Essex Tales

It was my mother who bore the brunt. Three days into the Lawless Heart shoot, the calls started—"I understand it's your son who's causing all this chaos." By chaos they were referring to the traffic congestion our filming had brought about in the small town where I grew up. My mother assiduously passed on the complaints.

I had thought Essex would be more grateful. Arguably England's most unglamorous county, not only do they never shoot films in Essex, they scarcely show them. Too close to London to be noticed or to develop its own local culture, Essex plodded through the decades in happy obscurity until about 1980. Then, out of nowhere, a phrase entered the currency and brought unwanted fame. 'Essex Girls'. Essex Girls were notorious, apparently, for flocking to London nightclubs. They were blonde, dumb and randy. They wore tight white dresses and high heels. Worse, they wore ankle bracelets. There were 4000 Essex Girl jokes, all with witty variations on this theme.

Just as we were getting used to the idea of Essex Girls came a second, and even more devastating blow to our dignity. This was 'Essex Man'. He was all over the media like a rash. Essex Man was quintessentially suburban, interested mainly in cars and traffic routes, and apparently single-handedly responsible for Margaret Thatcher's endless period in power.

There was no way home.

Soon after I went off to university. When asked, "Where are you from?" I would often find I had a peanut lodged in my throat. Cities were definitely cool; remote corners of the country had a certain rarity value. Essex was just a joke.


In fact, two jokes. The whole phenomenon was a mystery to me. Growing up on a farm in a rural backwater, the girls seemed as difficult as girls generally seem to 15 year-old boys; and as for cars, we generally talked tractors. Surely they didn't mean us?

I travelled. I went to India. I went to Nepal. I went to South America. And when I came back, everything had changed except one thing. People still laughed at Essex, often within my earshot. Only now, I dropped the peanut thing. I came out. I got bold. I even started taking friends back home. And these friends noticed what I had always been blind to—the gaunt beauty of Essex's flat seascapes and big skies (cinematically, it connects with the Kent marshlands of David Lean's Great Expectations, shot the other side of the Thames Estuary).

Gradually, a certain determination to set the record straight set in. So when we came to write Lawless Heart, it seemed obvious where it should be set. The small town in Essex where I grew up would be perfect for a place where there's only one decent restaurant in town and yet you don't recognise the florist.

I hope we are the start of a backlash. When Lawless Heart was released in the UK, critics were startled by the grandeur of the exteriors (we were helped by a full week of low November sun). And the town's tourist information centre, historically untroubled by visitors or enquiries, suddenly began to field calls about week-ending opportunities. Of course, it's bound to mean more congestion, but this time my mother can keep the complaints to herself.

©2003 Landmark Theatres