Grief at Gray’s Court: acclaimed film chronicles York property nightmare

Helen Heraty, star of Folie à Deux
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.