INTERVIEW: Game of Thrones Actor and Filmmaker Tim Plester

Written by: Sophie Taylor

Currently living in Stroud Green, Game of Thrones actor Tim Plester meets me at the Fox and Pie in Stoke Newington. He suggests the pub as an apt setting in light of the latest Thrones season finale. I confess to him later that I’ve never seen an episode. But mention his character’s name to any other person and their eyes widen, head shakes and they whisper The Red Weddinngg… He slit someone’s throat, got baked into a pie and it was MAJOR.

I want to talk about what life is like for an award-winning film writer and director based in North London. Plester is the king of the cult British film, writing shorts and feature-length films starring comedy greats like Mackenzie Crook, Martin Freeman, Miranda Hart and fellow North London resident Johnny Vegas. Plester’s latest documentary about folk singer Shirley Collins was recently screened as a work in progress at the Stewart Lee curated ATP festival.

I really GoT to know him (sorry, couldn’t resist) and we discussed his script writing beginnings, North London walks and where to get the best avocado in the area. Thankfully I found Tim very understanding of my preserved GoT virginity.

My malleable, rubbery face served me well as a younger man to earn a good living doing very little: adverts.

“When you do watch Game of Thrones you’ll see that the original storyline has been streamlined, which is indicative of most TV and film. In general, the readers of the book are happy on the most part with the cuts. If you don’t make films or TV you might not understand how these are completely different mediums and therefore experiences.”

Which is something you’re very aware of as a scriptwriter and filmmaker?

“I did an MA in Playwriting taken by famous 1960’s-70s playwright David Edgar. One of the essays I wrote whilst there was about Trainspotting. I’d read the book, seen the play and watched the film: all versions of the same material but I enjoyed all three as separate mediums. You can’t be too prescriptive. Returning to London I aimed to be the master playwright of my generation and change the world… It didn’t happen! I fell back into acting and realised I’d missed it. 

Plays have always struggled as a genre but even more so now as they compete against people’s laptops and phones as sources of entertainment.

Changes in technology allowed me to become a low-budget filmmaker, with cameras being the size they are now that you can manoeuvre and hire easily. But the first film I made was shot on film. I remember sitting in an old basement in Soho with a Steenbeck machine, manually moving film through the rollers and physically syncing up the sound with our eyes alone, before signing off on the film. Watching it now it’s slightly out of sync.”

Which would give the film its character…

“It gives it a certain something yes, it’s organic, something that digital film doesn’t have. My filmmaking career has spanned from celluloid into digital.”

North Four, North London magazine, Tim Plester, film still

And you seem to like to mix those formats?

“I do, I like to try and do that with everything I’ve written. And again, it was the same with my short film English Language (with English subtitles) I used black and white 35mm film as well as colour Super 8. With our documentary, Way of the Morriss we had all this old archive Super 8 film that my Granddad had shot and that was our treasure trove that only we had access to.

Oliver Stone’s films were always a huge influence on me. He uses a mixture of 16mm, Super 8, stills, black and white and colour film which takes you on a wonderful roller coaster ride of aesthetic. You can do this much more easily with documentaries. I now have to employ this mix in all of my films or it doesn’t feel like it’s mine.”

Perhaps these traditions need to die out in order for them to be rediscovered and have new life breathed into them. I think that applies to everything that we feel we’re losing

It’s a nice nod to the origin of film, you’re not ignoring the history of the medium.

“Well yes, even now directors still say ‘hold the roll’ for example, but it’s a digital chip? It’s similar to the way iPad displays are set out and made to mimic real life. There’s no need for it but it helps to appease us. Like when you digitally read a book on a screen there’s still the page flip motion. It would be fascinating to see whether that will disappear over time with each generation.”

Or will it go in cycles, perhaps the physical element will always return?

“It’s warming to think that it might. There’s a nice analogy with Morris dancing; a key aspect of the film. The dance had died out with the First World War. The fact that it was revived again in the seventies is inspiring, they felt like it was something important they needed to bring back and rediscover.

Around the time Bob Dylan became popular, a so-called folk musician in the 1970s, it was an anarchic thing to do to rediscover something. The Morris dance is dying out again as those men are now retiring and it’s being lost. Perhaps these traditions need to die out in order for them to be rediscovered and have new life breathed into them. I think that applies to everything that we feel we’re losing”

You address this idea of cultural regeneration in your films…

“It’s all circles and cycles and rebirth, definitely. It has a parallel with the way that the seasons work and the crops. I wanted to indulge that romantic notion of what Morris dancing can be, used to be and could be again. That was my take on it. I am now a Morris dancer as a result of that research, I went on that journey and not just for the purposes of the film.

