Saturday 18 January 2020

A black sheep makes the grade... director Ken Wardrop

In grieving his father Ken Wardrop also found himself and developed one of Irish cinema's most distinctive voices

Film director Ken Wardrop. Photo: David Conachy
Film director Ken Wardrop. Photo: David Conachy
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The sunlight floods the room, just as it did during every day of the shoot for Making The Grade, (see review, top right) and Ken Wardrop, the film's director, emits his own distinctively sunny warmth. In person he is exactly as you would imagine from his collection of twinkling documentaries; a careful listener with a natural appreciation for the small absurdities of conversation. It takes a particular art to find the beauty and drama in such ostensibly small themes as a farmer herding cattle (2008's The Herd), a woman's experience of ageing (Undressing My Mother, 2004) or people learning piano, but Wardrop finds the human story in the habitual and the banal. Perhaps more than most Irish filmmakers his movies have a distinctive voice; tender, touching, sometimes melancholic but never really bleak.

He has just returned from South By Southwest, the huge arts festival in Austin, Texas, where Making The Grade premiered and though he referred to it as "a piano film" this is not merely a niche piece for music aficionados. In fact in some ways you could say the music itself is somewhat incidental, it merely being the pretext for what Wardrop calls "a love letter to teachers", including one memorable nun who dryly informs her giggling protege that she is not in fancy dress.

The film gets its narrative arc from the grading system by which piano players are evaluated and to make the film he travelled the length and breadth of the country - as far afield as Kylemore Abbey in the West, to Derry City in the North and down to Crosshaven, Cork, in the South - and sought out budding pianists who were "a little bit different or a little bit struggling, or maybe even the ones who had quit and come back to it".

Piano has always lurked at the edges of Wardrop's life. Growing up in Portarlington, Co Laois - the accent is long gone - his mother had an old piano in the house, a remnant of his grandmother's "notions" but since relegated to a piece of mere furniture.

"Mum loved it, but for me it was just something that I had to dust every so often. My sister was brought to lessons and tells the story of the day she quit. She had come out of the lesson and it had gone badly and she was standing in the road in buckets of rain and my father passed by in the tractor and blew up a puddle of water in her face. She swore that was the end of her piano career and my mother gave up thereafter. They didn't bother to make me play."

Wardrop would quite have liked if the notions had survived to his parents' generation, he explains, but instead his was a traditional Irish farm background, one in which he felt like "the black sheep of the family".

"A bit like Alan Bennett, one thing I have loved doing was sitting in on my mum's conversations and she would be doing other women's hair and they'd have the curlers in and be talking away and I'd be sitting in the corner rapt and my grandmother would say why don't you get out and play."

He yearned to get away "and be a disco dancer" and half way through a degree at Trinity College he did an Erasmus year in London. Initially it seemed exhilarating - the disco dancing commenced in earnest - but within a few years he was disillusioned. "At 26 I was an office manager in an architect's firm and I realised that I was the only one who dreaded coming into work each day. A girl who was dating my best friend was studying film and I helped her on one of her projects. It was then that I fell in love with film."

He returned home and began a degree at the National Film School at the Dun Laoghaire Institute. The move brought mixed emotions - he was exhilarated by his new passion - but also in mourning for the London he left. "I grieved the first six months, but I clicked into Dublin life quite well. I came back in 1999, we were on the cusp of the economy starting to really get going. There was a lot of positivity as to where we were going." His graduation film, Undressing My Mother, a study of his prima muse, won an Ifta, a European Film Award, a mention at Sundance and another half-dozen prestigious awards. His debut feature, His and Hers, won best Irish film prize at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

His dad died while he was in film school and he describes it as "a very big moment because I was finding myself suddenly. It was like the black sheep making his way. I had come out to him. He always knew. I had a very easy story as coming out stories go. I had understanding parents. I mean they were farmers in the middle of nowhere. It was amazing".

Piano still "hovers around" in his life, both in the music in his films, and as the soundtrack to his domestic life. His partner of eight years, Will, is a professional pianist. "We were doing a renovation and the insulation brought the wall out a tiny bit and it meant the piano wouldn't fit and it was very traumatic - it meant there was no piano in the house for six months. He loved and connected with the film from day one."

Earlier in his career, there were some who said the next logical moves would be a darkening of tone, a discovery of villains, or a scripted drama, but he says that he wouldn't want to make any other kind of films. "I don't think there is any limit to a documentary audience now. There have been so many very successful documentaries in recent years."

Instead he says that his next feature may move beyond his signature vignette-chapters and see him burrow more deeply and over a longer period into a character. "To really get inside someone's life and tell their story - that would excite me."

Making The Grade is in cinemas nationwide now.

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