'A Christmas Gift From Bob' set visit: How Boris Johnson inspired a moment in the festive sequel (exclusive)
Watch: Trailer for A Christmas Gift from Bob
It's Covent Garden at Christmas, both literally and figuratively.
There's political turmoil in the air, just weeks before a General Election, and the word “coronavirus” is still basically unknown outside of the medical profession. This is the November 2019, and Yahoo is on the set of A Christmas Gift from Bob. The film is being released this week – just one year later – into a world that could scarcely be more different from the one in which it was made.
The movie is the sequel to the charming 2016 drama A Street Cat Named Bob, which told the true story of rough-sleeping busker James Bowen – played by Olivier-winning actor Luke Treadaway – and the arrival in his life of the titular stray cat, which helped him to kick heroin addiction and turn his life around.
Adapted from Bowen's memoir, written with the help of author and journalist Garry Jenkins, that film was a modest success in the UK, but managed to pull in around $7.6m (£5.9m) in cat-loving China, creating enough financial clout to secure a sequel.
Read more: What happened to these famous movie animals?
“When it hit China and went straight to number two, tens of thousands of cinemas in China were showing our film,” says the real Bowen, chatting to Yahoo Movies UK on the set.
“I guess, for me, I just take it in my stride. It's just wonderful to be able to share my experiences and share the love of Bob with the world.”
“A human and animal story is really universal,” says Treadaway, speaking to Yahoo Movies UK this week ahead of the movie’s release. “All over the world, people know what that bond is like and that love — the love of an animal and what loving an animal can give you.”
The books have now been translated into more than 40 languages, with around nine million copies sold worldwide across the entire series. James and Bob are recognisable faces all over the world.
Wrapping up a gift
Having told what was effectively the origin story of James and Bob in the previous film, this time around the team have reached for Bowen and Jenkins's 2014 festive tale A Gift from Bob. Jenkins is on script duties this time, with actor-turned-filmmaker Charles Martin Smith replacing Roger Spottiswoode in the director's chair.
“It's a nice, self-contained Christmas story that embodies all of the qualities that the Bob books have in rather a neat and pretty little Christmas package,” says Jenkins, retreating into St Paul's Church for warmth between takes. “That's not to say it doesn't have the earthiness and the reality and the authenticity of the other books. It's still about the struggles of a person on the streets of London at a particularly tough time of the year but, because it's Christmas, it lends itself to bringing out all of the values and the lessons and the resonances that people love so much at this time of year.”
The movie picks up with James and Bob attending a glitzy Christmas event, before crossing paths with Ben (Stefan Race), who is struggling on the streets just as James was a few years prior. This sparks a memory for James of a Christmas experience years ago, which saw him cross paths with animal welfare officials, as well as struggling to keep himself and Bob supplied with food over a particularly bleak winter.
“There's going to be a few tear-jerking moments in there,” says Bowen. “When I read the final script that Garry put together, I was well impressed with it. It felt very true to the book, while being its own story featuring Bob. And Bob looks absolutely adorable in his Santa outfit, so I'm sure people are going to love it.”
Treadaway says he’s disappointed that the movie’s cinema release in England has been taken away (it’ll still be shown in some Scottish and Welsh cinemas) at the eleventh hour thanks to the second national lockdown, but that he remains hopeful it will find its audience at home. “It's still getting it out there and people can still enjoy watching it,” he says. “Cosy with a cup of hot chocolate. It's much less stressful than going out.”
Boris meets Bob
Bowen is keen to make it clear that A Christmas Gift from Bob is “not a political film”, though it's evident that the issue of homelessness remains close to his heart and to the hearts of those making the film. He is a vocal campaigner and supporter of homelessness charities, as well as animal welfare causes. Yahoo Movies UK met Bowen prior to the 2019 General Election, which returned Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street, and he had few positive words to say about the UK's current leader.
