The idea for Love And Death In City Hall was my mum's. She phoned when I was outside a magistrates' court making another film to ask: "Have you ever considered a registry office?"

I was excited about the idea of finding interesting stories in seemingly ordinary and bureaucratic situations. So I took off for a three-day tour of my native Northern Ireland, hoping to find an interesting register office there.

I came across several nice ones, but decided on Belfast City Hall, because of its stunning neo-baroque location and the great camaraderie that existed amongst the nine women (and one man) working there.

Andrea tells the registrar how her fiancé first got her number

Also, having never lived in the capital itself, I was excited to explore the everyday culture of Belfast – natural curiosity is probably the best motivation.

My basic approach to finding contributors was to sit on one of the waiting room chairs in the register office and speak to the public when I thought they were open to having a chat.

Body language was everything. If someone looked very upset, I would not approach them at all. If someone looked sad but open to conversation, I would speak to them as sensitively as I could.

Overall, about 50 per cent of people would invite me to film their registration for a birth, marriage or death certificate. On one occasion a man came in to attempt to buy a grave for himself, but this was not possible.

Registrar Aileen remembers her first love while waiting for a groom to arrive for his wedding

I mostly filmed alone with a hand-held camera for a couple of days each week over the course of five months. On my breaks I would get to know the registrars who are remarkable people – ticket inspectors on life's rollercoaster.

Occasionally they would muse philosophically on camera, like a Greek chorus, and I'm forever indebted to them for speaking openly about their life experiences – it is refreshing that people working in an official capacity had the trust of their bosses to speak without a press officer peering over their shoulder.

Sammy registers the death of his father, Sally's husband

One of the most challenging scenes for the viewer is where Sally says goodbye to her husband Robert. An open coffin is an important part of our culture at the time of death, and I thought it was important to include an intimate moment such as this.

I was sure Sally and Sammy were comfortable with me being there and before broadcasting the film I watched the footage on two occasions with Sally, who told me that while it was of course emotional for her, she actually enjoyed seeing it again because in her mind it took her back to Robert again.

Arthur shares his take on life at Cemetery Sunday

I enjoy staying in touch with people in the film. Arthur, who we leave at the end of the film at Crusaders Football Club, told me a story that summed up why he was glad to have taken part.

As he travelled through the Shankill area of Belfast a car came screeching to a halt, a woman climbed out to say she thought the film was brilliant and that her side of the community hadn't even heard of Cemetery Sunday.

She thought an annual graveyard community get-together like that was a great idea and Arthur should be very proud of how well-kept the graves are up in Hannahstown.

My mum hasn't said all that much about what she thought of the film – she's a woman of few words. Hopefully she is too busy thinking up another idea.

Guy King filmed, produced and directed Love And Death In City Hall.

Love And Death In City Hall is on Tuesday, 21 May at 9pm on BBC Four. It was first broadcast on BBC One and BBC One HD in Northern Ireland on Monday, 18 March.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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  • Comment number 15. Posted by Guy King

    on 23 May 2013 07:29

    Thank you very much for your posts so far. It is really interesting to hear people’s feelings. I only watched the first ten minutes of the film last night, before falling asleep putting my daughter to bed. So it was a nice surprise to wake up hungry at 4am and read these posts over a banana sandwich.

    The nice thing about having no commentary in the film is that it allows people to take different things from the film.

    People respond emotionally to different sections. Peggy, the wonderful registrar who bravely talks about losing her son Christopher – she told me that she connected with the open coffin scene because when she was in that position with Christopher, she was getting as many kisses with him as she could. It’s heart-breaking to think about these things, but my hope is that there is some solace shared between viewers, some shared human well that people can tap into, and know that there are some other people out there who know what it is like to have these feelings.
    Arthur and I spoke often about his story being one that people everywhere would identify with – losing a partner after 50 years together. And that was probably Arthur’s main motive for working with me. If you walk about Belfast with him, you can see how good he is at connecting with people and putting smiles on faces.

    I’m always curious to hear which little details people spot in the film – someone asked me what was the significance of the metal bucket in the graveyard… I have to admit there was no intended special symbolic meaning in that bucket – it was just somewhere you could see the rain splashing into – but if someone takes some deeper meaning away from that image then that’s fantastic news.

    There is another little detail worth mentioning. On Peggy’s computer screen (when she tells us about her son Christopher) is a picture of a tattoo – his friends Chunk and Aodhan got tattoos to remember him. This happens a lot in Belfast these days - it seems to be quite a modern form of commemoration. But maybe humans did that hundreds of years ago too – there is something quite instinctual about marking your skin with an ink face or a name.

    To respond to Broadoakboy about the lack of privacy in the register office, it is worth saying that in Belfast (and other offices too I should imagine) they have a little private back room that can be used in situations where the public seem too upset. The only person I spoke to in City Hall about death was Sammy, and I did this outside beside the fountain where the rushing water provided some privacy – although we then had to use subtitles because it was difficult to hear him.

    I’m glad Roger Bruton and Jane Irving enjoyed the Belfast-ness of the film. I wanted to show some of the uniqueness and beauty of Belfast culture when it crossed my path – even if they were small things, like a Princess Diana picture or a Virgin Mary statue in someone’s garden. But it is through the language that Belfast culture is most present – “You just have to be in love” agreed Sally and Jean as they shared a cigarette, simple as that!

    Sandra, I’m over the moon that your mum got something out of it. I’ve forwarded your posting to colleagues.

    Thanks Rafe, but there are lots of shaky cameras in my footage – we just didn’t put it in the film - my brilliant editor Bert Hunger will testify to that!

    I’m delighted people seem to have thought it sensitive. It is important to me – and to the company Erica Starling that I made the film through. We want this sort of film to be fun, to have humour in places, and also to be challenging and surprising – but ultimately to be respectful. Feel free to ask any more questions. Thanks for making the effort to share your thoughts.