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Opening the conversation

Amanda Groom & Michelle Collins onstage at the Kiln Theatre. Photo: Paul McPherson

David Hennessy was at Shout London, Ashford Place’s mental health and arts festival, which took place for the first time recently.

Ashford Place held their inaugural mental health and arts festival Shout London last week with former Eastenders and Coronation Street star Michelle Collins, who has long been an Ashford Place patron, and presenter, model and actress Gail Porter two of the big names to take part.

Shout London took place at the venues The Kiln Cinema in Kilburn and The Crown Hotel in Cricklewood over the two days of Monday 10 and Tuesday 11 October coinciding with World Mental Health day on the Monday.

Festival Director Carey Fitzgerald, an Ashford Place trustee and Managing Director of Silver Mountain Productions and Irish Film London Chair, told The Irish World: “Shout London really came out of an idea that I had with Danny Maher from Ashford Place.

“We were trying to think of a way we could combine my film career with all the wonderful work that Ashford Place do with health and wellbeing.

“So we came up with this idea of the film and arts festival.

“So Michelle being the fabulous patron that she is brought in a whole new dimension, because she brought in all her contacts. And that’s how it all began.”

Michelle Collins adds: “There are a lot of festivals around but how apt to have a film festival about mental health awareness and wellbeing.

“I think it affects all of us in our everyday life now and so it’s something that we all are living with, I think, with the current climate, with COVID.

“And a lot of filmmakers have also been affected by it so I think they are making films that are kind of about mental health as well in a positive way. Because life is about our mental health.

“It’s not like 100 years ago when people didn’t talk about it and it used to be a taboo subject.

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“If people can see it in films, and they can go and see it, maybe it kind of resonates with things that are going on in their lives.

“And that’s kind of what it’s all about.”

Maria McAteer & Jimmy Page on the red carpet. Photo: Marco de Rosso.

Michelle Collins and Gail Porter opened the festival and Monday’s events at the Kiln, presenting the opening film from Irish film maker Adrian McCarthy, OCD & ME.  This was followed by a Q & A with Adrian.

This was followed by a screening of I Am Gen Z directed by Liz Smith, a documentary that explores how the explosion of the digital revolution is impacting society and mental health.

Carey continues: “We’ve had some fantastic films and filmmakers.

“Adrian McCarthy, who made OCD and me, flew in from Dublin yesterday, and that film went down really well.

“Generation Z was the closing film yesterday.

“It’s been brilliant, the support.

“The subject, because we all live with it, we have to normalise it.

“Hence the word ‘Shout’, because we have to talk about it.”

Ashford Place CEO Danny Maher told The Irish World what it meant to be launching the festival: “It’s great, because Ashford Place is about helping to change people’s lives.

“But we also want to change people’s perceptions, and understanding of mental health and wellbeing, which of course applies to all of us.

“So this festival is our first attempt to really take the conversation out into the community and to the wider society and encourage people, encourage all of us to start talking about mental health and to find a way of making sure that mental health is portrayed in a positive and productive way.

“As I say, it applies to all of us and particularly in these post- COVID times and cost of living crisis, we all need to look after our wellbeing and indeed support each other.

“This festival is kind of the beginning of that conversation for us.

“If you’ve got mental health problems yourself, the last thing you want is people you know shying away from you or being embarrassed to talk to you.

“We want people to be mature in the way they respond to other people’s mental health issues and be actually able to be somebody that can support them.

“We all have mental health issues in some way or another so it’s about time, we need to talk more positively and productively and support each other.”

The festival line-up also included poetry readings from Wendy Young and Janet Reeve.

These were followed by actress, writer and former Irish dancing champion Maria McAteer performing a scene from her hugely successful play, The Guinness Girl, along with Karen Spicer and accompanied by Jimmy Page on the acoustic guitar.

Maria McAteer told The Irish World what it meant to be there: “It’s been a really great experience, and it’s been so inspiring actually: A lot of the films and a lot of the talks and the poetry.

“It’s a conversation that we all have to have and it’s a really, really worthwhile festival to just have those conversations.

“It’s been really inspiring for me. I’m really grateful to be here.”