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There’s something powerful about knowing that we’re dancing these ancient dances on the same patch of soil by past generations, usually at the same time of the year (just not necessarily to bring good crops now).

But there is something about the repetitive footfall on that same earth that echoes back through time. Is that a bit too romantic?”

No, it makes sense. Earth has a memory.

“That’s where I was coming from yes. I definitely believe that. As a result of The Way of the Morris, my co-director Rob Curry and I worked on a short film, Here We’m Be Together. We both had an interest in folk topics, not necessarily the music but folk activities and festivities. We heard about a thing called Dwile Flonking which we ended up making a short film about. It became more of a film about field recording, which ties into the documentary we’re making at the moment about Shirley Collins. A folk singer in the truest sense of the genre.

We were asked if we’d be interested in making this film about Shirley, as she trusted us after she saw Way of the Morris. It’s a film we’re making with Shirley, rather than about her.”

At 21 Shirley Collins went to America in 1959 with Alan Lomax, an ethno musicologist. Learning from his dad, John Lomax he used pioneering recording equipment that enabled recording on the go. They travelled the deep South of America recording folk musicians and singers on site which hadn’t been done before. 

They captured the essence of what folk music is: songs passed down through the family that may have been misremembered and changed, evolving over hundreds of years. Shirley Collins helped to collect the huge repository of audio that is now online in the Alan Lomax Audio Archives. There are thousands from all over the world, raw and unpolished. Tim proposes that Shirley Collins would argue that Bob Dylan is a singer-songwriter, using the folk idiom, and isn’t a genuine folk singer. After a thirty year break, Tim and Rob captured Shirley’s recent performance at the Union Chapel in Islington. She is now recording another album.

Shirley Collins writes tunes, but never the lyrics – the words have to come from the mists of time, which has been her life’s work.

So folk music is like a meme, in the original sense of the word? Something passed down through the generations, changing organically.

“Exactly, that is the purist idea of what folk music is – that it changes but not necessarily deliberately. You would change the words to keep it topical and political for instance. It’s interesting to see that memic flow of a song through time. Some would argue that Lomax is disrupting that organic change as he’s recording the music instead of letting it flow. People used to sit under a table in a pub and try to steal other people’s songs, remembering it for their own performance the next day. In this digital age we live in it can’t happen anymore, we’re constantly recording. There’s a danger with things being too perfect and defined. That isn’t what art is.”

And it isn’t human.

“Yes. You bring your own idiosyncracies to the material. Filming with Shirley has let us deal with this aspect of folk music that I’ve always been passionate about. We’re taking our time with the filming of this particular project, letting it grow and evolve.

The Kickstarter campaign really helped us in the beginning. All of my films are labours of love that haven’t worked within the funding system. Time between filming is healthy, allows you to come back with new energy and rethink what you’re doing and why. We hope to have some version by the end of the year.”

You live locally don’t you? Did you choose to live in North London or did it choose you?

“When I first moved to London I was put on placement with a writing company based in Kentish Town so I found somewhere on the Northern Line – Finchley. It was also close to my family home in Oxfordshire so it made it easier for my dad to come and visit with food parcels. 

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I fell in love with the place. English Language (With English Subtitles) was all filmed in Finchley and a bit of Muswell Hill. Now we’re living in the Stroud Green area and I hope we never have to leave.”

Do you write from home?

“In general, yes as I have a 2 and a half year old daughter to look after. But, when we feel like a walk, something I really loved discovering was the Parkland Walk from Stroud Green to Highgate. It’s an old abandoned railway line. You can get on at Finsbury Park and walk all the way to the Boogaloo in Highgate. It feels like a slice of wild countryside in the middle of urban North London.”

And where do you like to go for a coffee break?

“I’m a big fan of Vagabond Coffee shop and have recently discovered Natti’s Café on Priory Road, Crouch End. The food is all made with good, simple ingredients with nice simple salads and naughty pastries. Their breakfasts are fantastic and they often hold supper clubs that are worth looking out for. Another favourite local spot of mine is Stroud Green Fruit and Veg (73 Stroud Green Road) where I always like to go for the best avocados in the area.

I also have a deep soft spot for Pizzeria Pappagone (131 Stroud Green Road). It’s where my wife and I went for our first meal together after moving into the area and it has remained a firm favourite for family meals whenever we have relatives visiting from out of town. The calzone is legendary, and their choice of gelato is second to none.”

Ironically, as we end our conversation, a pie of epic pastry-topped proportions wafts past us onto someone else’s table. Tim passes on ordering one (we wonder whether he’s been put off for life), choosing instead to find some fresh bread loaves on Stoke Newington Church Street. Farewell Sir Tim and godspeed. For when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or die… or, in this case, become a steak pasty. Yum.


Photos courtesy of Tim Plester

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