Throwback Thursday No.2 - Hirst vs UK

12 July 2018

Time for the second instalment in my look back through my creative output over the last decade.

I’m including the good and the bad, seeking threads, themes, patterns and lessons. You can read more about the series here.

Hirst vs UK (November 2009)

This audio slideshow is the second independent thing I published, and I completed it about two months after quitting my job and going freelance.

The context: I discovered the character for this story while still working as a radio reporter. John Hirst was an infamous local figure. In the late 1970s he had murdered his landlady with an axe and spent the next quarter of a century in jail.

But while inside he taught himself law and, quite remarkably, sued the British government multiple times for prisoner rights - and won.

I interviewed him relatively frequently in my job, usually driving across town to his narrow and dilapidated terraced house. Inside, the place was a tip and stank of cigarettes and dog hair.

But over the course of a year John and I struck up a friendship. He was sharp, wickedly funny and unrelenting in his pursuit of justice for prisoners.

The first time I left his house, I said to myself: “I’m going to make a film about this guy”.

The story: John was keen on being filmed. I initially planned to make a video documentary, using the same kit I had recently taken to Iraq.

But it proved inadequate to capture the story in the quality I wanted, especially in the low light of John’s house. The camera microphone failed to capture rust in John’s voice, which I knew would carry a lot of his personality.

So instead, I stuck to what I knew. I interviewed him using my employer’s high quality radio microphones, and took a series of still photographs using a DSLR.

Back in 2009, the audio slideshow was a popular genre, but that popularity seems to have all but disappeared as video became easier, faster and cheaper to create.

Looking back: I made this before I began to properly study and understand storytelling principles, so what you’re seeing here is all instinct.

And it’s not bad. The opening scene, where Hirst recounts the night of his crime to the sound of The Doors’ Riders on the Storm and black-and-white photography is still powerful. I remember I created the music by looping a remixed version of the song and passing it through several filters in Cool Edit Pro (the predecessor to Adobe Audition).

I succeed in looking for telling details - John’s yellow tobacco stained fingers for example, and the detritus around his house - as he talks about his childhood, moving from home to home.

But this good stuff only lasts for the first half of the story, after which the narrative gets lost and ultimately winds up nowhere.

It took me several years to learn where I had gone wrong.

Lessons learned: Exactly halfway through, John starts talking about how he studied law and took the government to court.

Firstly, the pictures get very boring here - just closeups of his legal textbooks. And the story continues to meander, as John talks about his blog, before finally wrapping with a few nice reflective lines.

The only break is a short scene where John is interrupted by his dog Rocky (at 3m03s). Now Rocky was a smelly, mangy old thing, a rescue dog covered in lumps and tumours, but John really loved him.

I only really included this moment to break up the monotony of John’s voice (a trick I had learned editing for radio). What I did not understand until years later was that this accidental scene was actually the heart of the story.

John says (about Rocky): “He means everything. He was grateful for a second chance, I could see that as soon as I brought him home.”

And then I play a bit of audio of John, pretending to be Rocky speaking back to him: “You rescued me dad, you got me out of that place, and I’ve been grateful ever since. I know, honestly dad, I’m very loyal to you…all I want is to be loved.”

In my ignorance and naiveté, I didn’t see at the time that there was more to John’s words. It wasn’t the dog speaking, it was John speaking, to me, to us.

All those years in foster homes and prisons - all he wanted was to be loved.

If I had been a wiser storyteller, I would have seen that moment for what it was: the heart of the story. And instead of telling a predictable tale that creates a clichéd drama out of a murder, I could have helped people see John as a human.

It’s a wasted opportunity I don’t forgive myself for.