Growing up, Maria struggled with identity but Irish dancing provided her with a release.

Maria explores her own story in the semi-autobiographical play, The Guinness Girl.

The title comes from one of her uncles calling her ‘the Guinness Girl’ because she ‘was black/white, Irish and made them laugh’.

The play was lauded when it ran at the London Irish Centre around St. Patrick’s Day in 2019.

She said of her performance at Shout: “The reaction was really good.

“And as well as talking about the play and the story itself, it does tackle Depersonalization-derealization disorder, which is something I suffered from as a child, which is quite an unknown illness actually.”

Depersonalization-derealization disorder is when people persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that they are observing themselves or have a sense that things around them aren’t real. It can make people feel like they are living in a dream.

“So a few people have come up and spoken to me about that.

“And they were pleased that it was kind of spoken about because not a lot of people know about it. Conversations need to be had about these things.”

Amanda Groom & Gail Porter having A Fireside Chat at The Crown London. Photo: Marco de Rosso.

Half Irish and half Trinidadian, Maria was raised in Newcastle.

She grew up in a time when there was much racism and anti-Irish sentiment but Irish dancing was her escape.

“Growing up in the 70s in Newcastle, it was quite difficult because there was a lot of hatred towards the Irish. I had an Irish mum. And there was a lot of hatred towards people with different ethnic origins.

“So me and my mum had the full bag really, and Irish dancing was kind of my saviour.

“Really, it was what brought me back to myself in the depersonalization.”

Maria would become an Irish dancing champion but many were stunned to see someone who looked like her Irish dancing.

“I was the first brown skinned Irish dancer walking on the stage.

“There was a lot of ‘Oh my God, what’s this?’

“But these challenges are there to make us stronger. I think we’re sent these things and if you push through them, we get there in the end. And that’s what the story is about really.”

Was writing the play therapeutic for Maria? “Yeah, it was.

“The Guinness Girl was a play that I wrote many years ago actually, but it kind of sat in a box.

“And every time I wrote a play, I wrote about everything else but The Guinness Girl.

“Because I had to be ready to face the things that happened.

“It was so personal and it wasn’t until I was actually ready that I could actually bring the play out and work with it.

“So yes, very cathartic in a lot of ways.”

Would she change any part of her story now? “Not a thing.

“Because there would be no Guinness Girl, there would be no stories.

“I think it pushed me into my creativity so I think it was worthwhile in the end.”

The programme also included the Out & Proud photography exhibition by Peter Mirow, raising awareness of the mental health struggles of people who identify as LGBTQIA+.

Peter is a self taught photographer who has used the art of photography to express his ideas and help raise awareness around mental health. He struggles with mental health himself and has a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia.

The opening screening on Day 2 at The Crown London was the premiere of BeTheLight, a hard-hitting audio- visual experience from What’s Going on in your Head?

Established in 2018, What’s Going On In Your Head? explore mental health through performance art. They were proud to be partners with Ashford Place for Shout London.

The screening was followed by a Q & A session with mental health campaigner and the co-founder of What’s Going On In Your Head? Jon Salmon.

There was also the short films A Wake and Sanctioned.

Emma Gilbertson’s A Wake follows two grieving sisters who argue about what to do with their family’s pub after their mother’s death.

The award- winning film by Dominique Murphy-de Neef, Sanctioned, follows the way in which one woman chose to present herself after being raped.

Dominique Murphy-de Neef told The Irish World: “It means a lot to be here tonight personally because I’ve struggled with mental health my entire life really, so to see a festival that’s dedicated to mental health and film and the arts, which is something I’ve also done my entire life, is incredibly important.

“I actually haven’t screened that film in a few years but I’ve always felt like that film has a place.

“So I’m glad that it had a place to be shown again.

“It was very personal to me.

“It is also the story of my friend Jess, who is an incredibly strong woman who was working on regaining her body after sexual trauma.

“Obviously, as a woman in the society that we unfortunately still live in today, that is something that is incredibly close to home for me and almost every single woman that I know.

“This was also done before #metoo so it was at a time where people really weren’t talking about sexual trauma and rape culture and all of those things.

