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‘We are a family – and an art collective’

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Gary Winters and Grace Surman with children Hope and MerrickImage copyright
National Trust/Jason Lock

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Gary Winters and Grace Surman with children Hope and Merrick

When performers Grace Surman and Gary Winters and their two children decided to form a family art collective, the results involved rolling in mud, mass school drumming and a homage to Greta Thunberg.

Every child is an artist. That’s what Pablo Picasso said.

Not every child, though, is an equal partner in a professional art collaboration with their mum and dad.

As well as being the bundles of innocent creativity that Picasso probably had in mind, Merrick, nine, and 12-year-old sister Hope have been involved in their parents’ performance art since before they knew that’s what it was.

When Merrick was one, he starred in his mum’s tender 12-minute video I Love My Baby And My Baby Loves Me.

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National Trust/Jason Lock

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“Make some noise!” Grace directing young drummers at the National Trust’s Quarry Bank Mill

Later, Grace would take the children along as she devised her performance routines. “They were watching us make our work and they were around when we were in rehearsals. They were playing in a studio while we were playing in a studio.” So it seemed natural to play together.

Grace choreographed a short performance duet for herself and Hope, and another for Gary and Merrick. The latter, titled Would You Rather Be Lost, went on tour – and looks like just about the most fun a father and son can have without the involvement of water slides or candy floss.

Those projects went so well that, a year ago, Grace and Gary decided they and the children should work together as a family.

They have now made two films for the National Trust to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, when the cavalry charged a workers’ rights protest in Manchester, killing around a dozen people.

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National Trust/Jason Lock

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The family in costume for their film at Dunham Massey

Artists Jeremy Deller and Bob and Roberta Smith and singer Jarvis Cocker are among the others taking part in the National Trust’s People’s Landscapes project. One of the family’s films will be shown at Quarry Bank, a historic mill in Cheshire, where the family have filmed around 100 local schoolchildren drumming around the site.

Doing interviews about their creations is not nearly as interesting as making them, and at Quarry Bank, Merrick gets bored and disappears from the cafe table less than three minutes after the family start telling me about their work. He’s bursting with energy. He’s a nine-year-old boy.

Hope is more patient but she too makes her escape before the interview is over, boarding a National Trust buggy to the next filming location where some steel drums are waiting. Merrick reappears from around the corner at one point and his mum suggests I ask him a question before he bolts again.

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National Trust/Jason Lock

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Merrick joined local schoolchildren for the drumming

Do the family all come up with the ideas together? “Yeah,” he replies. He pauses, then reconsiders. “Not really.”

“We have,” his dad protests.

Are there any bits that were your idea?

“No,” Merrick says – before his mum and dad both remind him about the bits he suggested.

“The drumming was your idea,” Grace insists in a light-hearted rebuke. “The whole thing was your idea!”

It has been a long day, and the fact they are artistic collaborators doesn’t take away the fact they are parents and children first and foremost.

Rolling in mud

In their Quarry Bank film, the sound of the young drummers, who play bins and buckets and anything else that will make a beat, represent the sound of protest and marching and militaristic rhythm, Gary explains.

Gary reminds Merrick too about rolling around in the mud at Dunham Massey, the other National Trust property where they have been filming. There, they dressed in period costume to present themselves as a sort of echo of the family who lived on the grand Cheshire estate in 1819. Their film project is titled Glorious Phantoms.

“We’ve sort of contributed all together,” Hope picks up. “In Dunham Massey, I’m doing a speech all on my own, which is the Greta Thunberg speech to the UK Parliament.”

The march at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in 1819 was about political reform at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The family tried to think about what was the biggest issue inspiring protests today.

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National Trust/Jason Lock

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Hope decided to recite Greta Thunberg’s speech

Grace says: “Hope has seen and heard of Greta, and been involved in climate strikes at school, and you were saying, weren’t you, that it feels like the most important thing that you could think of right now. At the time of Peterloo, the important thing was to have a voice, to be heard. And Greta’s like a spearhead for that [today].”

As well as the films, the family, who live in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, are also working on a new stage performance and have been participating in a project for Manchester theatre company Quarantine.

That has involved them staying in a new housing development and organising creative activities for the neighbours to encourage a community spirit, including painting workshops, country dancing and ice sculpture.

It’s a great excuse to have the kind of quality time most families don’t get, but they have also made a point of discussing why they are doing those things in the first place.

‘It may stop at any minute’

“You have to find a way to talk about the work, about what an artist is, what art is,” says Gary, who is also one half of the performance duo Lone Twin. “It comes down to those fundamentals sometimes – about why things happen, or why an idea might be good.”

