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Keep the faith: Elaine Constantine on filming the Northern Soul story

7 February 2015

Photographer turned writer and director ELAINE CONSTANTINE talks to BBC Arts about bringing her film about Northern Soul to the big screen. A limited cinema release fuelled by social media campaigns for screenings saw it surprise the industry by breaking into the UK top ten - testament to the enduring popularity of the Northern Soul phenomenon. Constantine has been recognised with a BAFTA nomination for outstanding debut by a British director.

Elaine Constantine at a club in the 1980s | courtesy Elaine Constantine

Getting nominated for a BAFTA feels like a real vindication of the hard work the whole team put into this film. It's the icing on the cake of all the popular and critical love the film has received since its release in October.

Needless to say I never expected it as we've remained such outsiders through the whole of the production process, in the sense that none of the British film industry institutions got on board to fund or produce in any way.

I’d never written anything much in my life, never mind a film script

Also, every one of our heads of department - wardrobe, hair and make-up, production design, DoP, editor, our producer Debbie Gray, our two leads Elliott James Langridge and Josh Whitehouse - were all on their first feature, and many were people I’d brought over from my stills background, so it really was a case of "who are all these people?"

For the Industry to subsequently recognise Northern Soul with the honour of this nomination feels hugely gratifying for all of us.

I decided I wanted to make the feature Northern Soul, as opposed to a documentary about the British soul scene, about 16 years ago or more. It took a while to get started - I'd never written anything much in my life, never mind a film script.

About 15 years ago I signed up with an online script-writing boot camp based in LA. I quickly realised that I wasn't up to speed, so I contacted one of the online tutors, a fellow called David Baugnon, and asked if he'd work with me one-one.

We did that for about four years, doing two calls a month until I had a script and story I was happy to start showing round. The dialogue and characterisation were the easy bits, what took a long time to get right was the story and structure.

In 2007 I met Debbie Gray, my producer, and from that point on things started to become more focussed on raising finance and seeking production partners. It took a long time and lots of investment - we produced all sorts of material to help the cause: mock posters (the image for which was to become the image for the eventual film poster and merchandise), a two-minute film teaser, investor prospectuses etcetera etcetera.

Elaine Constantine on set
They became in many ways the most important and familiar voices in our lives - at least for a while

By mid-2012 we'd raised almost enough to fully fund the film and we decided to press go or risk losing a lot of goodwill and momentum. There's only so long you can keep stringing young hopefuls along with the line “we're almost there - just a few more months!”

Northern soul was something I'd lived through myself (i still go to the occasional all nighter when I can fit it in) and I wanted to somehow capture on screen the obsession with vinyl and the excitement of those early experiences at big all nighters but also to get across the strange otherworldliness of soul music when set against that dreary northern english, working class life.

I think part of its power for us then was the way these pleading, yearning, largely adult, black american voices - initially very alien to our ears - seemed to speak to us so directly and sincerely about things that were never really broached in most people's households, with a degree of intimacy that we rarely got from our own friends and family.

They became in many ways the most important and familiar voices in our lives - at least for a while.

Then there was the music that everything was set to of course, which is so haunting and full of tension and darkness, released by a soaring middle-eight or a hard drum-and-horn break every so often.

There's still nothing that feels quite like it, as much as I listen to other things too now. I hope those who never experienced it themselves come away with some of that.

Watch the BAFTA ceremony on BBC iPlayer - the programme aired on BBC One, Sunday 8 February.

Your Northern Soul tracks

  • Send us your favourite Northern Soul tracks @BBCArts or use #NorthernSoul and we'll add a selection here

Northern Soul

Northern Soul: the film

Jack Gordon as Shawn | Photo: Rob Baker Ashton
Antonia Thomas as Angela | Photo: Rob Baker Ashton

Constantine at 6Music Festival