Film

Filmmaker Melanie Manchot explains how her drama Stephen can offer hope to addicts

Stephen is a new feature film by Melanie Manchot dealing with experiences of addiction

Stephen Giddings in Stephen

A group of Liverpudlians sit in a circle, discussing their experiences of addiction. Then the camera zooms out. This is not a therapy session, but a readthrough. The scene captures the essence of Stephen, the new feature film by Melanie Manchot. Its Matryoshka structure follows the production of a film inspired by 1901’s Arrest of Goudie, both the first film made in Liverpool and the first crime reconstruction, about Thomas Goudie, who embezzled £170,000 (£22m today) from the bank where he worked to repay gambling debts. In the diegetic film, relocated to the 1990s, Goudie is played by Stephen Giddings, who himself has experience of alcohol addiction. And Stephen Giddings is played by himself.

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“It originated through another video art project that I worked on from 2010-2011 that came about through an invitation to think about addiction and recovery,” Manchot says. “Stephen was part of a group of people in an alcohol recovery programme in Liverpool called SHARP who joined the project voluntarily. He was by far the youngest – he was 26 at the time. But the moment he stood in front of the camera, it was like, wow – this huge transformation.”

After the project, Giddings enrolled in acting classes, but then went to university – the first in his family to do so – to study mental health nursing, but he retained a dream of performing in a film, just once. So Manchot made it happen.

“Filmmaking has an incredible capacity to be a tool in recovery,” she says, offering “a way of fabulating stories about yourself that are different, so you can look back and think, ‘Oh, I could be like that – this is another version of me.’”

It is also “inherently collective, and the impact of creating something collectively is phenomenal. It really gives people a sense of purpose. And one thing that is known in addiction recovery is that you don’t recover on your own, and you need a sense of purpose.”

All 16 cast members are themselves in recovery, and their experiences fed into the script. Pre-production began in early 2020. When the UK went into lockdown, Manchot was concerned: “For people in addiction, being told to isolate is the worst thing that could happen.” But she and the cast regrouped whenever possible, and “it was like family – people were so together and so connected”.

Isolation recurs thematically within the film, as in one striking scene in which Goudie sits physically with but mentally adrift from loved ones at a pub during a Liverpool game. But these moments are bracketed by others in which the creative process – auditions, rehearsals, the reviewing of rushes – provides opportunities for reintegration and transformation.

“Addiction is very much a breakdown of connection,” Manchot says, “and it is the reestablishment of connections that allows people to move out of addiction into recovery, and hopefully stay in recovery.”

As well as cinemas, the film is visiting exhibition spaces across the UK, where it will be accompanied by a multi-channel installation that focuses on the supporting cast’s experience of producing the film, featuring practices that “come out of both therapy and acting exercises”.

Given this overt connection between recovery and creativity, Manchot is troubled by the impact of cuts to healthcare and the arts. “The results of what’s happening now will play out over the next 10 years,” she says.

“It’s so myopic, and it’s so problematic, because it takes a huge amount of energy and potential and contribution out of our society. People in recovery are often highly spirited people, and if only society was able to see that more clearly, they could be much better reintegrated. Doing something that gives us a sense of purpose is pleasurable to ourselves, but it also helps other people. I think not realising this is devastating.”

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Oldham actor Mark Newsome is living proof of this sentiment. He trained at Oldham Theatre Workshop for six years from the age of 15, then attended the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, graduating in 2014.

“I signed with a really good agent, but then my mental health declined,” he says. For “about five or six years, I wasn’t really working, and auditions weren’t coming in, and I had real problems with drink and drugs. I was arrested about six, seven times. I got sent to court on two separate occasions, and they were threatening me with prison.

Stephen Giddings and Michelle Collins in Stephen
Stephen Giddings playing himself playing Tom, and Michelle Collins as Max

“Then I got a letter from this theatre who’d seen me behaving really badly that said, ‘You need to keep away.’ That really struck a chord, because I was like, ‘This is starting to really affect my career’ – even though it probably already was. My career’s always been everything to me and what I’m really passionate about.

“In 2017, it came to a bit of a head in Blackpool. I had the intention of taking my life there.”

But, thanks to a call with his best friend, he survived. A year later, he opened Blackpool, What A Shit Place to Die, a one-man play about his experience written by Phil Pearson, “and it just did really well. That was a real turning point in my life,” as was receiving an autism diagnosis at 29. “I finally realised why I was struggling so much,” he says.

Having once faced the prospect of incarceration, he was cast as a neurodivergent prisoner in Screw, then as a police officer in Coronation Street. He became an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust and CALM and is now in the process of adapting Blackpool, What A Shit Place to Die into a short film as a gateway for a future feature.

He has also been sober for a year. “I am going to fuck up in the future – that’s natural,” he says. “I’m not cured. But I’m better equipped now to deal with those things.” The arts have played a significant role in his recovery, and he considers it “an honour” to be able repay the favour through his own work. “When you’re going through it, it’s so isolating, and it can feel like you’re the only person in the world who’s going through that,” he says, “but there are so many people out there that are struggling.”

Stephen is in cinemas now. The installation is on at The Exchange in Newlyn, Cornwall, followed by a nationwide exhibition tour

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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