Helen Heraty, star of Folie à Deux
Helen Heraty, star of Folie à Deux
Folie à Deux – Madness Made Of Two is shown in the Storyville strand on BBC Four at 10pm on Monday, November 11

kim-hopkins-headshotA film which follows one family’s attempts to transform a York medieval building into a boutique hotel premieres this weekend. Filmmaker Kim Hopkins explains all

Folie à Deux – Madness Made Of Two is the true-life story of Helen, John and their eight children. It was filmed over five years at Gray’s Court on Chapterhouse Street in York – the oldest inhabited house in England.

The family dream of transforming the crumbling national monument into the country’s most exclusive historic hotel. However, with a huge bank loan in place, the credit crunch hits and the dream becomes a living nightmare, fuelled by a battle royal with the next door neighbours, the National Trust’s Treasurer’s House.

The film was born in late 2007, with a chance meeting between myself and the central character in a York pub, and culminated five years later in selection for the 25th anniversary International Film Festival Amsterdam, the Cannes of the documentary world.

There, the film was picked up by BBC Storyville, the BBC’s preeminent documentary strand, and other A-list film festivals. Folie à Deux features at the Cambridge Film Festival in September where – you heard it first – the producers will sign a distribution deal.

But, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Five years in the making puts enormous strain on resources, and if it wasn’t for support from family, friends and a timely meeting with a local cinephile Herbie Lockwood, the film may never have been completed.

Herbie saw an early incarnation of the film, and being an astute film critic, realised its potential. Herbie is now one of the film’s executive producers and all round good egg.

Then along came Yorkshire-born writer Simon Beaufoy (Academy Award Winner, Slumdog Millionaire). Simon watched the film, loved it – “it’s a stunning commentary on the mess we’re in. Really powerful” – and became the second executive producer.

But no documentary is worth a bean without a great story and a charismatic “lead”. Like fictional films, documentaries are “cast”, and Helen Heraty, the film’s lead is a documentary filmmaker’s dream.

She’s beautiful, ambitious, fearless, emotionally open, and most importantly complex.

Filmmaking of all genres has historically suffered from over simplistic, one-dimensional female characters. They’re either arm candy, a whore, or Mother Theresa; and that “strength” in a female character often functions as another one-dimensional, unrealistic cliché.

So, Helen is an interesting choice to front a film. She challenges audiences and it’s been very interesting watching an audience’s reaction to her.

Most importantly – though this is a film about chasing a dream and finding a nightmare – it’s funny. We are able to laugh at and with the characters and situations they find themselves in.

Indeed, Helen at the depth of despair can usually see the funny side. I don’t think there is enough humour in documentaries, and if we can’t laugh at ourselves and the pickles we often find ourselves in, then what can we laugh at? After all, this is a film set in York, the home of Northern humour.



29 comments on “Grief at Gray’s Court: acclaimed film chronicles York property nightmare

  1. Everything has been said about this amazing lady that could be said.
    I can only add my “RESPECT” for the tenacity and strength of a great lady and I’m sure one day she will get the recognition she deserves for putting a grade 1 listed building on the map for all to appreciate ones heritage.
    I intend to book a room there very shortly.
    Kindest Regards
    Denise Sweetland

  2. I was intrigued by the incidental music to the documentary but have failed to find any credits detailing it. Attempts to record and edit out all but the music was unsuccessful, Where may I obtain a recording?

  3. A brilliant film. Helen is a truly remarkable person and an inspiration for others who are enduring similar battles with powerful institutions, politicians, the legal profession and difficult neighbours. Even when she was overwhelmed with difficulties and more bad news which would have defeated most of us, she was still at the ironing board and cooker ensuring family life continued as normal.
    A wonderful story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and a fine example for all the Davids about to face their own Goliaths.

  4. I have just finished watching the documentary. What an absolutely amazing lady and extremely interesting documentary that had me riveted to the screen. Clearly Helen will have had quite a few moments of absolute despair but her sheer determination and ability to continue smiling really do set an example for us all. My goodness it makes me want to stay there not only because its a beautiful place but also to support her. One helluva gutsy and attractive lady! You deserve to be successful. Well done Helen!


  5. What a superb film. Helen is the embodiment of sheer grit and determination to succeed and an inspiration to anyone who is setting up their own business and/or needs to triumph over all adversity.