“The thing that I’ve always wanted with that film is that if it helps at least one person with their recovery, then I’ve done something right. So hopefully, that’s what it’s done today as well.”

A massive highlight of the festival was when Gail Porter joined Amanda Groom for a fireside chat upstairs in the Crown Hotel.

Gail spoke to an engaged crowd about her experiences of mental health.

Gail Porter told The Irish World after her chat: “Being asked to be involved with Shout London was just a wonderful, wonderful thing.

“I actually heard about it through Michelle Collins, because I was at an event with her and she mentioned it and she was like, ‘I think you’d love this’.

“And obviously, I am very proactive in talking about mental health issues, mental issues.

“And to have an event like this has just been wonderful.

“It’s very important, what they’re doing. And it’s wonderful to be involved.

“I was lucky enough to have a wee chat this afternoon on stage.”

Well known for presenting television programmes, it was in 1999 that a 100 foot high image of Gail naked, was projected onto the houses of parliament.

Harriet Thorpe & Michelle Collins on the red carpet. Photo: Marco de Rosso.

Gail did not know about the stunt, by lads mag FHM, until she saw it reported on the news.

It was something that left her unable to get out of bed for weeks.

Gail would later develop alopecia which caused her hair to fall out.

When her work dried up, she found herself with no home.

When she reached out to a partner for help, that partner would send the police to cart her off and she would later be sectioned for 28 days only to be released with an apology.

“I really enjoyed my chat, because it’s taken me quite a long time to actually properly tell everyone what I went through. Because I used to like hiding behind a closed door, ‘Don’t tell anyone. It’s just me’.

“And then once I started opening up, more people started opening up.

“Now it’s a thing that people are actually talking about, and listening, which I always say: You must listen to people.

“Or if you think anything is slightly strange, someone looks a bit down. Everyone talk about it, everyone listen to each other.

“Talking about everything is therapeutic, anything whatsoever.

“I still have days when I want to keep it all inside. But I know that when I talk, then I’m better.

“And yeah, I enjoyed my chat because I also laugh about a lot of the things that I went through.

“I think using humour, if you can do is really important, because I’ve gone through everything from bankruptcy, homelessness, sleeping on the street, to suddenly getting to chat at things like this. So if I can do it, anyone can.”

The festival would concluded with a  screening of Kim Bartley’s Schizeophrenia: The Voices in my Head.

The powerful documentary aims to remove the stigma from the condition.

It is hoped that Shout London will grow and that we will not only see future Shout London events but events across the country and perhaps even abroad.

Carey said: “The reaction’s been so positive.

“We’re going to put on a roadshow so not just Shout London, it can be Shout anywhere like Shout Kosovo, for example.

“We’ve had interest. Different countries have come back and said, ‘Oh, this is amazing, can we do it?’

“Listen because we’re going to carry on shouting.”

Michelle Collins said: “I think every city could have its own Shout.”

Gail Porter added: “I think we should be having these kinds of events in every city all year round.

“At one point in the year we go to one city, have a great event, huge amounts of great talks over a couple of days and then- I was gonna say let our hair down! Everybody else is letting their hair down, I’m not unfortunately- and then have a proper chat to everybody and don’t feel under pressure to perform or talk.

“I think it’s a great idea and it should be everywhere.”

Maria McAteer added: “It’s vitally important. It’s very important. And I really hope that this will grow and grow and grow.

“I think there’s been a lot of people very moved by what they’ve seen. It’s educational. It’s inspirational. And it’s an extremely important event.”

Dominique said: “We want to take it basically around the UK. I mean, it would be amazing if we could take it worldwide one day, but the next aim is around the UK and just a bigger, better, and maybe even bolder.”

Danny Maher concluded: “It starts here in Cricklewood, the conversation.

“We plan to roll it out across the country and we look forward to more festivals like this across the UK and maybe even beyond.”

And the second edition of Shout London has already been confirmed for Monday 9 and Tuesday 10 October 2023 at The Kiln in Kilburn.

More information at www.shout.london.

For more information on Ashford Place, click here.

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