Mandy In-Depth: The Bedsit Tapes
Some know me as Joe, but most know me as Mandy Sweats — a surreal, drag adjacent abomination and short filmmaker. In this series, I’ll be explaining a little about each of my films, their influences and my creative process. Here, I go back to the first Mandy short I made — a creepy little black comedy about isolation, self-destruction, regret and mildew called ‘The Bedsit Tapes’.
In the Summer of 2020, I was losing my mind. In fairness we all were, but I found myself alone in a basement flat in Leeds with no job, no friends, no money, and still trapped in the whirlwind of a global pandemic. I would spend days on end moping about my tiny flat, where mold grew behind my pillow and with my upstairs neighbour’s late-night parties shaking the walls. I could easily go a week without hearing my own voice. And a time where digital drag allowed me to perform as Mandy for the first time, I also becoming artsitically stagnant. I felt somewhat ungrateful at the time, given that I had been given a couple of chances to perform — once at a digital drag show organsied by Risque, and once at a queer performer’s scratch night called Spew. But seeing so much drag talent around me, with new performers emerging fully-formed all the time, I felt as if I was being left in the dust before I’d even started. And what’s more, I became increasingly bored with my face, and increasingly depressed by the ritual of getting into drag and then sitting alone in my damp, lonely little hovel. Quite spur of the moment, I went to Hobbycraft and bought a mask, and painted it exactly like my drag face (complete with uneven brows and a drawn on moustache) — to achieve what end I cannot tell you. I was far more happy with it than I had been with any makeup I’d done in quite some time — it was unnerving yet still beautiful, the plastic sheen of foundation on cardboard giving a porcelain doll daintiness I could never pull off on my own face with a makeup brush. I started to consider new mediums to present this rejuvenated, surreal and somewhat more confrontation Mandy Sweats. What arrived, driven by lockdown mania and plenty of white wine, was The Bedsit Tapes.
The germination of the film came from that performance at Spew. I had planned to do a lipsync performance to some ABBA song, a bleak tour of my flat that rather bluntly tackled the themes of isolation and mental health (even now, I believe in driving the symbolism home with a sledgehammer — I’m still a drag artist, after all). Feeling it was a bit grim, I wrote a short little opening monologue which I played as a voiceover. I am greatly inspired by Richard Energy, an incredibly talented drag king in London who writes comedic skits that are always so perfectly pitched between silly, touching and self-reflective. Sharing a virtual stage with Richard gave me the confidence to tackle writing as an aspect of Mandy’s character. The monologue was very warmly received, and so I recycled many of the jokes into The Bedsit Tapes — including my personal favourite joke I’ve written: ‘I often try to masturbate, but must do so whilst listening to the sound of my upstairs neighbours argue about their electricity bill’. Which is not only a perfectly succinct encapsulation of inner-city living, but is also entirely true. I envisaged the film as filling the void that was present everytime I sat in full makeup, alone in my damp little hole, half pissed on wine I drank by myself and staring at my wall. Living in a bedsit flat had been a particulalry bizarre teenage dream of mine — the result of my lifelong Soft Cell obssesion (as deference to this, the film is named after a Soft Cell demo album). I wanted to write about bedsit living in my own way, focussing deeper on the grimy ends of it — the mold, the cold, the sending nudes as a means of entertainment and waiting for the sun to creep through your window once a day.
