Monday 22 May 2017

My Favourite Room: A new direction

Film-maker Kevin Allen quit Hollywood for a new life with his Monaghan-born wife and fell into free-range pig farming, says Mary O'Sullivan. And now he's is running a unique, child-friendly festival, too. Photography by Tony Gavin

Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

'It's family, family, family and not at all snotty. No bouncy castles, but lots of creative stuff and it's not arty-farty. And it's devoid of the rip-off factor. Fifty-year-olds with ponytails and black jeans -- that's not us."

The 'us' is the Flat Lake Literary & Arts Festival 2011, which takes place at Hilton Park country estate, Clones, next weekend, June 3-5, and the words above are those of one of its co-founders, charismatic screenwriter, movie director, farmer and family man Kevin Allen.

A visit to the home of Kevin and his wife, Monaghan woman Laura Madden, reveals that, for them also, it's all about family. Set in an idyllic rural spot, also in Hilton Park, surrounded by an orchard with ample space for the kids to run around, as well as room for their 90-strong herd of saddlebacks -- a breed of pig -- and a herb and vegetable patch, the house was designed by Kevin especially to cater for a growing family. And it's obvious that it's all about Gracie, Nell, Hywel (Howie) and Iris, aged from nine down to five. The living rooms are extra large so that the kids don't feel constrained, and their artwork covers the walls. Homework copies are on the kitchen table, little girls are dressing up, everything is child friendly. When five-year-old Iris points out the loo, she also draws attention to the light and its pull-cord -- a device made more child-friendly by the attachment, to the cord, of an egg whisk to pull on.

It's all a far cry from the spangly, celebrity-strewn hills of Hollywood, where the couple met. "The film business is quite small so I'd seen Kevin before. I always thought he was arrogant and cocky, but I sat beside him at this dinner and he was so funny," the gently spoken Laura recalls.

Laura, who grew up in Hilton Park, had wanted to be a landscape gardener and did a year-long course at Merrist Wood in England but, when a movie called The Playboys was made one summer near her home, she and her sisters Amelia and Alice all got work. "Alice got work as a stand-in for Robin Wright Penn, I was looking after the extras," Laura explains. It might have been the more mundane role, but it was enough to give her an 'in' to movies and, instead of continuing her gardening career, she got a job with Miramax where she worked in production for 10 years.

Meanwhile Kevin, who is originally from Wales, plotted a different course. He studied acting and had roles in TV series and movies before moving into directing. When the couple met at that party in LA, he already had two considerable movie successes under his belt -- Twin Town and The Big Tease. When they met, he was working in Alabama: "I suppose we were the two outsiders in the room. He was also the first Englishman I had ever met who was proactively romantic," the pretty brunette notes. "We were both desperate to marry; I really wanted children. I was ready for the next chapter of my life."

So they got married in Death Valley and spent a year living in an Airstream mobile home in Alabama before settling in LA, where their two eldest were born. They were happy at first, with Laura doing some casting work and Kevin working on the creation of one of the first reality shows, but, gradually, Kevin began to hate Tinseltown. "I couldn't bear Hollywood. It's hell for kids, bad for the soul. It's a cliche, but so true," he insists. "It's virtual apartheid -- a structured society based on monthly income and the colour of your skin."

As luck would have it, in 2003 he got a job directing the film Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, which brought him to London, and he and Laura ended up deciding to stay on this side of the world. Laura's father gave them a plot and, in 2004, they moved back to Monaghan and have become involved in all sorts of enterprises to make a living. There are the pigs, of course. "I don't know why I went into pigs," Kevin says, "a mixture of wanting to be different and also because pigs and orchards go well together. I got a couple, then I got my herd and became a farmer. They're good fun and very intelligent -- I've seen a sow toss her piglet against an electric fence to see if it's on." Kevin is very angry, however, about the way pigs are generally reared in this country -- "a bit like battery-hen farming" -- and believes his way, free-range living for the animals, means vastly more humane animal welfare and infinitely more flavoursome meat. "I hope to become one of the main producers of free-range pork in the country," he says, adding that he also hopes to change the way we use pork.

"It's all about the loin -- but we should be able to ulitise every part of the pig," he says. He makes sausages and puts every part of the pig into them. "There's no catch," he says. "The proof is in the product." People are beginning to sit up and take notice. They've got a contract from Avoca to set up at Powerscourt during the summer, roasting their pigs on a spit and selling them.

They've also gone into catering -- their USP is hog roasts, using their own pigs, relishes, sauces and salads. They say they'll cater for anything, including weddings. "I think it would be great fun to do midnight breakfasts after a wedding, when everyone is drunk and hungry and we'd come along with lovely pork baps for breakfast," Laura enthuses.

Festivals are their main source of catering income at the moment and, of course, they will be one of the caterers providing food at their own festival -- the Flat Lake Literary & Arts Festival, which Kevin started with Clones's beloved son, Pat McCabe. It's a quirky festival with an impressive literary roll-call, movies, music, speed-dating, Pat's Radio Butty, a talent competition they call X Tractor, and tons of kids' stuff. They always have a surprise, too -- last year it was Kevin's niece, Lily Allen, so who knows what they'll pull out of the bag this year? One of the quirky items this year is the Flat Lake Year of the Piano -- as many as 15 will be crammed on the Big Top stage to create a "piano happening". Kevin is passionate about the piano -- he plays, Laura plays and all the kids play. And they have a baby grand in the living room of their lovely home, a timber eco-house.

Slightly Japanese in style, the house is 3,000 sq ft and clad in windfall timbers from the Hilton Estate: a giant redwood, a Himalayan cedar, two sycamores, a beech and some Douglas fir. "I didn't want to do anything that was show-off architecture," says Kevin. "I drove around the area and looked at vernacular buildings. I liked the outbuildings with a tin roof and timber. Down the pub, they call it the barn," he laughs, clearly taking this as a compliment. And rightly so. The interior is not show-off interior design either. The chief concerns of the couple are warmth and comfort, and they're both there in spades. As a space, it's very welcoming and friendly. And full of fun. Just like the Flat Lake Festival.

www.hiltonorchard.com

www.theflatlakefestival.com For tickets for the festival, see www.eventelephant.com/flatlake festival2011

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