Launched last year during the first COVID-19 lockdown, Portopia Productions is the brainchild of author Kit de Waal and her brother Dean O’Loughlin, who appeared in series 2 of Big Brother. Based in Birmingham, the company’s remit is to counteract the glut of London-centric productions by developing and filming stories from the Midlands. We talked to Kit and Dean about their hopes for Portopia, as well as how their own upbringing in Birmingham has moulded their writing. (Scroll down the bottom for the full video.)
So what were the seeds for the launch of Portopia?
Dean: We’d been screenwriting for four years and we just found more and more that the ideas we were putting forward weren’t getting traction with broadcasters or production companies. They always said they loved the ideas, but it was ultimately a no. And I think our ideas weren’t getting through because we very much champion the working classes – and by that, we don’t just mean remaking Shameless or Alan Clarke films. We mean working class people who go on holiday and have two cars. Normal people. I think our take on race can also be a stumbling block for them. Me and Kit are both half Irish and half Caribbean, and broadcasters need easy boxes to put things into. Is this a white show, or a black show? Is this Top Boy, or is this Doctor Foster? Whereas we tell white stories, black stories, Chinese stories, Asian stories. Everything, and that comes from living in Birmingham, which I think is actually one of the very few cities that is genuinely multi-cultural, as in properly multi-racial and successfully integrated. So after four years of not getting anywhere, we thought that having our own production company would be a conduit straight to broadcasters. You end up taking out the filtration system which might be stopping you getting anywhere. We can now talk directly to Sky or HBO and get closer than we might have before.
Kit: We actively want to be outside London, making stuff that talks to us - people with our accents - to pull away from the London centric nature of a lot of film and TV in the UK. London hoovers up everything, and you can put your foot down all you like, but at the end of the day, that’s where the offices and meetings are. You find that companies in London think there are certain places which are ‘okay’, like Manchester or Newcastle, or the nice spa towns like Bath and Harrogate. Birmingham – the whole Midlands, in fact – isn’t one of them. But we’re determined to change that. I did a BBC2 show with Mary Beard recently, and I was saying to her that the only time you hear the Brummie accent on telly is when a character is thick or uncultured. Which is, of course, utter bollocks.
When you’re pitching ideas and stories, do you find that the word ‘regional’ is a dirty word?
Kit: Definitely. To lots of people, ‘regional’ is making a ten minute documentary about canal barges in Kidderminster. It just means, ‘Let’s throw them a crumb, we’ll make the serious stuff elsewhere’. It’s down to people like us to change that, to demonstrate the breadth of talent and experience in Birmingham and beyond.
Dean: The other thing you find when you’re pitching drama is that these companies just won’t accept a corporate, high flying TV show set in Birmingham. It could be about bin men, but not high flyers. Me and Kit are both very partisan about this kind of thing – but four years of going to London for meetings is enough to make anybody partisan!
Can you tell us a bit about the Portopia writers’ scheme?
Kit: We’ve received a grant from the Arts Council for a writers’ development scheme, which is all about demonstrating the talent there is here in the Midlands, and giving people the opportunity to come forward to tell their stories. The kind of people who don’t normally get a chance. We already have six really talented writers ready to bring into a six month scheme and help them develop their stories so they can pitch them to the industry, and we’ll hopefully have a second phase soon.
You recently worked together on scripts for the Sky/HBO series The Third Day. How was that experience?
Dean: We only started working together after Kit’s book deal. It was suggested she go into screenplays, so she phoned me up and at the time I was a builder, so I was on top of a roof. She asked me if I wanted to write a screenplay, so I put the hammer down – I don’t even think I finished the roof – and we started from there.
Kit: It’s hard for people to work with us because we have this strange shorthand. We say ‘chicken’, ‘shovel’, ‘white hat’ and it means something to us, but nobody else!
Dean: [The Third Day co-creator] Dennis Kelly worked in such a different way to us. If we’re Kraftwerk, he’s Miles Davis. A great quote from him when we first started working together was when I asked him what happens in episode six, and he said, ‘Your guess is as good as mine’. It’s a very fluid, flexible, jazzy approach that he has to writing. Dennis and [co-creator] Felix Barrett gave us real freedom. They wanted a mother and two kids to turn up on the island, and asked us to bring those characters alive and see where that went. They both were nothing but helpful to us.