  6. Thank you for some fantastic comments and its really gratifying to see the film strikes a chord with so many. Folie a Deux was always sopposed to be a film about the people for the people. The BBC said it is an important film as it’s the only one that covered the banking crisis from the point of view of the customer, the ones on the recieving end. If you want to keep up with the films life or even buy the DVD, like our page. https://www.facebook.com/folieadeuxfilm

    Regards Kim Hopkins (producer/director)

  7. A captivating and extraordinarily frank opening into what can go wrong in the whole ‘bigger, better, faster, more’ aspect of personal property projects so typically, and ridiculously, plugged by TV over the past 20 years.
    Heart warming and heartbreaking all at the same time.
    To be honest, I was left rather wondering why John’s input seemed so muted so often, and also how on earth they entered into buying the place without knowing of the access problems, which effectively poison the property.
    On the other hand, I was appalled by the attitudes of the National Trust – arrogant, rude and bullying by turn. To be sure, the best foot was never put forward, but, really, I can’t even imagine why an organisation I have always supported would dream of behaving like this. It is as if they despise private owners. Oh, wait a minute…. yeah, probably they do.

  8. My partner and I watched this documentary and I have to say we were glued… In fact, we have talked about and spoken to friends about the tragic and sometimes hilarious course of events that unfolded on the screen.
    We could totally empathise with this couple and the treatment they received from the banks … Both of us sat there commenting loudly on each phone call made by Helen and we viewed in disbelief at the surveyors disgusting £500,000 valuation of such a beautiful and important building.
    My partner also lost his business as RBS pulled his business overdraft overnight . They didn’t listen ~ neither did they care that 12 people would lose their jobs.
    At the end of the programme,we just sat there and I have to say I had tears in my eyes. I know the project was completed and it looks fabulous, but at what cost ?
    John didn’t get to see the results neither did he have an easy time leading up to his death … It just makes me question what we perceive as important in our lives and whether striving for the next big thing, will just leave us at the mercy of those who hold the purse strings !!

  9. Have just watched the film, what a lady Helen is, hope she and her family all the best for the future. I am a National trust member, it made me feel very sad the way there have treated Helen, John and family.

  10. Can I just say what a fabulous documentary. My heart goes out to Helen, John and their family. I remember 2008 very well and myself and my husband lost our business and our house everything, again because rbs natwest pulled our founding.

    I could so relate to the despair, the scratching around for milk money, doing the lottery because you don’t know what else to do. Having everything you worked hard for just taken away for no fault of your own.

    The determination of Helen, she made me cry, laugh all the emotions. Her composure with the horrible rude people in the courtyard was something I couldn’t do with all the stress.

    Even when she was at her most down, she worried about what her husband felt and was going through. Amazing family and woman.

    When it came to the bit about John dying I cried as my husband was the same age and I was younger and the stress of losing the house and business and not being able to find a job as he was too old , he had a heart attack, but thankfully he survived.

    Thank you for such a great documentary, I wish all the best for Helen and her family and I am sure John will be very proud and they proved the bank wrong. Xxx

  11. I was absolutely glued to this programme to the extent that I forgot what time it was. What bad luck they had and it all proved too much for john -poor man, and it made me very emotional at this point. I was however full of admiration for Helen and do hope that things go better for the family from now on

  12. I can’t praise you all enough, today at work I kept thinking about this captivating program. I’m left wanting more. What a sad, sad outcome though for John and so thought provoking. Helen is wonderfully watchable, I wanted to help her with trespassers on her courtyard. A brilliant documentary, thank you. Good luck to Helen, I wish her well.

  13. Great story, well presented, and though different in content to Carol Morleys ‘Dreams of a Life”, similar in that one or two shock pieces kept one rooting for Lady protagonist. Can’t help but wonder if the planning ‘victory’ in the end pyrrhic. I really hope Helen and
    the kids now lead a less stressful day – 2 – day life. RIP John Edwards………..

  14. Hello there,
    I hope that Helen from Greys court goes from strength to strength in building her business. What a remarkable women she is after watching last night’s documentary I am in awe of her.
    Good luck Helen, your husband would be very very proud of you.

  15. I’m an ex-history student who studied at Gray’s Court when it belonged to St. John’s College . It is a pity others like me didn’t know of this a few years ago as a Friends of Gray’s Court Association could have been set up and donations and fundraising could have helped Helen and John . The photo of 1980 may not have shown that the courtyard was being used by the National trust as the college was still using it and they could have been the cars of students and college staff . The behaviour of the neighbours and the trust was appalling .I felt so sorry for them .

