Possibly Essex isn’t the first place you would think of in a list of the most deprived places in Britain. Nor is it a county that is commonly thought of in the most beautiful places in the UK. These extremes are found side by side in the small seaside town of Jaywick.
In 2010 the town was rated as the most deprived place in the UK, according to the Government’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation. Built on a shingle beach, the place also possesses a sparse, windswept beauty. In Jaywick Escapes filmmakers Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope travelled to the town to film the place and some of the inhabitants. Lest they be accused of jumping on the media furore created by the Indices, they actually started filming before they were published.
They also take a rather unusual approach to their subject matter. Rather than adopt a baldly political approach, theirs is a more lyrical and inquisitive attitude. Guthrie and Pope explained when we talked to them last week that the town is roughly composed of two populations, pensioners who are quietly getting on with their lives and a more transient group of younger people. They focus on the latter.
The film follows three main characters and a handful of minor ones. Nick the Hat (he is usually seen wearing a tifter) has recently moved to Jaywick with the aim of setting up an antiques shop, and a couple, John and Sarah, who are trying to start afresh away from the temptations of London. It is made clear fairly early on that they are slightly unusual characters.
Part of the problem is the low quality (and cheap) housing that was build as temporary holiday chalets in the 1930s. It has grown into a place where everyone is haunted by the past, literally so in the case of the local psychic and ghost hunter. The deprivation is also clear. One local boy has been brought up by his nan since the age of four when a drug dealer killed his mother, while one of Sarah’s friends had her children taken into care as she fought depression and drugs.
However, these people are given the opportunity to show that they are more than merely social problems. Nick is particularly interesting and the way his story is gradually revealed deepens our sympathies for the man. At first he seems to be one of the most well-balanced people in Jaywick, but we learn that he too carries scars.
London, with its pleasures and pitfalls, looms over most of the characters. In some ways Jaywick Escapes can feel like a film about the capital city and the way it eats its own children. Nick explains, “it’s like Vietnam, you can lose as many battles as you like, but you’ve got to win the war.” Perhaps he momentarily forgot that the Americans lost the war in Vietnam.
If all this sounds unremittingly grim, it’s not. Certainly there are enough bricked-up windows and worn out housing that we are under no illusions that Jaywick has seen better days, but the wide East Anglian skies and pebble beach look eerily lovely. Together with the strangely disjointed lives of the inhabitants, the effect is dreamy. Pope and Guthrie also leaven the proceedings with a fair sprinkling of humour.
The result is a fascinating, poignant, and sensitive portrayal of a town that, as the voice-over puts it, is “trapped by its own history”.
Jaywick Escapes is released on DVD Monday 16th December.