From the streets to the screen

A local project has given homeless people the chance to star in a film highlighting some of the issues they face. Richard Smirke reports

Hero image

On 30 July this year, Manchester City Council was granted an injunction banning anyone from pitching a tent “or other moveable temporary forms of accommodation” in the city centre. The controversial decision followed months of legal wrangling over a succession of homeless protest camps that had sprung up in and around the city to highlight a crisis in temporary housing. 

The injunction might have been unique to Manchester, but recent public spending cuts have led to a dire shortage of social housing throughout the UK. This is one of the themes at the heart of The Box, a new film drama based on a fictional reality TV show that’s not a million miles away from Big Brother.

“We wanted to create something that drew parallels with what’s going on today, particularly with welfare reform and how people in this country who are more vulnerable than most are being treated,” says writer and joint director Ed Lilly.

The cast of The Box is made up almost entirely of homeless and marginalised people recruited from around Greater Manchester. In total, 25 volunteer actors feature in the hour-long film, playing characters that they have helped devise and develop via workshops. These range from a delusional former millionaire to a transgender woman facing the trauma of giving up a child to a cripplingly shy sexual abuse victim. The characters are all thrown together in a foreboding studio environment, and as friendships form and tensions rise, they start to question the legitimacy of the social experiment they have signed up to.

In one scene, a housemate is told that his benefits will stop if he leaves the show. Another character, who prefers to sleep in the outside garden, wakes up one morning to find that her bed has been replaced by spikes, echoing the real-life installation of ‘anti-homeless spikes’ outside Selfridges’ Manchester store earlier this year.

“It was important that we told a story that was believable, said something poignant about society, had scope for some humour and gave everybody the chance to play a character that played to their strengths as an actor,” says Lauren Pouchly, who came up with the initial story premise and is the founder of the Acting On Impulse charity, which produced the film. The Manchester-based, family-run organisation was formed in 2007 after Pouchly attended a fundraising evening for homeless people and spent the evening listening to the stories of people gathered around a soup van.

“I had never done anything like  that before and it was a bit overwhelming because there were so many people there – this whole slice of society – and I was thinking: ‘Where are they hidden away?’” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe how many people were living in a hostel or, even if they had been housed, couldn’t get a job or didn’t have enough money to live on and were still being looked down upon.”

“Soup vans and day centres are vital, but being creative is incredibly important too.”

In response, Pouchly felt compelled to write and produce a short film, entitled Humanitas, about a homeless man who owes money to loan sharks. Inspired by the success of the short, which was nominated for a human rights award and bagged professional agents for three of its cast, she then created a succession of short films and theatre productions, including a music video and an amusing behind-the-scenes follow-up mockumentary. The Box, which features a cameo from 90s pop star Kavana, is the charity’s first feature-length drama and without question its most ambitious undertaking to date.

“I hope that people watching the film will primarily be entertained, but also impressed by the talent of the cast,” says director Lilly. “I hope it will change some perceptions of people who are homeless and marginalised and make people think that, given the right opportunities, anybody can succeed at what they want to do.”

For Vicky Wilson, who plays the mischievously rebellious character Sally, the benefits of participating in Acting On Impulse projects extend far beyond the novelty of seeing herself on the big screen.

“The whole project is giving a voice to people like me and talking about the issues of today,” she says. “It’s like a little community. There are other people in the same situation as you, with the same background, so it encourages you to get out and make some new friends. It gives you confidence.”

Wilson is one of the fortunate members of The Box’s cast who has never had to sleep on the streets. “I’ve got friends and family who have always put me up. I’ve never lost my children to social services, so I’ve been lucky in that aspect. But I know how easy it is to fall into that downward spiral and start thinking, ‘I’ve got nothing to live for.’ And it can happen to anyone.”

Prior to getting involved with Acting On Impulse, Wilson was going through what she describes as “a really bad patch” that resulted in her not leaving her flat for days on end. She says Pouchly’s persistence lifted her out of her self-enforced exile and the group has become almost an extended family for her and many of the cast. “Lauren was texting me and phoning me for hours and I just thought, somebody does care after all,” remembers the mother of three, who has previously overcome drink and drug dependency issues.

Inspired by her acting experiences, she has now formed her own writing group and has ambitions to produce an original play about the seven deadly sins. She’s also produced her own comic book – a “creepy” take on Babes In The Wood about five “ghetto bears”.

Other cast members of The Box have similarly been inspired to pursue cultural endeavours since becoming involved with the charity. Ged Austin, Tony Sharples and Ben Morris – who respectively play Buddy Good, Jack and Thomas Rip-Chord in the drama – have been developing their own homelessness film project, while several other members of the troupe have gone on to join other acting classes and participated in Streetwise Opera.

“As vital as soup vans and day centres and housing charities are, it’s not as though the only thing that matters to these people is that they are fed and have shelter,” says Pouchly. “Having the opportunity to work out what your own skills are and be creative is, I think, incredibly important too.”

The Box was premiered at Manchester’s recently opened arts centre Home. Over 200 people turned up for the Saturday morning screening, which culminated in the cast and crew being treated to a standing ovation.

“The great thing about the premiere was that all the people who normally come to the group are at different places in their lives,” says Pouchly. “Some have mental health issues, so they keep themselves to themselves. Many are just not used to fitting in anywhere. Whereas at the premiere, suddenly everybody was completely equal and no one was singled out. They were all stars of the show.”

Watch The Box right here from Acting On Impulse’s YouTube channel. For more information about the charity, visit  

Reaching Out

Other cultural projects for homeless people in the north 


Streetwise Opera
Using music to make positive changes in people’s lives, Streetwise Opera is an award-winning national charity that runs weekly programmes in homeless centres and arts venues across England. In the north it runs a regular workshop programme in partnership with Manchester’s Booth Centre and Leeds-based Opera North. Helping around 500 people a year, the charity delivers singing, acting and interview skills seminars, as well as a national work placement scheme that gives people with experience of homelessness the chance to gain employment in arts organisations. Its productions have also been lauded for their originality, with 2013’s multi-media production The Answer To Everything receiving enthusiastic plaudits from both critics and the public. (

Crisis Skylight Centres
Operating in multiple locations across South Yorkshire and Merseyside, Crisis’s Skylight Centres offer a range of practical and creative workshops to homeless and vulnerably housed people on subjects including creative writing, IT, arts, photography, music, floristry and jewellery making. Earlier this year, members in South Yorkshire showcased their creative talents at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, while Peter Hooton and Keith Mullin from indie band The Farm participated in a recent songwriting session in Liverpool. Next month will also see the launch of Art In Crisis, a nationwide exhibition programme featuring work created by Crisis clients alongside workshops and discussions celebrating art’s role in tackling homelessness. (

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to From the streets to the screen

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.