Big Issue Vendor

Behind the scenes of A Christmas Gift From Bob

The Big Issue celebrates the release of A Christmas Gift From Bob by taking a behind the scenes look at the making of the film that captures the magic of the late, great Street Cat Bob

A movie star has fallen asleep at my feet. It’s November 7, 2019, in a canteen for staff and crew at Twickenham Studios where A Christmas Gift from Bob is filming. Between takes, Bob has bounded across from the set, James Bowen following faithfully in his paw-steps, to meet The Big Issue.

Bob’s world-famous face is even more serene, dignified and handsome in person than it is on posters or magazine covers. From stray to superstar, Bob’s story has touched and inspired millions.

The success of 2016’s A Street Cat Named Bob, about busker and Big Issue seller James Bowen, who adopted an injured cat that helped him turn his life around, took everybody by surprise. Bowen explains how the sequel came about as Bob, after sniffing around the food and drink specially laid out, finds a comfy spot nearby and takes a nap.

Support Big Issue vendors this Christmas by gifting a subscription

“The first film connected with audiences around the world, most surprisingly of all in the Far East, and China in particular,” Bowen says. “It saw off competition from some big Hollywood imports and was at one point in tens of thousands of Chinese cinemas. It was mind-bending.”

Audiences demanded a sequel. And despite Bob being around 13 or 14 years old (nobody knows for certain) and in semi-retirement, he leaped at the chance to return to the play himself and oversee a squad of seven ginger understudies, or ‘Bobalikes’, who appear in certain scenes.

“He does most of his own close-ups and things like that,” Bowen explains. “When we go out on the streets he’ll be on the buses, he’ll be riding on shoulders, he’ll be there selling The Big Issue.”

This is the fourth day of filming, due to be completed by the end of the month. As well as Bob returning, Luke Treadaway reprises his role as James.

“It’s very rare to be playing somebody who’s real but is also here all the time,” Treadaway says. “This morning I came into work and James was there and we were chatting. It’s a real luxury to have the person you’re actually playing stood in front of you before you’re actually working.”

“The film begins when James meets a homeless guy and takes him for some food. Through talking to him he offers this story of the last Christmas he and Bob were working on the streets together. It’s that story we’re seeing throughout the film; how things can be very bad but can lead to a brighter future; by doing good, good comes back to you.”

Leaving Bob and James to return to their dressing room (Treadaway’s says ‘James Bowen’ on the door, Bob and James’: ‘The Real James Bowen’) we enter the soundstage and meet director Charles Martin Smith who has an unsurpassed CV when it comes to films capturing animal magic. There’s Air Bud about the basketball playing retriever, Dolphin Tale based on a true story of a dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail after getting tangled in fishing nets and A Dog’s Way Home which tussled with Aquaman at the top of the box office charts recently. In front of the camera Smith is best remembered as one of The Untouchables, starring alongside the late, great Sean Connery.

“I’ve done a number of movies with animals,” Smith says. “Dogs are much easier because they want to please you. With cats… they’ll do it if they feel like it,” he laughs. “But these cats are wonderful and we’re getting great footage. They’re very photogenic.”

The scene currently being filmed is set in the dingy flat James and Bob lived in a decade ago. Home alone, Bob is searching for food in cupboards while James is out trying to earn enough money to feed themselves and top up the electricity meter.

Bob’s current stand-in is Monty. Each of the Bobalikes has its own special talent, and Monty’s appears to be making a mess. He jumps onto the kitchen counter, rummages around the cupboards, plates crash to the floor.

A trio of cat trainers on hand. Jill Clark is ‘cat co-ordinator’. Many cats have a talent for knocking things over but is it difficult to make them do it on command?

“It’s quite tricky,” Clark says. “The first take we put food up there then the second take we take it away. He’s looking for it, that’s why he’s knocking everything over… I’ve just given away the tricks of our trade!”

Charles Martin Smith reviews the shot on a monitor then explains what he’s looking for in a cat’s performance.

“Animals are not actors, they don’t know they’re in a film so you have to let them do what they’re doing. It’s almost like shooting a documentary, trying to capture as many natural behaviours as possible.”

Are films about animals usually about exploring a very human story?

“Yeah, the films that I’ve made are always about the bond between humans and animals. You find from animals a purity – they’re never going to be devious. When they love you, they really love you. Plus, you know, they’re still animals. There’s a sense of nature about them that we’ve lost, but they still keep those animal instincts.”

How helpful is it to have Bob and James on set?

“It’s interesting to see the two of them. And to see that they do have that bond. We’re doing our version in the movie, but there it is, we see it every day. It’s really moving. The devotion between the two of them is as great as any love story in any movie ever.”

After ‘Bob’ has wrecked the flat looking for a snack, James returns with his friend Bea to discover the chaos. Bea, played by Kristina Tonteri-Young, is acting with cats for the first time.

“My first day was a bit of a steep learning curve,” she admits. “If the cat runs off do I keep going? But it’s always joyful, even if it goes wrong.

She continues: “There’s a saying in acting that it’s hardest to act with children and with animals. It’s because they’re the most truthful.”

It’s the honest aspects of the story that have resonated with fans. And over the next few weeks, filming takes place in the locations where the actual events in James and Bob’s journey happened, including Angel Tube station where the pair became local celebrities selling The Big Issue. One scene sees a politician on the hunt for a photo-op spot Bob and shove some foreign cash into James’ hand. This is based on the time Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, in typical bumbling style handed James some Swiss francs, commenting: “There you go, more valuable than British pounds.”

By November 22, filming has moved to Covent Garden, decked out for Christmas. There’s a choir, a tree, an unexpected but perfectly timed fall of snow. And, of course, Big Issue vendors to complete the scene.

Celwyn Jones plays one of James’ colleagues. Inside St Paul’s Church, suitably known as the Actors’ Church, that sits on the square, Jones talks about his character: “Mick, he sells The Big Issue. He lost his job when he had an accident and that was one of the steps that made him homeless.

“In the story he comes across very abrupt, very grumpy. James is convinced that Mick’s got it in for him. Through the story you think the guy’s the antagonist. But he actually turns out to be a guy who carries a sadness and a guilt and a regret. Eventually they connect and bond and Mick realises he can reach out to his family and ask for forgiveness.”

A Christmas Gift From Bob is about being haunted by a Christmas past and James Bowen understands better than most that although a season of celebration, it’s an incredibly difficult time for many.

“For some people, it can be not the most wonderful time but the most terrible time of the year. It’s hard to deal with.”

Ten years on Bowen still remembers being ignored by people too wrapped up in their own lives to care about others in the supposed season of goodwill. The reason is, he believes, ignorance. Has anything changed in a decade?

“Even though London is becoming gentrified the homeless are still there. The rich are getting richer and the poor are staying poor or getting poorer or being pushed out of their own areas, because things get so expensive.

“The Big Issue definitely has brought a lot of awareness,” he continues. Bob has as well, I say. Many more people now have an insight into the issues those who are experiencing homelessness face, thanks to Bob.

“It’s horrible to say, but if Bob hadn’t been there, I would have just been another invisible number,” Bowen says.

November 2020 update: The film is set for release in unimaginably changed circumstances. The world has been upended by Covid, and Bob is no longer with us. Tragically hit by a car in June, he may be gone but his legacy lives on, stronger than ever.

Watching the finished film is an emotional but ultimately uplifting experience. In these dark days, it’s reassuring and comforting to see the light Bob brought to the world still shining brightly. The message of hope, not giving up when all is lost and helping others to help ourselves are lessons needed more than ever.