“When I was selling the Big Issue once upon a time, he ripped me off for a Big Issue by giving me Swiss Franc coins,” Bowen reveals, recounting a story from when Johnson was Mayor of London and he was selling magazines outside Angel station.
The event is nodded to in A Christmas Gift from Bob, in which the fictional Bowen is approached by a posh politician, surrounded by television cameras. The politician hands Bowen some cash and poses for a photo opportunity, only for the campaigner to later discover he has been handed 1,000 Albanian lek – equivalent to around £7.55, which the currency exchange won't even offer as it's below their £10 minimum limit.
Bowen says he would often later cross paths with Johnson at various charity events in the capital. “At one point, I was named one of the thousand most influential Londoners and they had a big night that I was invited to. I was there and he was there. I was like 'hello Boris, remember me?' He's definitely not bringing much awareness about homelessness, even though he says he wants to tackle it.“
Jenkins says the issue of homelessness has only become more relevant since he first met Bowen selling the Big Issue outside Angel in 2009.
The writer says: “I had lived in London since the 1980s and I had just begun to be aware of a sudden growth in homelessness in a way that I hadn't seen. But it certainly wasn't as prevalent and as noticeable as it is now. Anyone who lives in London now is aware of it.
“One of the things James and I are most proud of is the job it has done in raising awareness of homelessness and the Big Issue and how it works. We're dispelling this crazy notion people had for a long time that Big Issue sellers were skivers and spongers, when actually they're self-employed people running their own business who have had a hand up, not a hand-out. They have to generate money in order to regenerate their stock and run their lives. For a lot of people who have been at rock bottom, it's a massively important and potent opportunity for them.”
Treadaway says the importance of the very real issues adds an “extra incentive” to get the storytelling right. “You want to tell this story in a way that is respectful and honest and truthful to people's situations. It's a real honour to be able to tell a story that can illuminate to other people how some people are living and some of the struggles they have to go through. It's good to do work which has a message.
“It's frightening how quickly someone's life can go from apparent normality to really struggling for somewhere to live. We don't think about it a lot of the time. People go about their own lives and they're aware of a sleeping bag on the pavement, but don't necessarily think about the person inside it.”
A fond farewell
When we visited the film's set in 2019, Bob was the star of the show – ensconced in his dressing room and lounging around, waiting for his next moment in the spotlight. Sadly, tragedy struck earlier this year when Bob was killed by a hit-and-run driver in June.
“I immediately felt very sorry for James and everyone who knew Bob,” says Treadaway, discussing his reaction to the news of Bob’s passing. “It's a big loss for everyone who has taken this story to their hearts. Look at the amazing impact he brought to so many people's lives. Few people can claim that, let alone cats.”
Fortunately, the feline film star had finished shooting his scenes for the new film, which serves as a fitting tribute to the moggy who captured the attention of fans all over the world. Bowen calls his long-term companion a “magical creature” and says he has a lot to thank Bob for every day.
“Thank you for buying this house for me. Thank you for taking me off the streets and giving me a purpose. We do a lot of charity fundraising now. I know he's always going to be a part of me and he's touched the lives of millions of people around the world.”
On last year's set, both Jenkins and Bowen were keen to suggest that there might be another entry in the Bob Cinematic Universe – “Why am I even thinking of drawing comparisons with Star Wars?” said Jenkins – but it seems unlikely that will happen in the wake of Bob's sad passing.
Treadaway says: “We should celebrate this second movie that this marvellous cat has made. I can't imagine doing another film without Bob, personally. He has certainly marked his territory, as it were, and it would be a brave cat to step into those boots.”
Bob’s two outings on the big screen have marked him out as one of the world's most recognisable cats. This year, he’s capable of bringing people together over the course of a Christmas that, for various reasons, might not be quite as merry as we've come to expect.
And he does look adorable in that Santa outfit.
A Christmas Gift from Bob will be in cinemas and available to rent from 6 November.
Watch: Luke Treadaway discusses working with Bob the Cat