Stylistically, The Bedsit Tapes draws from low-budget, grimy horror, particularly found footage films. I have no particular love for found footage films, but making my first film gave me a new sort of appreciation for them. They are far simpler to make, and they lean into a small budget aesthetic rather than trying to work around it. This was perfect, given my complete lack of skills or equipment — filming on an iPod balanced on a stack of books, and purposefully shot so that I only had to stitch videos together over a continuous voiceover. One of the pivotal influences was The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a vile little horror film about a psychopath who kidnaps and kills women, videoing his crimes and always wearing a plague doctor mask. I could, rather perversely, hear Rupaul’s voice ring in my head: ‘But how are you gunna make it funny?’. The film is presented as a documentary following the investigation of the crimes, which gave me my wrap around for The Bedsit Tapes — these are recordings found at the scene of Mandy’s ‘disappearance’, in reality my moving away from Leeds for good. These sorts of extreme horror films, strangely enough, lend themselves well to parody. The emotions are extreme, the acts of their villains so completely overblown in their vulgarity, that the surpass the notion of realism into unbelievability. The camp potential then comes from the filmmakers earnest belief that they’ve made something terrifying in its tangibility. Once I began to lean into the creepier aspects of the piece (hardly a challenge, given the uncanny valley mask I wore through the whole thing) the funnier I felt it became. As I made the film, I did worry at a couple of moments that it would come across a little unhinged — I enjoyed the process immensely, but I worried that my friends would see it as a cry for help. Maybe it was. I wonder if the people who made August Underground or Slaughtered Vomit Dolls had similar worries.
It’s important to acknowledge that The Bedsit Tapes, despite being a comedy, does tackle some pretty dark things happening in my personal life at the time. All of my films are personal, but The Bedsit Tapes is the most nakedly confessional. My inspirations may have been torture porn schlock, but I was unwittingly going for an emotional trauma porn. Making work about some sort of personal trauma is hard, if you have any level of self-awareness. The most powerful piece of artistic advice I’ve ever been given was by the lecturer of my experimental theatre class at university. She told our class, quite plainly, that ‘no one finds your trauma as interesting as you do.’ A few people thought this unreasonably cruel, and I don’t agree with it all of the time.But for me it has been sage advice, and it has pushed me to wrap things up in a more interesting way. The Bedsit Tapes was founded on this idea — I found I was quite comfortable tackling such topics, on a personal level, because the mask made it so visually confrontational, and the comedy allowed me to bury the uncomfortable truth within a joke. Though to be honest, there are still a couple of lines in the final film that make me cringe now — ones that are too on the nose or blunt. You can paint an uncomfortably vivid depiction of my mental state at the time just from the dialogue, which I didn’t consider to be an issue until I put it out into the world . After this film, I moved more decidedly in the direction of surrealism in both concept and dialogue to circumnavigate this.
When approaching The Bedsit Tapes, and knowing that I would need to cover some heavier topics, I came up with the Stage Light analogy (crudely represented here). The trauma is the light. It’s the focal point, it’s the centre, but alone it’s too bright and domineering. Used sporadically, it can be effective, in an Artuadian sense. But for the most part, that should be consigned to a denouement or otherwise crucial moment. You can therefore diffuse the light, make it more palatable, by placing filters over it. These filters are stylistic — genre, tone, medium etc. These diffuse the light — the trauma, what have you — and make it palatable. You can then, if you choose, swiftly drop the filter and let the trauma raze everything in its path. Or let it shimmer through, noticeable but as an undercurrent. The filters do also not need to be light-hearted or ‘pretty’ in themselves — for example, in The Bedsit Tapes, comedy is an obvious filter, but absurdity is another (the mask, an aesthetic choice which grabs the eye) and the packaging of a found footage horror film yet another. I keep the Stage Light analogy in my head everytime I make anything — I don’t claim it to be an original or unique concept, but it helps guide me all the same.
Though I have love for all of my films, I do think The Bedsit Tapes stands up as probably the best. It certainly got the best reception, though I think that is due in part to it being so far removed from what I or anyone else in my burgeoining drag circle was doing at the time. Its inception was so spur of the moment, so driven by impulse, that I didn’t leave myself the time to over-intellectualise its content (annoyingly, it’s the only one of my films that I can never monetise, as I used copywritten music in the background). I don’t think I’m yet to recapture that feeling of subtle anarchy, my tendecny to smooth over the rough edges prohibiting my going back to where I was, mentally and spatially, with The Bedsit Tapes. Perhaps, given how dark it is, that may be a good thing.
You can watch The Bedsit Tapes, and all my other films, on Youtube and on my Instagram:
And for articles of mine that tackle similar themes to the film, check out the list below: