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Film-maker Carol Morley: ‘Manchester was terrible for women... it was a working-class, white, boys’ town’

The director on her native city, ‘invisible women’, and new feature Typist Artist Pirate King, about the late outsider artist Audrey Amiss

For a few days every September, Dinard, a pretty French coastal town that has welcomed such holidaymakers as Winston Churchill, Picasso and the Wales soccer team, becomes the capital of British and Irish film. To date, Dinard film festival has premiered work by John Carney, Lenny Abrahamson and Cathy Brady. This year’s programme welcomes the actor Aidan Gillen, the film-makers Michael Winterbottom and the 2023 guest of honour, Carol Morley.

Typist Artist Pirate King, the filmmaker’s fifth feature, is about the late outsider artist Audrey Amiss. In keeping with Morley’s previous careful constructions, it’s a labour of love. She researched it while she was the 2015 Wellcome Trust screenwriting fellow, a post that allowed her access to the Amiss archive: some 80 boxes containing 50,000 sketches, paintings and diaries, as well as the wrapper of the last Cornetto Amiss bought and letters to Queen Elizabeth and McDonald’s. Amiss had studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, but her career stalled when she was hospitalised because of mental illness. She continued to live a fascinating life. She was one of the first Britons to visit China in the 1980s, making it to the PRC before Wham!

“Somebody mentioned this archive they had of somebody who had collected the wrappers of everything she’d eaten every day,” says Morley. “I thought, That sounds right up my street. The collection wasn’t even categorised at that point. And they gave me two hours in a room with a couple of boxes that they brought up from deep storage. I was there the whole day, and I decided I had to see everything. So I spent a year-plus becoming completely obsessed with her, with her character, because she was funny and articulate. And then her art shifted over the years. After a very short time I needed to meet her family, because I wanted to make sure that they were happy that we were making a film about her. And because I had seen the archives, that became an exchange of information, an exchange of enthusiasms.”

Typist Artist Pirate King, titled after the occupation that Amiss listed in her passport, is a road movie in which the irascible Amiss (energetically played by Monica Dolan) travels across Britain with her long-suffering psychiatric health visitor (Kelly Macdonald). Their destination is an art exhibition; their journey takes in estranged relatives and institutions where Amiss was formerly incarcerated. It’s an astute portrait of mental illness, one that allows for genius, without a trace of sentimentality.


“Dorothy, her sister, told me she was always driving up the M1 to rescue Audrey from one situation or another,” says Morley. “But this isn’t someone who is defined by a diagnosis. She wasn’t on medication for the last eight years of her life. She was someone who was free from being socialised, in a way. When she was younger, her school reports, which I read, said she needed to speak up more. And then, by the end of her life, she was saying exactly what she meant on all occasions. That can be very off-putting to people. People do cross the road to avoid other people talking out loud. But I didn’t want to dilute that aspect of her.”

The film is both a counterpoint and complement to Dreams of a Life, Morley’s lauded investigation into the death of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young London woman whose mummified remains were discovered three years after she died, in 2006.

“They were both invisible women in their way,” says the film-makers. “I feel that the difference is that Joyce left no physical evidence behind. I really had to piece it together through other people and their voices. It’s a portrait of Joyce through other people. With Typist Artist Pirate King we were portraying Audrey through herself and what she left behind. She left so much that enabled me to fictionalise her.”

Morley’s musical career began in Manchester, aged 13, when she joined The Playground, her first of several bands. Her older brother is Paul Morley, the music journalist and cofounder of ZTT Records.

“My mum and dad left school at 14,” says Morley. “They were just doing jobs, whatever they could get. My brother loved music, and he got a job at the New Musical Express in London. So he was a hero. I would read the NME every Thursday. But it did feel very remote, the idea that I could be involved in writing. What was big in Manchester was music. Everyone all around me was in a band originally. And some of them were on Top of the Pops. I was in a band because it seemed like a way out. At school we were told, If you work hard you might get a job; it won’t be the job you want, but you might get one.”

Morley’s father died by suicide; the following year, aged 12, she began drinking, an addiction that she chronicles with eye-watering candour in The Alcohol Years, her documentary from 2000, in which she returns to Manchester to interview friends and witnesses to her troubled youth, reconstructing lost years spent at the Haçienda nightclub.

The Alcohol Years doesn’t romanticise that time. I’m glad I made it when I did. I don’t think people would say the things they say about a young girl now

“No one lived in Manchester city centre in the 1980s,” she says. “All the buildings were black and grim. Being young, you find ways of getting to gigs for free. But for women, and musicians, Manchester was terrible. It was a working-class, white, boys’ town. The Alcohol Years doesn’t romanticise that time. I’m glad I made it when I did. I don’t think people would say the things they say about a young girl now.”

Morley’s career in film began with an advertisement for a photography course in Loot magazine. She graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1993 with a degree in fine art and film and has gone on to find a uniquely anthropological groove. Her films so far have featured newspaper clippings, odd occurrences, missing people, bored shop attendants, and a re-creation of a youthful trip to India.

“My dad died when I was 11,” says Morley. “And then my mum started a bed and breakfast. So I basically grew up in a boarding house. I think that made me fascinated with people, because I met so many different types of people, especially road workers.”

Dinard British Film Festival open today and runs until Sunday, October 1st. Typist Artist Pirate King opens on Friday, October 27th