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PRODUCTION: Production Notes

I am one of these people who love places of transit, where people stop but never stay. Stations, airports, hotels are for me places which have exotic and sometimes mysterious connotations. I always wonder when watching people in these locations – as if suspended in time – who these people are, where they are going, where they are coming from. Will they come back to these busy places or is it the last time that my memory, like in an old archive photograph, is able to capture them. The expressions on the faces in these peculiar and yet familiar places are revealing. Anxiety, joy in the thought of meeting a loved one on the other side of the journey, frustrations, apprehension to leave what one knows, for a destination yet to discover, excitement.

In these places also there isn’t always much to do – apart from immersing oneself in a good book, or exchanging if time allows a few reflections with a few fellow travellers – and it’s not unusual to find oneself in a state of physical as well as psychological transit, as if we had pushed the “pause” button in our lives. We are contemplating what we have left behind and we are projecting ourselves in a more or less distant future. Or we are almost plunged in a dreamlike state of mind, being gently rocked by what we can’t control, surrendering to the rhythm of transport and to the unexpected adventures of travel.

The American painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is a master at capturing and conveying those moments where time stands still as if someone had forgotten to say “Action”. The scenes described by Hopper are often associated with melancholy and also a sense of suspense. What has happened? What is going to happen asks the viewer. The irony is that in the urban landscapes of Hopper, from the New-York Cafes to the houses by the highways, the probability is that nothing much will ever happen. Indeed Hopper also explores boredom and the metaphysical loneliness of souls which have perhaps forgotten to dream. Nevertheless in Hopper’s paintings (“Nighthawks”, “Chop Suey”, “Gas”, “Room for Tourists”) the main character seems to be the time that doesn’t go very fast.

I live in London. In the same way as so many other French people (and generally speaking foreigners) I came to London to improve my English. I was supposed to stay six months. I have been here for twelve years. The reasons are complex and multiple. Regularly the foreigners “in exile” talk about going back to their respective country, and then time goes by and then they stay.

This feeling to be in exile is both reassuring and uncomfortable as one knows that one can’t be judged in the same way as a native. Responsibilities and pressure from society to conform become then much more bearable.

I have often passed by the A2 motorway (an old Roman road) which goes from London to Dover and which now defines the South border of the World Heritage Site (Maritime Greenwich). The area is historically rich as King Henry VIII (1509-1547) and his daughter Elizabeth I (1533-1603) were born and lived there.

A large adjacent common (Blackheath) was the scene of many royal events and celebrations but also the place where the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler took place.
In the 17th and 18th century, Blackheath became the favorite spot for highwaymen to rob noblemen and rich merchants on their way to the coast.

Nowadays, and this since the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897), Blackheath has become a place dedicated to popular amusements (bonfires, fun fairs, circus…). Since 1981, the start of the London Marathon has also been taking place in Blackheath.

It’s also – and quite notably – close to the Royal Observatory and to the first Meridian of the world, longitude 0°, as defined at an International Conference in 1884.

The Blackheath Tea Hut circa 1924And there, planted on the edge of the motorway – almost on the Meridian Line – is the Blackheath Tea Hut, a quirky structure, of about 7sqm, open 360 days per year, 24h/24, which sells tea/coffee, a few pastries under plastic, and burgers (with a choice of “animal burger”, sausages, eggs, with or without onions), and this since the 1920s. A little shack with lighting when the London nights are becoming cold and dark, a little oasis lost by the road that sees every year millions of tourists and travellers passing by.

This place caught my attention really quickly and I decided to spend a year there.

Sometimes I would like to stop the time, or fast-forward it, or come back in time. If you can do that with film, with life this is impossible. Time doesn’t care, time goes by and time flies. How can one define a moment? I film this moment. It becomes “immobile in movement”. Sometimes on film, nothing seems to be happening…AND YET. Just like in Hopper’s paintings, where time is suspended, the subtext, the stories, the History, people’s lives do not come across immediately. In a year what is happening? How do people, nature, the notion of time change? How do relationships form and evolve?

