Ken Wardrop's films in the key of life

Ken Wardrop impressed with His & Hers, and his latest heartwarming documentary follows a number of piano students and their teachers, writes Esther McCarthy.

Ken Wardrop's films in the key of life

Ken Wardrop impressed with His & Hers, and his latest heartwarming documentary follows a number of piano students and their teachers, writes Esther McCarthy.

A scene from Making The Grade, including Crosshaven-based teacher Eileen McCollum.
A scene from Making The Grade, including Crosshaven-based teacher Eileen McCollum.

WHEN filmmaker Ken Wardrop first contacted piano teacher Eileen McCollum about his latest film, she asked what type of cake she should bake for when he came for tea. He knew instinctively that he had found the right subject in the Crosshaven-based teacher, who has been bringing music into the lives of children for decades.

Eileen is one of a number of teachers and students who features in Wardrop’s delightful new documentary Making the Grade. Beginning with the most basic grade and going right up to grade eight, the film is as colourful and moving as you’d expect from the man who brought us the award-winning His & Hers.

“When I arrived down she’d made the old-fashioned fairy cakes with the butter icing,” he tells me. “What a fantastic job I have. I go down and meet all these lovely people. You have the tea and cakes and for me that’s a really important part of the process, because that’s where you connect and you share your own stories. And people start to trust you and understand the project.”

Many of his subjects would no doubt speak equally warmly of Wardrop, an open-hearted and funny filmmaker with the knack of drawing something truly special from his subjects. After heading to the US to examine the mother/son relationship in Mom & Men, he is back on home turf.

Director Ken Wardrop.
Director Ken Wardrop.

“Eileen is a quintessential example for me of what you’d imagine a music teacher to be,” he says of his encounters in Co Cork. “Eileen would have six to eight students only and is retired in many respects but enjoys music. And it keeps her young to have these children coming into her life. She has a beautiful piano in her drawing room. It’s a living, breathing instrument because of these classes. It’s her reason to keep going and keep practicing herself.

“She got back to me recently to say how excited she was about a new kid who has come in and shows great promise. She’s excited as she would have been in her thirties. Also it’s just great craic to meet someone who tells you all about her life and her adventures when she was younger, teaching in America. She’s really lived a life and I would just love that as a kid, to have an opportunity to go in to someone like Eileen once a week. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the music, but I’d want to chat!”

The filmmaker brings us his latest documentary through the Arts Council’s Reel Art Scheme, which supports documentary makers who create films with an artistic theme. While readily admitting that he “wouldn’t have the most highbrow of tastes” when it comes to the arts, the ethos of the scheme appealed to him.

“It had been on my radar for some time. In 2016 I said: ‘That’s it I’m definitely going for it’ because it’s a wonderful opportunity. The Arts Council backs the artist as opposed to the project, really. You get free reign — ultimately their agenda is to make sure they are supporting the artist.

“Normally, obviously, you’ll have financiers and co-partners and so forth that will all have a vested interest. And in general I’ve been lucky to be honest — I’ve never had an issue. But I always liked the idea of it.”

Making the Grade celebrates the process as well as the practice of making music and features the beginners and the tryers as well as the accomplished. Wardrop wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I wanted to find a subject that I could do justice to, that I could connect with. That are embedded in the everyday. So when I started to explore piano, I eventually found myself going after the every-person story rather than going after the prodigies. I wanted to not do that.”

One of the film’s most moving personal stories is that of Loyola, a proficient player who had stopped playing for many years, and returned to music as a comfort in crisis.

“Loyola’s son had a brain tumour. She was going through a bad patch,” says Wardrop. “Everything kind of descended at once, as can happen in life. Difficult times, and the only solace, the almost therapeutic thing that she could find was to return to piano, something that she had loved and had been very competent at.

“She found a wonderful teacher, and they connected, and it kind of resurrected this wonderful passion that she had for music and the fact that it brought her to a different place. In this case, a calm place.”

It took Wardrop some time to find his way into film. He studied geography in Trinity but didn’t complete the course, heading off to London and working as an office manager with an architecture business in his twenties.

“That was an interesting time in my life,” he says now. “I was lost in many respects but it was also a part of finding myself. I was a young gay man in a strange city, finding myself and what I was about. It gave me a moment. I was quite a good office manager I think — they didn’t want me to leave!” he laughs on his eventual decision to return to Ireland.

“I think then coming back to Ireland and studying something like film [he studied at IADT in Dun Laoghaire] I was bringing something to the table. Life experiences. I was one of a few mature students. The course was so intense and so busy that the kids had no life beyond the course.”

While many of his peers would develop dramatic fictional storylines, he felt daunted at such a prospect.

“I was scared of approaching things I didn’t know. I wanted to delve into the world of the stories I’d experienced. I copped on pretty quickly then that I had a great family who were very cheap to work with,” he laughs. “As long as I was willing to hoover for my mother and stand in the odd gap for my father, they’d be willing to do stuff for me.”

It led to Undressing My Mother, his award-winning short featuring his mother Ethel, who also starred in His & Hers, which focused on the midlands of Ireland world that he knew so well.

“I started early on in Dun Laoghaire documenting my family in little short films and noticing that they actually stood out as being a little bit different. Also I’m in college with a lot of Dublin people and here I am telling stories from the midlands of Ireland, kind of a forgotten spot. And realising that people see this world as interesting.”

- Making the Grade opens in selected cinemas tomorrow

More in this section