by Jenny Popplewell
Congratulations also to director Jenny Popplewell who tonight (Monday 13 September 2021) will attend the London premiere of the film Everyone’s talking about Jamie where she’ll see the documentary she directed in 2010 transformed into a feature film based on the story of her film. Jenny shared with us the story’s journey from documentary to feature film via hit West End Musical.
It was 2010 when I was passed an email. A young boy named Jamie had contacted the production company I was working for. It turns out he had sent countless emails to companies across the television industry but no one had replied. He was living in a little town in County Durham and was secretly planning to wear a dress to his end of school prom. His mum knew and supported his decision but he doubted his classmates or school would. I was intrigued. That December I headed up to meet Jamie and his mum with Assistant Producer Laura Ellings. I brought a camera and tripod and shot a taster tape.
The BBC were running a scheme for new directors called ‘Fresh’. Proposals and taster tapes were submitted and the shortlisted ones were invited to a pitch day in front of a panel of commissioners and execs. There were some incredible film ideas in the room with big subject matters. I needed to demonstrate that Jamies aspirations for Prom were more than putting on a dress and heels. This would be a coming of age story that I hoped would have us all routing for Jamie; a shy, softly spoken boy. I knew the channel would be keen to see 16 - 34 year olds on screen but after filming block one it was clear that the real depth to this story was going to come from Jamie's relationship with his mother Margaret. So I focused my lens on the two of them.
A few months into filming Jamie makes contact with his father and arranges a walk to tell him his dreams to be a drag queen and his plans for Prom. I film Margaret anxiously waiting for Jamie to return. She states this situation could cost Jamie his relationship with his father. Jamie returns to the kitchen excited that his Dad seemed supportive but now unsure about his Prom plans. His Dad told him it's not a good idea. Margaret is furious. There is a tense argument between mother and son in their living room and Jamie still thinks Prom is a bad idea. Jamie spends the remaining weeks perfecting a drag performance to showcase his talents to friends and family. Energised and confident, post performance, Jamie concludes he will go to Prom. At this point I went into the edit and had a channel viewing. We had a problem. The drag performance had so much energy and was so colourful, evoking so much emotion from Jamie and Margaret that our commissioner highlighted that we were going to end on an anticlimax. Jamie was either going to head into prom, (which we didn’t have permission to film in) and either he’d be let in or he’d be turned away, neither felt like a conclusion as strong as this drag queen showcase. Well it turns out documentary films can be better than fiction. We had only considered ending A or B, I never imagined ending C. Jamie arrived outside prom, Laura and I remained on a grass verge outside the gates getting updates from parents on camera about what was happening at drop off. Thankfully Jamie's friend was filming that night and had agreed to share her self shot footage with us. Inside the gates the teachers told Jamie he could not enter the prom in a dress. Word spread to the students inside the venue, astonishingly they all spilled out, demanding Jamie be let in or they wouldn’t go in.
This news got back to Laura and I. We jumped for joy when we had word they decided to let Jamie in. These children hadn’t seen any cameras and this was before the social media explosion. This was a pure act of acceptance. Jamie deserved this moment and his peers demanded he get it. The story sadly didn’t end there for Jamie. His father heard he attended prom in a dress and texted him the next morning to say he’d ruined everyone's night and hasn’t spoken to Jamie since. Margaret had been right. But Jamie had come into his own. He put that dress on and was becoming a man. He didn’t need his Dad's approval, he was true to himself and he had a Mum that was stronger than a 100 Dads in his corner. The night this broadcast on the BBC another director was watching. Jonathan Butterell, he immediately saw the opportunity to turn Jamie's story into a musical. He asked to be put in touch with Jamie for permission and set about pre-production. We heard nothing for years. Then out of the blue we were invited to the opening night of Everybodys Talking About Jamie in the Sheffield Crucible. This was also the first time that Jamie and Margaret were to see the production. Jonathan hadn’t met Jamie and based the musical on the documentary. Laura and I sat next to each other like we had all those years before in Jamie's living room. The production is extraordinary. There are lyrics taken directly from the documentary. One that struck me most is the number ‘He’s my boy’. This was Margarets tearful one line answer to a question about Jamie's future. Colourful scenes like Jamie dancing on a wall at night in high heels became a breakout number ‘Wall in my Head’. The show concluded to a standing ovation and on the final night of this short run, Nica Burns was in the audience. She owns a number of theatres in the West End and offered The Apollo to the production. It has run for 3 years and enjoyed success and multiple awards. The same creative team including writer Tom MacRae and songwriter Dan Gillespie Sells teamed with Warp Films to produce the movie starring Sarah Lacashire, Max Harwood and Richard E Grant. Tonight (Monday 13 September 2021), I’ll be sitting next to Jamie again at the London premier of the film. Jamie's story resonates with so many people. Take chances and be brave, the people that judge you or make you feel ‘less than’ may be hard to ignore, but if you focus on you, then there are opportunities and experiences waiting for you to enjoy.