A few weeks ago, just as the nights closed in and the unmistakable scent of winter began to fill the air, my cat Bob and I found ourselves holed up in a small, dingy flat in West London. The sparsely furnished apartment was chilly and shrouded in darkness, mainly because the electricity hadn’t been paid. The only way to heat up food or some water for a cup of tea was to place a pan over a few small candles in the kitchen. Not that there was much to eat: the cupboards were bare.
It immediately reminded me of a dark and difficult period in my life when I’d come off the streets and was living in a flat just like this, recovering from addiction and dreading the electric running out. It felt like I’d stepped back in time 10 years, which in a way I had.
The flat had been built on a sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios. Along with Bob, I was there to take part in filming of A Gift From Bob, a new movie adapted from my book of the same name. Published in 2014, it told the story of the last Christmas Bob and I spent on the streets of London in 2010, relying on busking and sales of The Big Issue to keep us going. More importantly, it explored what that tough, cold winter on the streets taught me about the meaning of Christmas. How I learned, for instance, that even when you feel you’ve got nothing – as I did at the time – you’ve always got something to give. And that there’s always someone worse off than you and that you should be grateful for all the friendships and relationships you have in life.
Fittingly, another of the lessons I learned during that bitterly cold winter was to always expect the unexpected. Finding myself back on a film set with Bob certainly fell into that category. It capped a year or so filled with surprises, most of them happy ones.
Since our first book, A Street Cat Named Bob, came out in 2012 our lives have been transformed. We’ve tried to use our good fortune to work with as many charities as we can and this year has been particularly gratifying.
In October Baroness Pidding CBE invited us to the House of Lords to give a talk on homelessness. It was a real ‘pinch me’ moment to stand in the Peers Bar overlooking the Thames and then have dinner in the Peers’ Dining Room, inner sanctums that are usually only accessible to Members of the House. We’ve also supported animal charities as well as – naturally – The Big Issue who, in keeping with their motto, gave us a hand up rather than a handout.
There have been other unexpected moments too, some personal.
In July, while on holiday in the Canary Islands, I proposed to my girlfriend Monika. To my relief she accepted and we’re now living together in South London, along with Bob, my two other cats and Monika’s own feline companion, Pom Pom. We’ve all been making adjustments and compromises, even Bob, who has actually adapted to his new, expanded family rather well.
But if that was the happiest surprise then the most gobsmacking was the chain of events that led me to Twickenham Studios and that recreation of the flat I lived in back in 2010. The first film, A Street Cat Named Bob, was released back in 2016 and seemed to connect with audiences around the world, here in the UK, around Europe and – most surprisingly of all – in the Far East and China in particular. It came out in China this time last year, one of the few small, independent British films to get a release across the vast country. It saw off competition from homegrown Chinese films and some big Hollywood imports and was – for a period – the number two or three film in Chinese cinemas. At one point it was in tens of thousands of Chinese cinemas. It was mindbending.
Encouraged by this – and with Chinese partners financing the film – we began to entertain the idea of a second movie and we were soon reassembling the key members of the team at Twickenham and then at locations in Kingston, Hammersmith, Peckham, Covent Garden and outside Angel Tube station where – in many ways – the story of Bob and I took off. The film has been produced by Adam Rolston based on a script by my long-time co-author, Garry Jenkins, and starring Luke Treadaway as me. There are new faces – of course – primarily the brilliant, American director Charles Martin Smith, something of a veteran of animal films having directed Dolphin Tale and A Dog’s Way Home. And on the acting front the cast has been bolstered by Phaldut Sharma, Kristina Tonteri-Young, Tim Plester and Celyn Jones amongst others.
At the heart of the entire production once more, of course, is Bob himself.
A lot has changed since we filmed the first movie, for Bob as well as me. For a start, Bob is an older cat and had been in semi-retirement, only rarely leaving his favourite spot in the corner of my living room to appear at charity events. But for the film, Ol’ Green Eyes came back to appear in a few cameo scenes. He’d lost none of his star power. It was as if he’d never been away from the camera. But, like a veteran Hollywood star of yore, he also acted as a sort of consultant, keeping a keen eye on the other cats brought in to perform. Under the expert guidance of our brilliant cat team, Winston, Jaffa and the rest of the ‘Bobalikes’ performed wonderfully.
We’re hoping the film will be in cinemas during the run-up to next Christmas. We live in strange and unsettling times, when nothing can be taken for granted any more, it seems. And yet I’m pretty certain its central messages – that we all need to pull together, that you reap what you sow and that even the simplest acts of kindness can change lives – will still be applicable when autumn gives way to winter next year too. We look forward to sharing our latest adventure with you – but until then Bob and I wish you a peaceful Christmas.
Keep reading The Big Issue for updates about the film over the next few months!
With thanks to Garry Jenkins