Kit: We’re nobodies compared to who Dennis and Felix are. The respect and inclusivity they showed us was just amazing. Some ideas weren’t what they wanted, but they were respectful in how they told us that. We could have said anything in those meetings, and it was taken seriously. That’s a real tribute to people working at the top of their game who gave a chance to two complete unknowns.
You say you’re both ‘nobodies’, which is exactly the kind of self-deprecating thing somebody from Birmingham would say. Do you think that’s often why Birmingham doesn’t get the credit or respect it deserves, because of its residents’ deadpan humour?
Kit: Absolutely. I remember going to Manchester before the pandemic, and there’s a sign that says - ‘On the sixth day God created Manchester’. That’s how people in Manchester think of themselves. And Liverpool too. And they’re both great cities. But you would never say that in Birmingham.
Dean: That sign would last five minutes in Birmingham. It would be fucking scrap metal down Taroni’s.
Kit: And yet, it’s such a great city to come from. There’s no humour like the Brummie humour. If you ever think of getting above yourself, spend a couple of weeks here, and you’ll soon find out who you really are.
Dean: When I was on Big Brother, all the interviews afterwards completely misunderstood me – people thought I was grumpy, but it was just my deadpan style. And then I did a week presenting on BRMB Radio [now Free Radio Birmingham] and it was so great. People finally got me. The media all thought I was thick. It confounded them when they realised I wasn’t, that I could actually read a book.
Kit, your novel My Name Is Leon is currently being adapted by Shola Amoo for the BBC. Will you have any input into that?
Kit: When you sign an option, you sign your story away. It’s gone, which isn’t easy. You know that when you hand it over, it will be a very different beast. It would take twenty hours of TV to show the entirety of the book. I’ll end up seeing it when everybody else does, I won’t get a pre-screener from the producers or anything. They don’t really care what you think, they bought it. But we’re adapting a couple of books too, so we understand that process.
One of those books is your own novel The Trick To Time. How have you found that process so far?
Kit: All the books I write, I see them first. It’s not so much about the words, it’s the pictures. There is a spreadsheet of every single key scene and who’s in it and what time of day it is, whether it’s funny or dark. Because of that, Dean – who always writes the first draft of anything when we do a screenplay together – he could use that to write the first draft of The Trick To Time.
Dean: Which is like taking a penalty from about three feet out. It’s just so great to have! You’re not just staring at a blank page, which is what we had recently when we were commissioned to write a script about when Malcolm X came to Smethwick. We had three months to write it, but we just could not start it. We had loads of information, lots of raw material, but it was a real struggle to get that one going.
How do you think your own upbringing in Birmingham has influenced your writing?
Dean: We were raised in a terrace house in Moseley – the Sparkbrook end, not the nice Chantry Road end – and it was a really cold house. Our dad would have a paraffin heater in the room with the TV in, so if you wanted to be in the warm room, you had to sit and watch the films dad was watching without talking. So there’s us at nine or ten years old watching complicated films like The Maltese Falcon or The Conversation in complete silence, under threat of being cast out into the cold kitchen. It was a very brutal kind of film school, but it made us deconstruct films, because at any moment our dad might ask us what’s happening. Who’s the killer? What just happened then? It infused into us the rules of filmmaking, even though I didn’t use those rules until I was in my fifties. Plus our dad only watched good films. He was like an enigmatic Barry Norman mixed with Reg Varney from On The Buses. (pause) And Idi Amin.
Kit: During the first lockdown, if I was going to watch a film, I would always go back to films from the 50s and 60s. There’s no CGI, no special effects, the sex scenes are pretty restrained. So why was it a good film? Because the story and the dialogue and the characters are great. Because they couldn’t cut corners. You had to show sex without two people being naked. You had to show violence and threat without Die Hard level of explosions. You learn so much about writing when you watch those films, which is what we grew up on.
For more information about Portopia Productions, head to portopiaproductions.com. This interview is part of the February edition of Filmwire, our regular mailout on Midlands film culture. Sign up here.