Cause UK’s resident feature writer and co-director Ann writes regularly for the Yorkshire Post. Below is her latest feature on a very special project for the Cause UK team – a new Sky Arts short film that we pitched and produced, pulling together an incredible team of creatives, including the hugely talented film director and editor, Katie Greenhalf, the visionary Melvin Besbrode from Besbrode Pianos, and one of the UK’s leading composers and conductors, the irrepressible, Ben Crick.
But the real story was that of 23-year-old Ellis Arey, read the feature below…
When Leeds 2023 put out the clarion call, asking creatives: “What’s worth fighting for?” 23-year-old Ellis Arey had a knock out response. Now he’s the star of a new short film coming to Sky Arts, Ann Chadwick takes us behind the scenes.
When 23-year-old Ellis Arey won the 2022 Leeds Conservatoire Piano Competition sponsored by Besbrode Pianos, the owner of the UK’s largest piano store in Holbeck noticed him not just for his incredible playing.
“He had these really unique black and white jazz shoes,” Melvin Besbrode says. “And swagger.”
Like Melvin, Ellis was from a working-class background. A rarity in the rarefied world of classical piano. The pair hit it off.
A partnership of organisations including Studio 12, Leeds Libraries and digital agency, The Space, announced an opportunity for artists as part of Leeds 2023: Year of Culture – to pitch ideas for a short film in response to the question: What’s worth fighting for? Those selected would have their films featured on Sky Arts.
Ellis, supported by Melvin and Cause UK, a creative agency run Clair Challenor-Chadwick that specialises in supporting the arts, as well as curating their own cultural events, put in an application.
Not only was Ellis an incredible pianist studying at Leeds Conservatoire, he was a boxer who grew up on a council estate with a single parent.
Ellis says, “I don’t really look like a classical pianist. I certainly don’t talk like one or act like one.”
He explains, “My mum worked different jobs to make sure there was food on the table. We had to leave the oven door open to keep the kitchen warm and warm the house. I really grew up with nothing, although my mum always made us feel we had something.”
At primary school, he heard classical music for the first time as it played during assembly.
“All I really knew of music was what mum played in the car – old school R&B and hip hop – so when I heard classical music, I thought what is this? It was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. So, at that point I got into classical music and I fell in love with it.”
As he was from a low-income family, he was eligible for a free instrument lesson at his school and started learning piano at 11.
“My mum that following Christmas saved and got a really basic keyboard from Argos. It was the first instrument I’d ever owned and I practised on that. I stuck with it and worked harder, all through high school. Then when I got my very first job at the local co-op part-time, I could pay for private lessons.”
The music offered escape.
“It was a very unique way of expression. It connected to part of my soul, it’s the only way to describe it. You listen to this music and go into your own world. I remember the minute I heard a Chopin ballad; I was like, this is what I want to do with myself, this is as good as it gets. I must have been 12.”
Meanwhile, his mates on the estate were getting into trouble. “I didn’t really have any friends on my council estate because most of them doing illegal stuff. Classical music was this wonderful kind of distraction. It was more like an obsession when I discovered it.”
Then came the boxing.
“I got jumped by this group of kids that beat the heck out of me. It made me so insecure – my pride was hurt – and I thought, damn, I don’t want to feel this scared. Boxing would instil confidence in myself. I just wanted to do it so I could know how to fight, and get to be tough. But as I started to get into it, I realised it’s not just learning to fight. I think if I never did it there’s a real high chance I would have got into trouble with the police at some point, but boxing grounded me, and for me it really centres me. Boxing has done more for me in terms of getting me on a good path than anything else has.”
As well as showcase Ellis, Cause UK wanted the film to showcase original music. They had worked closely with the composer and conductor Ben Crick to relaunch the newly reformed Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra to support pandemic-hit northern musicians. Ben was the perfect fit to compose an original piece that Ellis could play for the film. Born in Huddersfield, the son of a council worker and teacher, and the grandson of miners, if Ben Crick were a stick of rock, he’d have the word ‘Yorkshire’ running through him.
A bit like a blast of Yorkshire air atop a wild and windy moor, Ben is determined to make classical music accessible to all; one of his gigs was an orchestra playing a Mozart symphony outside Sainsbury’s in Leeds station.
The team put the treatment together ‘Working Classical Heroes’ – and won the commission from Sky Arts out of many of entries.
The next stage was bringing in their chosen director, a local filmmaker Cause UK had worked with for many years, Katie Greenhalf.
Clair Challenor-Chadwick, director of Cause UK, says, “Katie just threw all her dedication, passion, and energy into it and worked incredibly hard on a very tight budget. She secured a Director of Photography she knew would add the wow-factor. Then after two very long days filming, she didn’t sleep for a week editing the whole thing together.”
Ellis is in his third year at Leeds Conservatoire. The hope is the film will give him exposure to a wider audience, and even inspire others who might not have thought it was for them to get into classical music – as listeners or musicians.
As Ellis says: “The piano is such a universe of complex emotions, you have 88 keys but there is not one spectrum of colour or emotion that cannot be represented. It’s a gift.”
Other films as part of the Future Perfect initiative include:
The Last Day – Gomolemo Nyakale
Moon Palace – East Leeds Project
Push Through, Push Through – Isla Hurst
The Sky Arts broadcast date will be confirmed shortly, with a special screening in Leeds mid-December.