United Kingdom

How Sunderland ukelele players got roles in acclaimed film on forgotten artist

Typist Artist Pirate King – which will be screened at The Fire Station in Sunderland on Tuesday, November 28 – is a fictionalised portrait of Audrey Amiss.

The avant-garde artist studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in the 1950s, but was unable to finish her course after being hospitalised with mental illness.

Audrey was born to shopkeeper parents, attended Bede Grammar in Sunderland, and was in and out of psychiatric institutions throughout her life.

She created art while also working as a typist for the Ministry of Labour and then at a dole office in London. She spent 30 years in the Civil Service and lived in Clapham for 50 years, 30 of which were with her mother Belle. Audrey never married.

Most of her artwork remained unseen until after her death, but she did occasionally submit work for exhibitions. Her work, which she invariably dated and explained, was mostly raw impressionistic impressions of her daily life, in oil, pastel or gouache.

Audrey, who died in 2013, left a large collection of art and writing that were discovered after her death and donated to the Wellcome Collection.

Typist Artist Pirate King focuses on a road trip Audrey (played by Monica Dolan) takes with her psychiatric nurse Sandra (Kelly McDonald) from London to her home city. Gina McKee plays Audrey’s sister Dorothy.

The Northern Echo: Kelly McDonald, left, with Monica Dolan, who plays Audrey Amiss in the filmKelly McDonald, left, with Monica Dolan, who plays Audrey Amiss in the film (Image: SUNDERLAND CULTURE)

The film also features Sunderland ukulele players Dennis O’Brien and Charlie Lalley. The pair were spotted playing their instruments by the film’s director, Carol Morley, at the bottom of the cat and dog steps while she was researching film locations, and the director wrote them into her script.

“It was an amazing experience, we spent a day on set and got to meet Monica and Kelly, who was an absolute diamond. I’d not heard about Audrey Amiss before Carol approached us, but I’ve seen the film and it’s fascinating,” said Dennis, who lives in Whitburn.

The Northern Echo: Kelly McDonald with Sunderland ukulele player Dennis O’Brien, who features in the film after being spotted by the directorKelly McDonald with Sunderland ukulele player Dennis O’Brien, who features in the film after being spotted by the director (Image: SUNDERLAND CULTURE)

Much of the movie was filmed in Sunderland and Seaham. The film’s title comes from Audrey’s passport listing for her occupation and is inspired by the Wellcome Collection’s extensive archive of diaries, letters and art.

The November 28 screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Carol Morley.

The director said: “I became obsessed by Audrey Amiss’s uncatalogued archive of paintings, sketches, scrapbooks and diaries. I vowed to make a film about her that would pay homage to her unique art and to her life, much of it spent with the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.”

Tickets for the screening cost £11, and to book, go to

The Northern Echo: Kelly McDonald with Sunderland ukulele player Charlie LalleyKelly McDonald with Sunderland ukulele player Charlie Lalley (Image: SUNDERLAND CULTURE)



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