    1. Well said, Jean, and very interesting comments especially about the cars parked which could have been student’s cars. I, too, was thinking why wasn’t some sort of grant, or at least a cheap loan, available to renovate such an important building. I could not believe that a building so magnificent and so historic could have been valued at a miserable £500,000. The National Trust came across as a bully in this instance – not seeming content to use someone else’s land for their carpark, but then to claim ownership of it. Great documentary. So sad for John. If the banks had given the same money as his insurance policy, he could have lived to have seen the final beautiful result. Helen was great!

  16. I endorse the comments above.What a great documentary.Inspiring.sad,hypnotic,riveting
    What a lady!How she has come through it.Is testimony to the human spirit.So impressed.
    I have ordered for my daighter for Xmas.Eventually I can watch again with extra footage.
    She is so right about the lottery.

    Hope you do a follow up

  17. Whatever you may think of the characters this was a sad, and also inspiring programme. The banks, the neighbours and the Council all adding to the demise of this family. It reflected the times that we are living through extremely well, people driven to desperation and extremes by others.

  18. It was a great film Kim. There is so much rubbish around it was good to be riveted to a quality documentary! Good luck to the family from now on.

  19. Riveting viewing , inevitably left with deep admiration for a resourceful lady whose determination held together through many troubled days.

  20. Hazel
    As the Producer/Director of the film I would just like to thank you for taking the time to comment, and comment very elegantly. It’s very gratifying when a viewer really gets the deeper meaning in the story. Unfortunately most TV doesn’t allow for such in depth story telling, so for me as a film maker it really was a labour of love and i’m grateful there are still viewers out there that will invest in these sort of films. I would also like to take the opportunity to publicly thank Helen and her family for being so brave in allowing the cameras in to their lives and more importantly letting them stay in. last but not least, to remember John who sadly was never able to see the finished film. regards Kim

  21. PS Aside from the financial topics, the film had some great fly on the wall moments, particularly regarding the children and family life.

  22. I watched it last night on TV. It was gripping and an excellent documentary. However I would not call it funny. Clever, important, desperately sad, riveting – yes. But funny, no. We all know how awful the banking crash was (and still is with interest rates at less than 1% for savings), and how many people it affected, but this film showed, step by step, how two perfectly capable business people could have their lives and dreams ruined by an unforeseen worldwide economic disaster. Yes maybe it was foolish and a bit of a gamble at their time of life (well, at the husband’s time of life anyway). But they had done the sums and had a lucrative proposition – except they had the carpet pulled from under them by the banks who suddenly, having lent money left right and centre to all and sundry – refused to lend so the project could be completed to create the income. What also struck me though – is that there wasn’t some kind of funding help they could have received for this monumentally important building. I remember the building well, having lived in York in the past. I believe it used to be a University building. It is a much loved building, hugely historically important. The fact that no special consideration was given to this and no help or funding was available just shows how much of a mess the banks caused. It is desperately sad because the husband first had has architect business go bankrupt due to the recession, then lost all their investment in the property. And then finally, despite all their efforts – working the place as a tearoom, and then finally getting the business going, had the final insult of being told they didn’t have planning permission to run it as a hotel, and they risked losing everything finally. I am not surprised it killed him – not only the financial worry and stress, but the huge blow to his integrity – an architect is experienced at dealing with councils and organising planning and it seems the council suggested he had made a mistake in the one area at which he was experienced in. So first the banks, then the council, pulled the carpet from under them. This latter part wasn’t really in the film, but I googled the topic after watching it and it seems the husband dropped dead after the council planning meeting. So, yes it is desperately sad – especially as it now seems the Lady in the film has now been found to be in the right over the planning issue.
    The main moral of this story seems to be though – to get on with your neighbours rather than making enemies. The star of the film was totally admirable and a strong lady, not a quitter and very resourceful, despite getting some peoples’ backs up and speaking before doing her homework over neighbours rights. Sadly her husband perhaps had less stamina to handle all the blows.

    1. Thanks Hazel, a fantastic critique of the film. Lots to agree with here: how the entrepreneurial spirit can too often be crushed by corporations, both private and public; and the need to keep neighbours on your side, particularly in a place the size of York.

  23. Due to the three sell-out shows so far, a further show of Folie à Deux is now programmed for Thursday 5 December at 6:15 at City Screen, with Q&A with the Director Kim Hopkins after the screening.

    A special “Big Scream” showing, for parents and babies under the age of 1 year, will occur on Wednesday 13 November at 11:00am

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