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Last Chance Saloon, the mini-series, is the most ambitious – and experimental – film undertaking of my life. None of it would have been possible without the drive and generosity of Twink, an extraordinary man who has lived with bipolar disorder for most of his life. Before we go any further, here’s some essential information about Twink:

  • As a young man, he was the photographer for The Jam, taking some of their most iconic images.
  • He worked closely with the BBC to develop the EastEnders ‘bipolar storyline’.
  • He is an accomplished musician.
  • He is incredibly persuasive.
  • His real name is Neil Tinning. Twink is a nickname he acquired that suggests a young, slim, gay man.
  • Twink is neither gay nor young. Nor slim.

I first met Twink through the making  of a more ‘normal’ short film, Bipolar Blues, which features Professor Nick Craddock: expert in psychiatric genetics, director of the National Centre for Mental Health in Cardiff, and passionate smallholder farmer. When not attempting to remedy the human mind, you’ll find Nick enthusing about his pigs and other livestock – one tiny hint of how unusual this project would turn out.

Several weeks after Bipolar Blues went live, Twink got in touch. He’d showed our short film to a friend at the BBC, who said it was a “nice piece of work” and would I like to do more? Then Twink explained his big idea (always ambitious): we would make a series of seven or so films about a range of different mental illnesses, working with his friend Nick Craddock to gain access to mental health experts all over Cardiff.

I loved the idea of making more films about mental health, but we needed to go through the right channels. So, with a seriously tiny budget and rough outline in hand, I explained what Twink, Nick and I were trying to do to John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health (among other things) at the Wellcome Trust.

During our chat, John and I realised this could be a fantastic opportunity to engage the public with issues of mental health, while affording them insights into how modern neuroscience works (not to mention images of Cardiff that went beyond the usual tropes of rugby, daffs and Torchwood). To my amazement and eternal gratitude, John declared it a no-brainer and doubled the budget. We were officially greenlit.

Do it right, or not at all

Building on the conversations I’d had, a plan for the films quickly grew. What if, in addition to gaining glimpses into specific mental illnesses, it was possible to create a narrative thread that spanned all of the films? This approach may be normal for a television production house, but for a lone shooter working for a charitable foundation, it was unusual.

The idea took form in notepads, diagrams and dreams. Over the course of the series (now standing at 11 episodes), I wanted the viewer to gain real insight into what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder, to watch as Twink teased apart the state of modern neuroscience, and to observe his evolving thoughts on his own and others’ conditions. And then there was the gig.

In typical Twink style, he announced that he wanted to culminate the series by performing a live gig at Cardiff University, in front of a “specially selected” audience. He was already in the process of making an album with his friends Brian Girdlestone and Alan Harrison ­– a largely solitary affair, with each man recording his own contribution and sending it to Twink to produce.

Performing a live ‘Tinstones’ gig would, of course, be a perfect way to round off the mini-series – a classic hero’s journey – but to me it also seemed a terrifying leap in terms of Twink’s public exposure.

On the first day of filming, therefore, I made the mistake of trying to reel in his expectations of what increasingly sounded like an arena tour: lights, roadies, audio equipment and mixing desks, vans and hotels! The word ‘budget’ did not go down well, however, and I learnt a humbling lesson: it was Twink’s life, and we would either go for it fully – or not at all. This spirit of intensity and dedication came to define the series.

Moments of pure magic

Over the course of a year, with Nick’s invaluable help, we undertook a ‘mental tour’ of Cardiff, meeting and quizzing some of the leading scientists in the field. It was important to me that we filmed them in locations that meant something to them. Forget labs and pristine clinical wrappings, I wanted to get a sense of the person: stadiums, kitchens, farms! Twink, meanwhile, used his professional experience of photography to take portraits of each expert, directing and capturing them in a flattering, honest light.

One of the themes I hoped would emerge as the series progressed was the sense of Twink feeling more confident, liberated and free. To convey this, each of his primary interviews was held in a different location over the course of the year: initially his den – a tiny office-cum-recording studio – then his living room, and finally on the beach near where he lives.

This last interview was notable for two reasons: firstly, the tide was coming in while Twink sat on a rock, gamely enduring wet feet for the sake of our shoot; and secondly, a stealthy dog made off with my shotgun mic with windjammer attached (ensuring it looked suitably toy-like). Having accepted the mic had met a salty, saliva-soaked end, there followed a fevered hunt of Newcastle’s audio-visual outlets for a replacement before the gig…

You get moments of pure magic when film-making. The gig, with the most elaborate audio-visual set-up imaginable for a room holding 200 people, was one of those moments – a triumph of determination, logistics, and the film-making equivalent of loose change. Not content with rounding people up for the gig, Twink had decided the night should have an Americana theme. The sight of professors and students alike sporting cowboy hats, shirts and faded jeans as they danced to the music of the Tinstones was something to behold.

It’s impossible to film someone over the course of a year without developing a relationship with them. In the realm of mental illness, that relationship can be emotionally challenging. I stayed in Twink’s home, ate with his family, spoke with him when he was depressed, hoped beyond hope that he wouldn’t cave into his thoughts of suicide ideation.

Twink is a troubled, magnificent man; he is also my friend. Last Chance Saloon is our call to action – to save lives, to show the human face of science, to promote understanding and encourage research into illnesses that haunt us all.

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