Culture

Johnny Harris hails Jawbone's redemptive power

The 2017 boxing epic was a labour of love for the actor – and now five years on it's getting a new lease of life

Johnny Harris

Photo: Sam Barker

Remember how Samson defeated the Philistine army in Old Testament times? “Vanquished by a sorry jawbone [of a donkey], the victory was not in the arm, not in the weapon, but in the spirit.”

Five years ago, a film was released that took its title from this quote. Jawbone was written by and starred Johnny Harris, at the time best known as the monstrous Mick in This Is England. It followed a man called Jimmy McCabe’s decent into alcoholism and homelessness, who returns to the one place he ever felt safe, his old boxing gym.

Harris’s film was not autobiographical, but it was deeply personal. At 13, he dropped out of school but found direction at the Fitzroy Lodge club in South London, where trainer Mick Carney took him under his wing. At 16, Harris was junior Amateur Boxing Association national champion.

But his battles outside the ring were tougher than any opponent. For almost 15 years, Harris was “just keeping a face on things”, fighting alcoholism and depression. “I begged, borrowed and stole in the name of booze,” he told The Big Issue in 2017.

“After years of thinking I could work it out on my own and I could beat it, whatever it was, I just got desperate enough and I asked for help. I was sick and tired of always being sick and tired. I wanted some big complicated solution for what seemed like a complicated problem, but it’s about keeping it simple. If you’re in trouble, ask for help.”

Pouring all of his experience into Jawbone’s script and his performance, Harris helped create one of the best British films in recent years. But it’s only now, five years on, that it’s getting its due.

Of course, some celebrated it from the start. The Big Issue put together a special edition featuring many of the cast – Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Michael Smiley – and crew, including Barry McGuigan, who served as a consultant, and Paul Weller who composed the soundtrack.

“I’ve got the front cover on my kitchen wall,” Harris says. “I’ve got a magnetic board with lots of little photos of loved ones and memories and ticket stubs. The wall of love, I call it. And that cover is up at the top there.”

Reflecting on the film today, Harris remembers the hurt of releasing a film to acclaimed reviews but few people able to see it.

“Back in the day, it was saddening that we got such good reviews, but we couldn’t get cinema screens. Yet, in the long run, it’s really worked out. The way people are naturally discovering it feels like it was almost always meant to be.”

A new book has been published that tells the ‘autobiography’ of the film

After Bafta and BIFA nominations, people slowly started to find the film – and in the last couple of weeks it’s been added to Disney+ so suddenly a lot more people are watching.

“We’ve been getting a load of messages from people who have discovered the film again there or discovered it for the first time. It’s lovely it’s got another wave. You hope these stories are going to last, they’re going to have legs, or a legacy if you like.”

Johnny Harris in Jawbone
Harris plays Jimmy McCabe, an alcoholic ex-boxer who’s determined not to throw in the towel Photo: Lee Cogswell

At its heart, Jawbone is Harris’s thank you to those who helped him get back on track.

“At that stage of my life, I had this overwhelming feeling that I’d been held and carried. I finally truly realised it. I admitted it to my innermost self, I’ve been loved – despite myself often. And I wanted to say thank you. And I knew that that film was a way of doing it.”

Ray Winstone’s character in the film is a tribute to the late Mick Carney, who founded the charity Carney’s Community and helped disadvantaged young people, including Harris. 

“These benevolent people – they’re all around. They’re doing it now.” Harris talks about George Turner, carrying on the work of Carney’s Community and Mark Reigate, who runs Fitzroy Lodge now. “They’re doing wonderful work down there with the youngsters,” Harris says. “At the moment they’re trying to raise money for a gym floor. Any donations would be welcome.

“I get asked a lot, do you think boxing can change lives? I don’t think it’s boxing that changes lives. I think it’s the principles. That’s why when kids go there, they feel a sense of purpose, because all of a sudden they’re part of a community, they’re seeing that the hard work they put in pays rewards.”

Ultimately, as Samson would attest, it’s about the spirit. 

Harris continues: “There are many spiritual truths played out in the boxing ring. They’re played out in lots of other places too, giving people purpose and direction in life. If we don’t do that as a society, people are going to try and find their own purpose and as we all know, there are things that feel like they’re purposeful, but they’re dead ends leading nowhere.”

Processing the making of the film has helped reinforce Harris’s own sense of purpose in life.

“I think you reach a certain age and you realise that the only purpose is helping those that come after you.

“Some days you wake up and life is like walking downhill with the wind behind you. And there are other days when you’re on that very same hill, but you’re walking uphill, the wind’s in your face and it’s exhausting. 

“We need those anchors, those people, that power we can access that reminds us that we’re on the hill, and it’s all OK.” 

Interview: Steven MacKenzie

A new book, Jawbone: The Autobiography of a Film is out now (Tangerine Press, from £29). A special BFI Southbank screening on September 3 at 6pm has a Q&A afterwards with writer-actor Johnny Harris, actors Michael Smiley and Ray Winstone and director Thomas Napper. Signed copies of the photography book will be available to purchase on the night. More information and tickets bfi.org.uk

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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