 

DISCUSSION PANEL

Photo collage of the 3 actors and the director's portraits from the film. Each black and white portrait is in a circle, their positions alternate from top to bottom of the image, against a black background.

Photo collage of the 3 actors and the director’s portraits from the film. From left to right: Mandy Colleran, Deni Francis, Penelope Freeman and Julie McNamara

Julie McNamara, Director

Julie McNamara is Artistic Director of Vital Xposure, one of UK’s leading disability led touring theatre companies within Arts Council England’s national portfolio. She is a Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Victorian College of the Arts and an Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne.

As both an artist and activist, she is a leading voice in Disability Arts on international stages. Her work is driven by social justice with a life long preoccupation with creating platforms for excluded voices from the political periphery. Her particular interests are in discourses of madness and voices from locked-in spaces.

Penelope Freeman, Actor (playing Nan Sweeney)

Since graduating as an actor from LAMDA with their Spotlight Award for most promising actress, Penelope has pursued a lifelong and varied career across all genres.

Her stage work includes two seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and The Barbican, appearances in London’s West End including “The Mousetrap” and “Werewolves” and seasons with many repertory companies including Birmingham Rep, Stoke-on-Trent, Harrogate and The Globe Theatre Company in Warsaw in Poland.

Since the demise of the repertory system, she has committed to working for and supporting vibrant companies such as Vital Xposure with whom she has a long association.

 

Deni Francis, Actor 

Deni Francis is an actor, improviser, creative facilitator, writer, and activist.

Recent work before lockdown includes recording audio books, ‘Our House’ by Louise Candlish (ID Audio), and ‘The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die’ by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay (Heavy Entertainment), playing King James and Roger Casement in ‘Queer Lives at the Tower’, at the Tower of London, and smashing a double glazed window with an iron, for ‘Helen’, for Idle Women.

She is a contributing writer to ‘Building Children’s Resilience In The Face Of Parental Mental Illness’, to be published by Routledge, 2021.

Her chapter, Storytelling & drama : telling our stories, building resilience – Drama processes and techniques for empowerment.’ documents her experience over 20 years of working with drama in community mental health work with families.

Most recently she played Detective Shade for Vital Xposure and Dervish on the second stage R&D of White Pariahs: Quiet Rebels. Filmed on zoom in lockdown this Spring 2020.

She is proud to be a part of The Knitting Circle journey in it’s various iterations. From the intensive research and development stages, to the Soho theatre and on national tour, to conferences, sharing monologues, in Liverpool and Galway, and to the amazing documentary Voices from the Knitting Circle.

 

Penelope Freeman, Actor

Since graduating as an actor from LAMDA with their Spotlight Award for most promising actress, Penelope has pursued a lifelong and varied career across all genres.

Her stage work includes two seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and The Barbican, appearances in London’s West End including “The Mousetrap” and “Werewolves” and seasons with many repertory companies including Birmingham Rep, Stoke-on-Trent, Harrogate and The Globe Theatre Company in Warsaw in Poland.

As a television actor she has worked for most of the major TV companies and her appearances for BBC and ITV include “Red Dwarf”, “Wire In The Blood”, “Daziel and Pascoe” , “Doctors”, “Wild Things” and 2 seasons of the Carla Lane series “LUV”.

Since the demise of the repertory system, she has committed to working for and supporting vibrant companies such as Vital Xposure with whom she has a long association. In recent years she has collaborated and performed in their productions of The Knitting CircleThe Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence, the award winning films Blue Pen and Voices From The Knitting Circle.

 

Mandy Colleran, Actor

Short biography coming soon.

 

Following a successful run at cinemas and film festivals, we are delighted to announce that Voices from the Knitting Circle will be screened online this autumn, launching on Monday 5 October at 7pm.

It will remain available to watch for free until Sunday 15 November. Captions and audio description are included in the film

 

The documentary offers a chilling glimpse into the secret worlds and stolen years inside the long care asylums that closed in 1980s.

Betty, Mary, Miriam, Rosie, and many other former residents and survivors, talk about their experiences of life inside the Longcare system. Through wit, camaraderie and ultimate defiance they describe a bleak life pitted against the inhumane disabling world of institutionalisation.

 

Best Documentary over 30 minutes and Best of Festival, 17th Picture this…film festival, Canada 2018

We are proud that Vital Xposure’s Artistic Director, Julie McNamara has been awarded a Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at the University of Melbourne for 2019. Julie Mc has continued her research into disability-led theatre-making and how this shifts the discourse on inclusive art where disability narratives are – and should be – truly embedded from the start.

On 3rd April she delivered a public lecture on ‘Cripping it Up: When Disability-led Theatre Awakens our Critical Consciousness to the Non-normative Body and Unruly Mind Unleashed in Public Spaces​‘, hosted by the Faculty Of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne. It was received with great enthusiasm by audiences, we are sharing below just a few of the most heart-warming comments that went viral on social media:

“I have never felt as welcome, included, or valued and respected as I did on Wednesday evening when we journeyed to the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) to hear the exceptionally insightful and sincere, yet still supremely well crafted and soul bearing words of the charismatic and dynamic Julie McNamara”

“Standing in front of projections providing visual images from disabled artist Alison Lapper – The Alternative Venus, Julie said a hard home truth – that we are all prejudiced”.

The lecture was filmed and you can now view it online via the link below. Please note that Captions can be activated by clicking on the ‘CC’ button at the bottom right of the video. Enjoy!

You can read more in Julie McNamara’s interview on ‘Precinct’, published by the University of Melbourne.

Congratulations Julie Mc!

This week our Artistic Director Julie McNamara is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to talk about the work of Vital Xposure and deliver a key note speech at the Disability Arts Symposium 2017.

Tune in to the LIVE STREAMING on 6, 7, and 8 April

DisArt Festival organises the annual international symposium designed to bring together academics, critics, artists, community organizers, designers, and arts organization professionals to consider the current state of Disability Arts and the current state of access making for cities around the world.

This is Julie McNamara’s schedule:

6 April
Day 1 – IDENTITY
Title: Unruly Minds Unleashed
10.40 a.m. EST
3.40 p.m. BST (London time)

8 April
Day 3 – COMMUNITY
1.00 p.m. EST
6.00 p.m. BST (London time)
KEY NOTE SPEECH: Vital Voices

2.25 p.m. EST
7.25 p.m. BST (London time)
Title: Boo Hoo Hoo and Screw You, Too!” (Radicalizing the Community Conversation about Disability in the Arts) with Terry Galloway, Donna Nudd, Chris Smit, Jill Vyn