For their work for the National Trust, the children are getting paid for their contributions, as any professional artists would. It’s a good source of pocket money as well as being fun, but Grace says she and Gary know the arrangement might not last.

“As soon as they go, ‘This is boring, and I don’t like it, I’m not getting anything from it, and why am I doing it?’ then it will just all be packed away. Gone. It’s not about making them do something. It does work now but it may well stop at any minute and we have to be prepared for that.”

Lots of artists who work together have their creative differences, after all. But these collaborators have to live under the same roof, and being a family comes first.

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Emilia Clarke and Emma Thompson on Last Christmas and reading reviews

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Emilia ClarkeImage copyright
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Clarke with a less controversial coffee cup than the one she appeared with in Game of Thrones

One thing we definitely aren’t going to do in this article is give away any spoilers about Last Christmas. Apart from anything else, we’re quite scared of Dame Emma Thompson.

“The correct spoiler etiquette is: don’t spoil it!” the actress and writer tells BBC News after a week of critics’ reviews that have revealed the ending.

“It’s easy isn’t it? It’s like ‘don’t punch strangers’. Just don’t spoil it. Easy. Easy rule. Not complex.”

Luckily, Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, who plays the lead character Kate in the movie, has plenty of experience in keeping plot lines secret.

“I’ve never done a job that didn’t involve a spoiler,” she points out. “Literally, there is no job I’ve done. And some of them are bigger than others. But with this particular twist, there are ways about talking about our characters and the premise without going anywhere near it.”

One thing that definitely isn’t a secret is that the movie is based on the music of George Michael. His (and Wham’s) best-known songs make up the soundtrack, and in a few cases are sung by the characters.

Arguably, the most recent Christmas-themed movie to have become an annual audience favourite is 2003’s Love Actually – which also starred Dame Emma. But she says trying to make the next great festive film “wasn’t her prime motivation” for co-writing Last Christmas.

“Love Actually, of course, was made by one of my best mates,” she says, referring to writer-director Richard Curtis. “And I’m so happy that people are still fond of it. So we certainly weren’t thinking we were in competition with anything. I just wanted to try to make a good film, which has Christmas in it. And a bit of love, a bit of drama, and just everything we could throw at it.”

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Getty Images

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George Michael died on Christmas Day 2016 at his home in Oxfordshire

Some reviews so far have been positive. The Mirror gave it five stars, while The Wrap said it “provides enough of a warm, fuzzy glow to light up a bleak midwinter”.

It’s fair to say, however, that many critics have been less enthusiastic.

“Last Christmas is the worst festive film I have ever seen,” wrote Dan Wootton in The Sun. “It’s a woke, remoaning, overly politically correct mess of a movie that manages to suck every inch of fun, joy and togetherness out of the season where we should be jolly.”

‘We couldn’t avoid Brexit’

His comments refer to the film’s Brexit references, along with fact the central family are immigrants. Dame Emma’s character (Kate’s mother) comments that the EU referendum result makes her feel unwelcome, while one scene on a London bus shows someone telling off passengers who aren’t speaking English.

But Dame Emma argues: “I think [the political references] are very lightly brushed in. Because our main character is the daughter of immigrants, it would be very difficult to tell this story without mentioning, at least, the fear that people have who are immigrants with Brexit.

“Because it’s set in a very particular time as well, it’s set in 2016, we couldn’t avoid it. Having it not there would’ve been slightly psychotic. And I think what’s more important about what’s under the fun of the movie is a message about kindness.”

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Universal

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As well as co-writing the film, Dame Emma Thompson plays Kate’s mother

Clarke has her own policy when it comes to reading reviews. “I don’t look at them at all. It’s partly drama school training, and then you do a bit of theatre, and it’s just not helpful,” she says.

“The way I see it, right, is that I stopped Googling myself within a year of Game of Thrones happening. Because I was like, ‘I don’t need to know what people think about the size of my bottom, thank you so much.’

“And then when you stop Googling yourself, you then stop reading reviews. If someone says something really good, if you get a 15 million-star review, someone will tell you, and if you get a ‘one-star coal in the rectum’, someone’s going to tell you!” She laughs while glaring at her co-star Henry Golding.

(She’s referring to the rather graphic way Rolling Stone described the experience of watching the film, which Clarke says Golding drew to her attention “right before we stepped on live TV!”)

George Michael’s ‘poetry’

Last Christmas is the latest in a string of movies that have been based on the back catalogues of a particular musical act. Queen, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John have all had the Hollywood treatment recently. “Maybe Mamma Mia put that idea on the map,” Dame Emma says.

