The Lincolnshire coastline is the central player in a new thriller. Film critic Tony Earnshaw reports on how Grimsby shines as the backdrop to Pleasure Island
Grimsby’s place in the annals of film can be traced back to 1901 and a short entitled Herring Boats Arriving at Grimsby. Nearly 40 years later the sea once again played a part in the town’s cinematic heritage when Irish actor Niall MacGinnis played a rescued fisherman in The Last Adventurers.
There has been a smattering of other movies, not least Atonement, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, Shane Meadows’ This is England and the John Cleese comedy Clockwise. Since then the town has been the poor relation of its Yorkshire neighbours, struggling to establish itself as a focal point for filmmakers.
Pleasure Island depicts the return to Grimsby of Dean, a taciturn soldier with an enigmatic past. He receives a chilly response from his elderly father and discovers old friend Jess to be working as a pole dancer to support herself and her young son.
What’s more, both Jess and his old dad appear to be embroiled in the town’s drugs underworld, much of it controlled by businessman Miles. Soon Dean is squaring up to Jess’s boss, to his own father as he unravels his secrets and to Miles, the resident Mr Big.
Writer/director Mike Doxford set his debut feature in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. The spur, he says, was a conversation with actor/producer Ian Sharp, with whom Doxford had collaborated on a couple of earlier projects.“I’ve got a vague idea for a movie,” announced Sharp. “And I want to set it in Grimsby.”
Actors are known for their loyalty to their roots. Sharp’s reasoning was slightly different as he hails from Scunthorpe. But there was something to his insistence that interested Doxford, a 28-year-old Somerset native.
“I said, ‘Okay, let’s go and have a look.’ I hadn’t been to part of the world before so I didn’t really know what to expect. We drove up and I was just blown away.
There was so much beauty to capture, so many untapped resources and locations that we could put in a movie. The beaches were just stunning.
“We realised no one had made a movie round there and we wanted to be those people. We wanted to jump in there, meet fascinating people and put that all on screen.”
But Doxford and his cast – Sharp plays Dean with Gina Bramhill as Jess – sought to offer a different perspective on the standard thriller. Not for them the formulaic plot of the hero riding into town to clear out the bad guys.
Instead they focused on normality, realism and the sense of bad things playing out against a very ordinary backdrop.
Pleasure Island is defiantly independent, receiving zero funding from bodies such as the British Film Institute or Film North. Instead the budget, which Doxford identifies as “less than a million” was augmented by co-opting the support of local people.
There was, he says, no issue with the potentially problematic content of the script. Moreover the council, eager to assist, offered up municipal buildings as a unit base.
“The key thing to remember with any movie that has a difficult storyline is that it’s not just Grimsby or Cleethorpes, it’s the same everywhere,” observes Doxford. “That’s what we said to them: it has difficult elements for the characters but actually we want to show off the beauty of where they live.
“It would have been very easy to ‘grit it up’ and make everything seem nasty and dirty. [Instead] we wanted to humanise it, bring it to a place where it feels real.
“They understood where we were trying to go with this and were really supportive right from the beginning.”
In his determination to avoid the many clichés associated with making a film that combined elements of revenge and redemption, Doxford relied heavily on Sharp’s interpretation of Dean. Sharp, who closely resembles a young Ray Winstone, presents him as an anti-hero who, despite best intentions, ruins everything he touches.
Says Doxford: “We wanted to have a silent character, a guy that didn’t really know how to deliver himself verbally. Ian had a really difficult role in this movie because there was so much that he had to deliver without using words.
“Another difficult thing he has to deliver is that he always thinks he’s doing the right thing yet every decision he takes makes everything worse. I thought that led to a much more human character. In testament to Ian the movie can only work if he brought that to the table.”
The ordinariness of the backdrop is tempered by the drive of the villains, principally Miles, (played by Michael J. Jackson), who harbours ambitions to buy the town’s amusement park, Pleasure Island. To raise the necessary funds he’s bringing in drugs from the continent. His preferred mule: the humble pigeon.
“Everything that’s in the film is based on some sort of truth that we had managed to find – even the fact that people are hiding drugs within pigeons. That was a true story: people actually tried it and they got caught doing it. And it was up in the Grimsby area.”
Pleasure Island has loose parallels to a clutch of classic films including Get Carter, First Blood and True Romance. With a string of short subjects behind him as a director and experience working as a cinematographer, Doxford is steeped in the movies.
“Every filmmaker is influenced by every movie they’ve ever seen. And all their favourite filmmakers. You can’t get away from it. You become a filmmaker because you’re inspired by film.
“True Romance… I grew up watching that movie. Of course that would be an inspiration for me. There was such a spectrum of people from lots of different elements of society and that was what we wanted to do with Pleasure Island. You’ve got all these people from all these social levels.
“I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of movies that have a similar synopsis to Pleasure Island and it’s generally lots of blood and people saying tough words. We didn’t so much want to do that with this. I wanted to have Miles organising his kid’s party - to bring in these things that felt real and use them to help tell the story.”
In a film full of great moments one scene stands out. Shot and bleeding, Dean staggers down the promenade (the sequence was filmed in Cleethorpes) grimly holding onto a shotgun. All around him, families and old folk scuttle out of his path.
“People were so understanding of what we were trying to do,” recalls Doxford.
“We didn’t cause any problems. In fact the police came down to check that we were okay rather than to check if the public were okay with what we were doing. Everyone was so welcoming, that’s the crazy thing.
“It was a local film being made by local people. That was key to making it and I hope that helped give an essence of what it’s like to live there or be there or visit there. I hope that comes across on screen.”
Pleasure Island (15) is on nationwide release from Friday, August 14.