I was to spend a year in the life of the Blackheath Tea Hut to try and capture the immobility of time that goes by and discover a suspended world, strange and peculiar.

 

I) THE LEGEND OF THE TEA HUT

The Tea Hut is a mystery, on different levels:
Some archive documents apparently tell of the existence of a refreshment place for several centuries. Charles II (1630-1685) – says the legend – would have ordered that such places be in permanence on Blackheath for men and their horses to quench their thirst. From live memory we can go back to the 1920s when a horse-drawn Tea Hut was serving refreshments from dawn till late afternoon when most of the tourists and visitors to Greenwich had gone. After that it’s difficult to say. Some people say that the current structure has been built from the wooden components of the first Tea Hut. Others say that the Tea Hut disappeared for a few years after the death of the horse (or the horse’s owner). Nobody knows for sure and there are no official documents about it because the local authority cannot - by law – grant a license or planning permission for such a structure to settle permanently on the motorway.

What is certain is that towards the end of the 50s, a structure made of a few planks appeared at the same spot. Aerial photographs of the time provide evidence. The locals still remember the shack which they were affectionately calling the “Greasy Spoon”. But there again the Tea Hut was closing relatively early, at the end of the afternoon when business was reduced. At the end of the 80s, two elements have contributed to make the Tea Hut what it is today:

  • First of all the traffic and the number of cars and trucks on the road have increased significantly and in the same proportion as the number of people likely to want a cup of tea at all time of night and day.
  • Secondly one man (Peter) quickly saw an opportunity to get a regular job. Every afternoon, after the Tea Hut had closed for the day, Peter would come with a white van and would take over selling sandwiches, tea, coffee and soft drinks. Around the mid 90s, the owner of the Tea Hut decided to retire and sold the Tea Hut to Peter who is the current owner.

The Tea Hut is open 360 days per year (it is closed 5 days for Christmas) and 24h/24. Its location, just like its history, is peculiar. A few metres away from the Prime Meridian of the World, longitude 0° 0' 0", Latitude 51° 28' 38", on the A2, between two boroughs (Greenwich and Lewisham) and since 1997, on the buffer zone of the World Heritage Site (Maritime Greenwich) – which gathers several organisations such as the Cutty Sark (the only remaining Tea Clipper in the World), the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, The Fan Museum, the Old Royal Naval College… The Tea Hut seems perched in an environment that overwhelms it.

A detail strikes me. The Tea Hut has wheels; wheels that have not been in use for a few decades and that are now partially buried in the ground. A moving detail that resonates with the situation of immigrants, of displaced people, of people in “permanent transit”. Here for a few months, temporarily (a lasting temporary), ready to leave again, here for ever.

It offers a poetic detail by certain aspects, but also very much rooted in the administrative and legal realities. Indeed the law cannot authorize the Tea Hut to become a permanent structure. The wheels are a proof of its temporary status.

Nowadays the existence of the Tea Hut is jeopardized by a development plan. Nearly £2 million will be spent on the Heath in the forthcoming years to improve the traffic flow and the Heath itself. The Tea Hut hasn’t been included in the plans, on the contrary.

The Tea Hut is still there but for how long? Time will tell.

 

II) TO PECULIAR PLACE, PECULIAR CHARACTERS AND MOMENTS

After the Royal pageants, the Peasants’ Revolt, the ceremonies organised by druids officiating in the underground caverns of Blackheath, the area has become a giant playground where amateur football matches take place regularly. It’s also there that funfairs and the circus settle during Bank Holidays weekends. The roundabouts show toddlers and young children that life is a big circuit where people follow or pass each other. A merry-go-round of Tea Cups in which we can sit transports us in the world of Lewis Carroll where objects can come alive and fulfil an important meaningful place. The big wheel shines at night overlooking the funfair and reminds us that life is made of highs and lows. The stall keepers use the Tea Hut when they have shut their stalls and roundabouts for the night. Before going back to their caravans, some like to enjoy a last cup of tea. Others wish beer could be sold!

