17th Jan, 2020

Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing directs experimental BBC film on George Eliot's life

AN EXPERIMENTAL  film about George Eliot’s life – shot across Warwickshire, Coventry, and London – has debuted on the BBC.

Arena: Everything is Connected – George Eliot’s Life, is part of the BBC’s year-long celebration of literature.

Just as Eliot’s Middlemarch explored the lives of ordinary men and women, the quirky film – directed by Birmingham-born Turner prizewinning conceptual artist Gillian Wearing – is made up of a diverse multi-cultural cast of people from different backgrounds.

Narrated by leading actors Jason Isaacs – Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films – and Olivier award-winning Sheila Atim, who starred in the critically-acclaimed Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic last year, it has an original score by Portishead’s Adrian Utley. Wolverhampton-born writer Sathnam Sanghera, a Times Journalist and screenwriter, is also featured.

Together with writers, actors and local people from Nuneaton, Coventry and London, they read extracts from George Eliot’s novels, letters and the first-hand accounts of those who knew her to reveal the novelist’s unconventional life.

Born Mary Ann Evans in Nuneaton on November 22 1819, the Victorian novelist’s bicentenary is being celebrated this year. Know by her more famous pen-name as one of Britain’s greatest authors, she wrote The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Daniel Deronda.

Affected by severe bouts of depression, she was an avid reader and moved in with married philosopher and critic, George Lewes in her early 30s.

The Observer teamed up with the George Eliot Fellowship to run a campaign calling for George Eliot’s Coventry home – the listed Bird Grove house in Foleshill – to be restored to its former glory, as the city prepares to become UK city of culture in 2021. When the campaign was launched in 2017 the house was boarded up and ​enclosed by a bolted steel fence.​

It is currently Coventry Bangladesh Centre, offering a range of adult education courses, and is featured in Wearing’s film, along with other footage of where she was born and lived in Nuneaton – including Griff House, which is now a Premier Inn.

In a Guardian interview, Gillian Wearing said: “I was asked to do Eliot specifically because I’m from the Midlands, I think, but I found a connection with her quite quickly in her books, particularly in Middlemarch. I loved her interest in giving a voice to so many different people.

“She began life as this judgmental, pious young girl who found fictional books frivolous, then met people in Coventry who had very radical ideas, which led her to leave religion behind completely. That’s quite a change already.”

Eliot’s original manuscript for Middlemarch is on show in The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, alongside other artefacts in a new exhibition: ‘Exploring Eliot’s Coventry’.

Commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Four by Mark Bell, Arena: Everything Is Connected – George Eliot’s Life, which was broadcast on BBC 1 earlier this week, is available on BBC iPlayer.

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