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Peter Mullan: ‘This is a party who single-handedly created food banks. That should be on the collective Tory gravestone’

Powerhouse actor Peter Mullan on BBC4’s Skint monologues, what they tell us about poverty in the UK and how to fix the TV industry

We are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Fuel prices are rocketing just as the Resolution Foundation warns of the largest real terms drop in incomes since the 1970s. New research from the End Fuel Poverty Coalition suggests that 8.5million UK households face fuel poverty next winter. Meanwhile, a record 2.5 million people received emergency food parcels from Trussell Trust foodbanks in the year to March 2021. For comparison, in 2009-10, the figure was 40,898.

A new series of monologues on the BBC will not solve the very real issues in the UK. But if there was ever needed to look at poverty from new angles, and to hear stories written by people who know what it feels like to struggle, it is now.

Skint is a series of eight short monologues, airing over consecutive weekends (with the final one to follow on iPlayer at a later date). The project is led by powerhouse actor, writer and director Peter Mullan and Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee.

Mullan brings some of his own lived experience to bear as Donny, in a monologue written and directed by James Price. It’s quite a sight to behold – Mullan as Donny in a vest, his chest full of pride, his cupboards bare, arguing with himself over whether to accept the offer of a food parcel, fixating on a jar of curry sauce.

“Every character you play really is yourself in another context. That’s all acting is, particularly cinematic acting in the social realist tradition,” he says.

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“The kind of poverty that I was brought up in was in the 1960s and 1970 years and it was a completely different kind of poverty from what he’s in. But ultimately, it all boils down to much the same thing. Which is that you’re surviving and nothing more.

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“What was lovely about Jimmy’s script was it is very funny. And that’s the truth of it. Because when you’re living in poverty, in order to survive it, you build up a whole culture as a means of coping.”

The character of Donny struggles with the idea that he should accept a food handout. It is a story that will resonate throughout the country.

“It is not just the old-fashioned sense of working class pride. It’s more than that,” says Mullan. “When you have a certain perception of yourself and your life, the reality only really comes home when everything runs out.

I never thought, ever, ever, ever that we would have food banks in this fucking country. And I certainly never thought that we would continue to have food banks apart from during a depression. But the fact that we’ve had fucking food banks ever since those Tory cunts moved in is just jaw dropping.

“The fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. That, more than most of the disgraceful things those Tory bastards have done, should be etched in the annals of fucking history. This is a party who single-handedly created food banks. That should be on the collective Tory gravestone.”

Donny would absolutely not think of himself as living in poverty.

“You never do,” says Mullan. “Same when you are homeless.

“There are different grades of it. ‘At least I’m not him, you know?’ You find somebody in a more extreme situation to feel a bit better about your own situation.

“The very few occasions when I was homeless, it was a bit of dramatic fucking melodrama from an adolescent point of view. Technically, I was homeless. But I would never have thought of myself as such. I ran away for three nights – I was hardly ‘homeless, homeless’.

“But three nights sleeping on fucking concrete on top of a high rise, you remember it. Even if it was self-induced in my case.”

Isis Hainsworth in Skint episode: Heart of Glass, by Jenni Fagan

Barring one written by McGee, each monologue in Skint is written and directed by someone new to network television. And they all have lived experience of poverty. This matters. Although it is not, Mullan is keen to stress, the be all and end all.

“I couldn’t give a fuck,” says Mullan, always a compelling performer most recently seen in US hit Ozark, and known for Tyrannosaur, Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as well as Neds, which he also wrote.

“It’s not my business to investigate anyone’s economic upbringing. Film’s film. Art is art. There are plenty of people that have lived through poverty and would write shite scripts and make shite films.

“Our cinematic boom happened in the 90s when two Englishman and American – Ken Loach, Danny Boyle and Mel Gibson – kicked us all up the arse and gave us a place on the cinematic map. They had a seismic impact on Scottish cinema. So I’m not a great believer that there’s only one way of things coming into being.”

He pauses. Thinks a moment. “But when you’ve come from that background, it helps insofar as you can infuse it with a certain lightness of touch. You don’t feel burdened by the fact that you’re from the outside looking in. And Jimmy’s scripts are wonderfully funny and honest and imaginative.”

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The monologues are as diverse as they are rich with authentic detail. Mullan, a “big fan of the Derry Girls”, was excited to work with McGee in mentoring and guiding the writers and directors.

“I was very intent, as was Lisa, that other than being about poverty and being skint, there was nothing else prescribed,” he says.

“It’s too easy to just tell people what they can’t do and all that shite. It’s almost anti art. And it’s boring, boring, boring. To be honest, the only advice I gave was ‘give yourself permission to shoot it the way you want to shoot it.'”

“Hopefully Skint might agitate and emboldened people to take on the government and the Tory ratbags who are running around destroying people’s lives while lining their own pockets.

Peter Mullan

The path into the television and film industry is not straightforward. Mullan recalls a trip to a Glasgow job centre in the early 1980s.

“I thought, fuck it. They were being such pricks to us all and it was the height of Thatcherism, so I said: ‘I want to be a film director’.

“I was a billion miles away from becoming a film director, but I still had the ambition. But this guy looked through the job centre manual and said the job did not exist. For me it was the perfect summation of of the glass ceiling – only it was certainly not a glass ceiling. This was a very definite a reinforced concrete ceiling telling you that you can never be a director.”

There has been change. And Skint is part of the change. One test will be how many of the writers are now commissioned, how their voices echo through the industry in future. Another will be whether the cultural industries open up. Mullan knows it is possible. He’s seen it firsthand in the US.

“I remember eight or nine years ago when I started working in Atlanta. It is pretty much 50-50 African American and white American in Atlanta but there were tiny numbers of African Americans working on film sets,” he says.

“I’ve got family in Atlanta – most of my family are American – so I was saying to my cousins, what is this? And I’d say on set, why are we so white in a 50-50 black and white town, I don’t get it.

“Then the year before last, I did The Underground Railroad with Barry Jenkins. And Barry had consciously made the point to employ as many African Americans as he can fucking get behind the camera, not just in front of the camera. So I walk on a set that was 98% African American. So he’d done it.

“I then watch The Underground Railroad, and for my money it is one of the greatest television shows ever made. An absolutely breathtaking, astonishing show. And it was made by a lot of people who were literally just learning on the job, you know? So when you put your mind to it, and you determine that it should happen, then it can happen!”

The Skint monologues are set, the BBC is at great pains to point out, both before and after the change in governing parties in the UK in 2010. But the need for these stories is urgent and can be seen either as timely or long overdue.

“There was no time they wouldn’t have been important. Whether they have an impact, I’ve no idea. You would like to think they open a few minds,” says Mullan.

“”Hopefully Skint might agitate and emboldened people to take on the government and the Tory ratbags who are running around destroying people’s lives while lining their own pockets.

“Obviously, everything’s different just now. We are just coming out of COVID and now we are looking at a fascist dictator rolling the tanks into Ukraine. So the whole mood worldwide has changed. Globally there is a huge empathy for people under siege.

“So with empathic feelings running as high as they are at the moment, you would hope people watch a piece like Skint with those same feelings. Because they are beautiful, beautiful pieces.”

Skint is available on iPlayer

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