The starting point of the London Marathon and the November bonfires are events where crowds gather. Thousands of feet invade Blackheath in search of the best observation post. One admires the multicoloured bonfires; one admires the athletes who run after the watch. These are important days for the Tea Hut whose income suddenly increases tenfold. After all, you have to sell a lot of teas at 50p to make a living.

The remainder of the time the Tea Hut sways to the rhythm of the seasons and by the moods of the people who work there or who are just passing.

A lot of people will only stop once. There are those who have made a family tradition to stop there once a year for an “animal burger” and a cup of tea. There are all those professions working at night, emergency services, ambulances, policemen, breakdown vans, truck-drivers. The milkman and bread delivery man, the men picking up the rubbish are regular passer-by and remind us how these jobs are numerous and important. We discover the men behind these activities so rarely valued and acknowledged.

It is a little microcosm of social history because at the Tea Hut all the jobs are represented. And all these men and women who are working have different schedules and diaries. They meet at the Tea Hut at different times just to have a necessary break and take the time – the time for a cup of tea.

And then one discovers the “regulars”. Some used to come with their parents when they were only toddlers and still come to this day, sometimes every day.
The regulars have become, as time went by – and completely naturally the main characters of the film.

The importance of the Tea Hut in Nick’s life is surprising. Nick is in his thirties. He must have come to the Tea hut for about 18 years. There he took his girlfriend, the future mother of his two children. She has since left him, to be with someone else who she may have met at the Tea Hut. Nick is hoping to be able to see his children sometime. He has also lost his parents at a relatively young age, and for years the Tea Hut has for him – and completely paradoxically for such a “fragile” structure – been the only stable element of his life.

The story of John who works at the Tea Hut is original. John has been suffering from insomnia since he was young. He has had many different jobs before becoming a truck driver. Often he had stopped at the Tea Hut to have a cup of tea when he couldn’t sleep, and one day Kathy, the manageress offered him to work there. John knows what he’s talking about. He complains about the hypocrisy of the Blackheath Society (the association in charge of the preservation of Blackheath) and of the politics. Why put a board along the side of motorways which warn people about the danger of driving when tired, and of the necessity to have a break, if there is nowhere to stop, and relax, the time of a cup of tea?

There are other people who are telling me stories each more surprising than the one before. They start playing the game while I am becoming an identifiable character, recognizable and regular. I am starting to understand what makes the charm of the Tea Hut. Of course there are the birds who tame themselves from the moment they were born to the moment when they will teach their young how to come and beg for food at the Tea Hut. All day but especially in the morning, the builders, decorators, truck drivers give them an “English breakfast” by hand. At night the foxes are the ones who come and wait for a little bit of meat (if the customers of the Tea Hut that night are well inclined to give them any).

There is of course the huge pleasure of seeing the sunrise on the horizon and draw a perfect arc in the sky. Blackheath is one of the rare places in London where you can observe the movement of the moon and the sun without their being obstructed by buildings.

There are the variations of the traffic, which changes from a handful of cars to a long ribbon of thousands of cars depending on the time of day, and the planes that are taking off in the morning transforming the sky into a giant motorway. And of course the seasons passing by. The leaves taking a yellow then rusty shade, the trees undress themselves to then make room for new flowers.

The Tea Hut appears to me like a little observatory of life and the universe. One feels free and one exists there: the feeling of being part of a small world within a giant if not anonymous universe is reassuring. We are small but we have a place. Our inner clock is our own. We are unique but we are part of a whole.

I witness a lot of amusing, odd, or more solemn moments:

  • Nick and Alan are reading the “cars for sale” section of the Loot, before reading their stars, at 4 o’clock in the morning under the full moon.
  • An Irish sister who has just been nominated for “the Catholic woman of the year” has stopped at the Tea Hut with her niece and enjoys a cup of tea, her favourite drink especially when the tea is Irish! She tells me how for years she has worked for a charity and was serving tea to lonely men or to impoverished families. A little cup of warmth in a lonely and tough life sometimes means a lot.
  • An (empty) prisoners’van has stopped. The drivers have a tea. In the foreground some birds fly by.
  • One night a young fox tries to cross the road but doesn’t. There are too many cars, it’s too noisy. The following night, almost at the same time, I find it dead on the road, crushed.
  • Another full moon. Someone is playing golf a few metres away from the Tea Hut.
  • Some men approach. They wear helmets with a white flashing light. They look like underground workers. They fly kites on the Heath, at night and by day, at all seasons, and wear helmets to see and be seen.
  • The police intervene. Some young men are supposedly using the A2 as a Formula 1 circuit and are racing on the road. The police are determined to make a stop to this activity. The young men tell me that they are only comparing the high-powered engines of their cars. They wouldn’t do anything so stupid like racing on the motorway for example.
  • A man is sitting in front of a hole on the motorway. He is using sophisticated measurement tools and tells me that he is calculating a “Californian ratio”, designed to inform him about the road resistance when work will take place to improve the state of the road.
  • Some Canadian geese are relaxing on the grass.

Bikers come to the Tea Hut twice a week to meet their friends and hit the road towards the next meeting point. Behind their intimidating appearance, I discover some rich and warm personalities.

Nick keeps telling me about the importance of the Tea Hut in his life and in other people’s lives.

 

III) A STORM IN A TEA CUP

In the 16th and 17th centuries, wealthy people would use candles. The poor would rise early and would go to bed relatively early. The appearance of electricity and of public lighting (at the end of the 1880s) was to revolutionise people’s way of life, the days becoming longer. At the beginning of the 19th century, Anne Scagell, who gives lectures all over the world about the history of afternoon tea – tells me that Anna, Duchess of Bedford (1793-1847) decided to have a cup of tea and a few biscuits to appease her hunger between lunch and dinner. This became a formal occasion, whereby ladies from the aristocracy with time on their hands would catch up and drink this exotic beverage, a status symbol to an extent because of its price. Nowadays people work at all times of the day and night. The working day is not defined anymore by sunrise and sunset. Therefore, Anne tells me, and in a very British way (the British being strongly attached to their traditions) that it would seem that tea has become not only a popular and refreshing drink – associated worldwide to the British “Way of Life” – but also the occasion to have a break. It’s not the possibility of having a break that defines the occasion to have a tea, but the other way round, having tea defines the occasion of making a break. The opportunity of having a cup of tea is like a mini psychological and temporal transit. Unconsciously it’s as if we were taking stock, respecting the long-standing traditions but also looking forward. To this day Her Majesty the Queen still enjoys her afternoon tea. Tea is the drink, which gathers all classes and all backgrounds in England. It’s the democratic drink “par excellence”.

Today 165 millions cups of tea are drunk everyday in England. An adult drinks 3 cups a day on average; 62 billion cups of tea that are drunk annually.

Neil Rhind, the local historian, a former journalist and chairman of the Blackheath Society (association for the preservation of Blackheath which has been lobbying for the disappearance of the Tea Hut for nearly 30 years) is not amused. The Tea Hut, a little bastion of resistance, takes on the allure of a revolutionary symbol, a bit like the village of Asterix and Obelix to take an example drawn from the popular cartoons. The Tea Hut and the land that it occupies becomes the stake for a class struggle. The bourgeois find it an eyesore, ugly, dirty and even noisy (despite the fact that the nearest houses are 500m away) and responsible for attracting an all range of “bandits”. The visitors to the Tea Hut, sensitive to its charm, rebel against so much unfairness and feel despised by people who do not understand them or their need for recreation and harmless fun.

I have spent a year filming life at the Tea Hut. Thousands of cups of tea have been drunk and I have drunk several litres! The characters have evolved. Alan doesn’t go there anymore. He has his own reasons. Nick is looking forward to seeing his children again, if his ex-wife allows him to do so. Peter might sell the Tea Hut and retire, one day. Time goes by, life is changing. The baby birds learn very quickly where to get an “English Breakfast”, Summer is on our doorstep. John got married to Pei in China. Perhaps he will go and live there one day? That year two of the regular “characters” of the Tea Hut died as well…

One of the last images I filmed at the Tea Hut was the new wooden table. There are flower pots all around. Some people will find the Tea Hut less ugly like that. There are also posters informing customers of the importance of throwing their dirty plastic cups and papers in the bin. If not, the Tea Hut will be fined and the price of a cup of tea will then increase!

