Big Issue Vendor

James Bowen writes about making A Street Cat Named Bob

Former Big Issue vendor turned publishing sensation James Bowen gives an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the film fans have been purring about...

The weather in London during the last three months of 2015 was unusually dry and warm. Some days temperatures were more akin to summer than autumn or winter, reaching as high as 15 degrees. My cat Bob and I had more reason than most to be grateful for this. For a month and a half during that period we were up at the crack of dawn and then out in the open air, walking the streets for up to a dozen hours on end. We – and in particular Bob – really wouldn’t have appreciated weeks of snow and rain.

We spent most of this time on our old stamping ground, in Covent Garden and around the Angel, Islington, where I used to busk and later sell The Big Issue. This time, however, we weren’t there to sell magazines or encourage passing tourists to toss coins into my guitar case. Well, not for real at least.

James Bowen meets Luke Treadaway and Ruta Gedmintas while filming A Street Cat Named Bob

For those six weeks we became part of the production team on A Street Cat Named Bob, the film based on my 2012 book about how Bob and I met and changed each other’s lives. To say it was the most exciting, challenging, surreal and totally unexpected six weeks of my life wouldn’t come close to describing it. I still can’t quite believe it happened, if I’m honest.

When we’d first sold the rights to the book four or so years ago we’d been told by our literary agents to expect little involvement in filming, beyond the odd courtesy visit to the set. So, when shooting got under way in October of last year, I was prepared to stand in the wings, an interested observer as the professionals got on with their job. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

During pre-production on the film, director Roger Spottiswoode and producer Adam Rolston had hired a top flight animal wrangler in Canada to train half a dozen ‘Bobalikes’, fellow ginger cats with acting experience who would take on the arduous job of being on set from dawn ’til dusk. They had been brilliantly prepared and were ready, willing and able to do everything from jumping on buses to running down Camden Passage in key scenes. Early on, we were asked if Bob could appear in a few close-up shots for the movie. To give it some extra authenticity, they said. That changed one Sunday.

It was the most exciting, challenging, surreal and totally unexpected six weeks of my life

We had spent a misty morning on the Millennium Bridge doing a few shots and had then moved on to the Covent Garden area where the crew were filming outside Bow Street Magistrates. It was there, that evening, that something miraculous happened. Luke Treadaway (pictured below with director Spottiswoode), who was playing me, was filming a scene in which he was busking, singing Silent Night to be precise, in a quiet alleyway. Roger had met and liked Bob and wanted to use him in a shot. This seemed like a good opportunity. This was, after all, his domain. He had spent many an hour sitting on his blanket alongside me in Covent Garden, patiently waiting for me to collect enough money to afford a meal and to pay the electric and gas bill on our flat.

But when the cameras started rolling he did something amazing. As the extras walked past, clinking coins into the guitar case, Bob would look up at them and nod, as if to say ‘thanks’.

Roger’s face was a picture. You could just see him asking himself the question: “Did I just see what I just saw?”

He had. And he saw it again on the next take, and the next one.

Luke Treadaway on set with director Roger Spottiswoode and Street Cat Bob

I think that was it. From then on Bob appeared in as many scenes as it was possible for him to appear in. As a result, we became an almost constant presence on the set and at Twickenham Studios where the production team had built sets replicating the flat in north London where Bob and I used to live. He turned out to be an absolute natural there too.
 In one scene, in which Luke is having dinner with his ‘love interest’ Betty, played by his real-life girlfriend Ruta Gedmintas, Bob was supposed to turn his nose up at some tofu that he is offered by the super-vegan Betty. One of the other cats, a lovely guy named Oscar, had happily scoffed it down when he was offered it. He figured it was food. Why turn it down? When Bob came to do his scene, however, he duly sniffed the tofu then made a little growling sound and pushed it away. Just like he was supposed to in the script.

The more involved he got, the more Bob got used to the routine – so much so that when the recording light in the studio turned from red to green signalling that filming was over, he would follow the power lines out of the door and scamper straight up to his dressing room where he would proceed to demand food.

I did everything from positioning myself behind the camera clicking my fingers to pointing a laser pen at the walls to make him look around the room

His dietary demands became so well known that half the crew carried packets of Dairylea Dunkers with them, ready to encourage or cheer Bob up when he was on the set. One day, as we tried to get a particularly grumpy Bob to perform his trademark high five near the Actors’ Church at Covent Garden, it took what seemed like a supermarket full of Dunkers to tease him into action.

At times like this, it fell to me to be his handler-cum-acting coach. So I had to develop a repertoire of tricks and ploys to keep him interested and to keep his eyeline where the cameraman needed it to be.

I did everything from positioning myself behind the camera clicking my fingers to pointing a laser pen at the walls to make him look around the room. He did what was required of him 99.9 per cent of the time, but even when he decided to improvise, Roger learned to take advantage. One day, for instance, rather than sitting still for the camera as required, Bob started energetically chasing the pen around the room, diving at it whenever he got close to the tiny pinprick of red light. Roger kept the cameras going and used the footage in another scene in which Bob is seen chasing a mouse around my flat.

The other cats were kept busy too, of course. Bob wasn’t capable of doing the action scenes, in partic-ular. But he and I did help there as well, for instance showing them how we used to ride around together on our bike – the Bobmobile.

The experience of seeing my own life filmed was odd enough. But to see it filmed in locations that had played a real part in my life was strange in the extreme. When we were filming that first scene near Bow Street, for instance, I walked past the old Bow Street Magistrates building and had a flashback to some 20 or so years earlier, soon after I’d found myself on the streets. I’d been arrested near there and taken to the courtroom charged with begging. All I’d been trying to do was to exchange some luncheon vouchers for cash. The person with whom I was doing this was perfectly happy to make the exchange. But the police had decided to make a point and hauled me in. When I’d come up before the magistrate I’d pleaded – and been found – not guilty. It had been a waste of everyone’s time.

After filming was complete, while the production did a photo shoot with Bob and I near Covent Garden tube station, I was reminded of another run-in with the powers that be. Our photographer was suddenly admonished and threatened by the ‘Covent Guardians’, the council officers who police the streets around the famous piazza, ensuring that the right street performers are working there. It took me back to the times when I’d run the gauntlet with them, busking in an area that I wasn’t supposed to be.

It was around that area that the six-week adventure drew to a close. I’m not giving too much away by saying that it’s there that the movie comes to an end. On the day of that climactic scene the whole western end of Covent Garden Piazza was filled with fire-eaters, jugglers and assorted other street performers.

A collection of cute schoolchildren were singing away. It was a joyous ending to a rather joyous few weeks in my life.

Of course, they say that the end of every film-making process is like the ending of a relationship. The friendships you forge there are intense – you are with each other day in, day out. And then it’s all over. I am fortunate that I have remained on friendly terms with the producer of the movie, Adam Rolston, Luke and Ruta as well as Anthony Head, who plays my father in the film. I have even visited the cat wranglers in Canada. So I’m hopeful the friendships I have made will live longer than most.

A couple of things are certain to live on, however. One, of course, is Bob, now immortalised on film, there for the ages, in all his ginger glory. And another is the memories I have of those remarkable six weeks. They will live with me until the day I die.

A Street Cat Named Bob is in cinemas now

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