Of Boys and Rats

BBC1 – One Life – Rat Attack.

I always cite this film as evidence of just how deeply unglamorous the lives of documentary makers are. Its final scene was shot in a rat infested back garden in Bootle, Liverpool, at 1.30 in the morning. We were sitting very still in a dark smelly corner with rats running round our feet filming two fellas popping off rats with high powered air rifles.


It’s not a bad film – made for the BBC’s then flagship docco series One Life. In those days we used to have the luxury of a cameraperson to shoot most of the material – in this case, the peerless and indefatigable Steve Robinson. We’d planned to film with a company in Nottinghamshire but as we headed up the M1 they got cold feet and our schedule turned to ashes.


I decided to go to Merseyside and, basically, make it work there. It’s where I’m from and I feel at home in the city, among people speaking in my home accent. There was a quick bit of research in the car and we started filming pretty well door to door in Bootle that afternoon. The film was to be notionally about rats and, like many deprived areas with decaying housing stock, there’s no shortage of rats in Bootle.


It was a lovely film to make – just picking up material and scenes as we went along. Truth be told, we were busking it and it was a joy – there wasn’t time for people to get stressed and nervous and everything was shot quickly and on the hoof. Inevitably, characters and storylines emerged, as they do, and we had the freedom to follow them in scenes that felt bright and fresh. I think the whole thing was done in nine days.


That’s one of things I’ve loved about the kinds of documentaries I’ve made – sometimes the brief was so simple and I was given terrific freedom: “Go and make a film about dogs.” “Do you fancy doing something about rats?” Unimaginable in these days of top-down micro management.


The scenes you see bolted together here are at the very opening of the film. Openings are so important in setting the tone both visually and tonally as well as doing the basic and always neglected things of telling you where you are and why you’re there.


I love the scene with the gang of lads. It’s that delightful thing, mostly just pictures and music but it tells you so much about the boys’ lives. It’s pretty pure documentary with a soundtrack which sort of works with the roughness of the images.


You can see three minutes of the film – transferred in an odd ratio by the BBC, here at…