Mischief Night: Northern exposure

As Mischief Night, a race-based comedy set in Leeds, opens, Liz Hoggard meets its director and gauges local reactions to it
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The Independent Culture

I'm in the foyer of The Light, Leeds' trendy cinema complex, as people stream out of a screening of Penny Woolcock's Mischief Night, a new race-based comedy set in Leeds. It's a measure of the film's impact that, instead of dashing off for a drink, locals stand around to discuss how their city has been portrayed. "It was so funny, so down-to-earth, with the typical West Yorkshire sense of humour," says Gillian, 52, who, with her daughter Dee, 31, used to live on the streets where the film was shot. "We lived on the Asian side," says Dee, "and my friends lived on the white 'posh' side. The divide existed, but was never as clear-cut as the film makes out."

Pravin Jayakumar agrees: "The film was superb. It managed to bring a comic touch to a sensitive issue, and made many of us laugh out loud!"

It's not often that a great British comedy comes along that is prepared to tackle race, social exclusion and religious fundamentalism, but Mischief Night is already creating waves. The film is the third part of Woolcock's Tina trilogy (the first two improvised dramas, Tina Goes Shopping and Tina Takes a Break, were made for Channel 4), but it works as a stand-alone feature. Like the Tina films, Mischief Night is inspired by life on the Beeston estates of south Leeds. In many ways, it builds on the Shameless factor (it has the same producers): a semi-feral underclass in which no one has a proper job, and kids torch and joyride cars on the way to school.

"It's a fantastic film," enthuses Kate, 37, "but I worry that by focusing on the city's underbelly, it will make people stay away from Leeds, which is quite prosperous now."

Mischief Night is a world away from the new image the city has carved out for itself as a fashionable metropolis full of wine bars, hotels, and even a Harvey Nichols. In the face of such affluence, the film is a timely reminder that there is a community in Leeds who can't afford to shop at Harvey Nicks, despite living just half a mile away. But how do locals feel about being portrayed as scallies and shoplifters?

To gauge their reaction, the film's distributors held a screening in Leeds, which I attended. The audience was encouragingly mixed (white and Asian, young and old), the feedback essentially positive. But there were dissenting voices. "I've lived in Leeds for years," said Jon, "and the film gives the false impression that estates have crack dealers on every corner. It's also insulting to rely on outdated stereotypes - a family of 12 Pakistanis living in one house. It sends the wrong message and doesn't build bridges."

It's not surprising that Leeds is wary. It's just over a year since the London Tube bombings took place (two of the terrorists were raised in Beeston), and sensitivities are still running high. When news of the bombings broke, film crews swarmed into Beeston, representing it as a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. Woolcock, who describes herself as "a complete integrationist", says that she wrote the film to tackle the issue of fear and segregation. "Once upon a time, people lived together in Leeds, but now, white people live on one side of Cross Flats Park in Beeston, Asians on the other."

In the film, Tina Crabtree sends her children to a mainly white school, even though she herself grew up with Asian friends in a mixed community. No one can remember when the divide came down - or why.

Beeston, a suburb of Victorian terraces that have been falling into disrepair since the decline of the textile and coal industries, doesn't have the easiest reputation. Unemployment is twice the level in Leeds overall, and 42 per cent of residents are classed as "economically inactive". Researching the script, Woolcock spent months hanging out with Beeston's British Asian residents on the notorious Tempest Road. "Everyone warned me it wasn't safe, but they were so welcoming. The barriers are easy to break down, but people need to be in the same room."

Mischief Night features Kelli Hollis, who played the eponymous heroine in the Tina films, and Yvonne in Shameless, Ramon Tikaram (This Life), and Christopher Simpson (White Teeth). Throughout the film, the clock ticks towards Mischief Night, when, according to Yorkshire tradition, children can play tricks without reprimand. Slowly, the racial divide begins to fall. Tina's daughter makes friends with Asif, while Tina rekindles her friendship with Asif's older brother Immie.

The film feels authentic: Kelli and Gwyne Hollis (Kelli's real-life father who plays her dad) live in Beeston, and Woolcock cast many locals. "It was the people from the streets making their own movie, in many ways," says Tikaram, who plays the Asian hero but is of Indian-Fijian and Malaysian parentage.

Shot in summer (though Mischief Night is in November), the film avoids "it's grim up North" clichés. The cinematographer Robbie Ryan has a pop-video background and opted for "guerrilla gloss". Bombay artists made a Bollywood-style billboard for Tempest Road, and Radio 1 DJs Bobby Friction and Nihal compiled the soundtrack.

Woolcock also changed her view of Asian women as passive victims, researching the film. They have a strong voice, she claims, and can divorce and remarry. As for the vexed issue of the veil: "We called them 'the naughty hijab girls'. Often, they'd wear the hijab because they could get away with more, or as a rebellion against their parents."

As Tikaram says: "Our liberal expectations are totally blasted by Penny's script."

'Mischief Night' opens today