Golding, who is best known for starring in Crazy Rich Asians, says the benefit of such films is that they “spark joy, memory, nostalgia”.

“Especially with Freddie Mercury and Elton John,” he continues. “It’s music we all grew up with, and to see what was actually happening, a glimpse of their biography, it kind of invigorates us, and makes us fall in love with that artist over and over again.

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Universal

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Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding stars in Last Christmas alongside Clarke

“And hopefully that’s what happens with George, and a broader market gets to listen to George for the first time, which I think is going to happen.”

Dame Emma met Michael before his death in 2016. The singer gave the movie is blessing, and his family and management have been involved in the production since, even gifting a previously unheard recording to the soundtrack.

“The songs just kind of slid in naturally,” Dame Emma says. “I didn’t realise how his poetry describes so much of the acts of self-care and kindness that this film really speaks about.”

The fact that Dame Emma, along with husband Greg Wise, co-wrote the film’s screenplay meant she could personally monitor how the movie was taking shape.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who both wrote and starred in Fleabag, was known for rewriting scenes while shooting. Was that a luxury Dame Emma enjoyed as well?

“Deffo. Absolutely,” she says. “You go, ‘Oh I don’t think that’s quite right’. Or, ‘That could be funnier’. And then we make stuff up as we go. We riff a bit. So yes, it’s useful to be on set, because if someone says, ‘Oh that doesn’t really work’, you can think about something else.”

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HBO

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A disposable coffee cup appeared on the table next to Clarke in Game of Thrones

This is our first interview with Dame Emma since she personally phoned the manager of Mayfair restaurant Brown’s to ask them to reinstate a waiter who was sacked for asking for a selfie with her. Has she heard whether he eventually got his job back?

“Oh yes, of course he did!” she replies. “Taking a selfie is not a sacking offence. I mean, well done Brown’s for bringing it up. But the selfie thing is something we all need to talk about and think about a little bit, face-to-face.”

Coffee cup culprit

We also have one final question for Clarke before we go, regarding the Game of Thrones coffee cup saga, which has been rumbling on for several months.

After the continuity error in the eighth season, Clarke revealed her co-star Conleth Hill had privately confessed he was the one responsible for leaving it in shot.

The day before our interview, however, he jokingly told Sunday Brunch that his guilt could not be proved.

“THAT LITTLE CHEEKY… NO!” Clarke explodes while we’re only a few words into the question. “STOP! I’m not having it!”

He has, we try to continue through the laughter, playfully threatened legal action against Clarke for dobbing him in. Has she heard from his lawyer?

“No I haven’t heard from his lawyer, he’s going to hear from mine in a minute though!” she laughs.

And with that, we wrap up, wishing Clarke and Golding well with that evening’s premiere.

“Thank you,” Clarke smiles, before adding: “Let us know if Rolling Stone are going to be there…”

Last Christmas is released on Friday.

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Leonardo da Vinci goes ‘immersive’ at London’s National Gallery

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London’s National Gallery is running a digital show of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Virgin of the Rocks.

The show is an “immersive” exhibition that allows visitors to walk through multi-sensory rooms and explore different aspects of the painting.

This exhibition is a commemoration of the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death.



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Kodak Black: Rapper sentenced to nearly four years in prison

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US rapper Kodak Black has been sentenced to 46 months in prison after pleading guilty to weapons charges.

The 22-year-old, who had a US number one album last December, admitted falsifying information on background forms to buy four guns.

He was arrested before his set at Miami’s Rolling Loud festival in May.

One of the guns he bought was used in an attempted shooting in March. Prosecutors said “a rival rap artist was the intended target”.

However, he has not been charged in relation to that shooting.

Real name Bill K Kapri, the hip-hop star faced a maximum of 10 years in prison, and prosecutors had pushed for a sentence of eight years. The court heard he was alleged to have beaten up a prison guard while awaiting sentencing.

US District Judge Federico Moreno acknowledged that Black had made anonymous donations to charity in the past.

Black’s lawyer Bradford Cohen told BBC News: “After the court was apprised of all the facts and circumstances of this case and the good charitable work that Bill has done over the years, the court rejected the government’s request of 96 months and sentenced Bill to 46 months.”

The MC has had a number of legal charges and spells in prison in recent years, and is known for his violent lyrics.

His debut studio album Painting Pictures went to number three in the US in 2017.

The follow-up went to number two, and a third album, Dying to Live, reached number one last December. Two hit singles – Zeze and Tunnel Vision – have reached the Billboard top 10.

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