Some customers or passers-by threaten: they will fight to death not to see the Tea Hut disappear. George who was born in 1920 is very sad just to think that this little landmark might one day disappear. He has so many childhood memories there and he still enjoys going there. It’s the opportunity for him to have a walk, to get out of his house and to take his friend’s dog out.

There is the Financial Times on the table. It’s the premonitory sign that times are now financial and that the Tea Hut is now rich of its reputation; or is it the sign that the big investments which will be spent on the Heath will soon swallow this little oasis of freedom?

Time will tell as it always does…

I started to film in July 2003. The idea for this film had come to me a year before. I really quickly realised that for the film to make sense, I had to literally immerse myself in the life of the Tea Hut, I had to meet the “regular customers”, I had to make myself accepted as someone with a outsider look but not an hostile one. I had to spend time there and I had to go at all times of day and night to portray and convey what is the originality of the Tea Hut. Without a “budget” I couldn’t really ask the few people who offered to help me on set to wake up at 2am because suddenly I felt like going to the Tea Hut. Nor could I ask them to spend hundreds of hours under the sun, the rain and the snow waiting for something significant to happen.

At the beginning filming was difficult. People were suspicious, the noise of the traffic was constant (and then you get used to it), I wasn’t too sure what I was going to find nor really what I was looking for. And then little by little things fell into place. I got all the authorisations I needed (Cutty Sark, National Maritime Museum, Scotland Yard…) one after the other, and the financial support of PG Tips (even small) has been a tremendous encouragement. Once I had been accepted by the “regulars” and by the people who work at The Tea Hut (not all of them have accepted to be filmed), my contact with the passer-by was facilitated. I was almost part of the furniture. My neutral, amused, positive outlook has, I think, helped people feeling comfortable in front of the camera and play the game, spontaneously acting or emphasising gestures or attitudes.

I hope that this film – even if this is not the reason why I have started it – will contribute to offer a new and positive outlook towards this peculiar place.

Retrospectively I realise that the filming had been like it should have been. A larger crew with some more heavy equipment than my portable camera (canon XM1) and my directional mic (Sennheiser) would have slowed the filming and would not have allowed me to get on film the weird moments I witnesses and that I had to capture quickly, almost instinctively.

The main narrative thread is provided by interviews with Nick, Peter (the owner) and Kathy (the manageress), but other interviews show the diversity of lives and people crossing or passing at the Tea Hut. There are a lot of shots of the seasons (and what is specific about the succession of the seasons), some shots, almost abstract where I play with the lights of cars, of the sun, the dancing lights of the funfairs. I want to convey all the poetry of this peculiar place. The cars like the pearls of a giant necklace.

“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux” disait Saint-Exupéry. If nothing seems to be happening on the surface it doesn’t mean that feelings or emotions do not exist and that people do not experience joys and sorrows in their personal lives.

The editing as such takes into account the changes of rythm and atmosphere that I have noticed. If in the summer the “regulars” enjoy their cup of tea for hours outside, in the winter they are sometimes in their cars (as in an American drive-in, listening to some music, and watching life at the Tea Hut going by) or else they are popping in and out of the Tea hut. They warm themselves up near the cooker in the poky interior of the Tea Hut and then go out again talking about the disgraceful weather between two sniffles.

It has taken me four years to complete this film and I realise that the Tea Hut is not only a quirky little place where one can socialise and have a cup of tea, but a place where a lot of people just go to escape - even for a short time - their everyday life. And as some just sit there looking at the horizon day-dreaming, I decide to create yet another level in the film by evoking the notion and the need for day-dream, especially in big cities where our attention and concentration is so often called upon. The structure of the film will be made to reflect the different moments and narrative threads (historical, quirky, dream-like) which the Tea Hut encompasses.