Eileen Riding was suffering from agoraphobia and wouldn’t leave the house, but care and support director Rhona Murray convinced her it might help to star in a movie comedy.
FOR 20 years Eileen Riding never set foot outside her high-rise flat in Muirhouse. From the moment her husband George died, the woman who had travelled the world as a child with her naval father and who had gone on to entertain thousands as a pub and club singer of the 1960s and 70s, stayed inside her small flat with only the memories of her career and her love to keep her company.
Visits from her son and daughter couldn’t convince her to go outside.
Her doctor, her optometrist... they all had to come to her. She was the mountain, everyone else was Mohammed.
Today as the 68-year-old sits outside joking and laughing in the sunshine with friends Rhona Murray and Jo Thakray, it’s hard to imagine the vivacious entertainer was ever so traumatised.
Her re-emergence into life is due, it seems, to firstly getting out of that Muirhouse flat and into sheltered housing and then “having her arm twisted” to get involved with the making of a movie.
Eileen, and 77-year-old Jo, are two of the stars of The Wayward Wind, a short comedy drama produced by Rhona who works with the organisation Places for People Scotland; which aims, among other things, to support the elderly in sheltered housing and to get them “living actively” to boost their mental, physical and emotional well-being by doing things beyond weekly exercise and music classes.
The idea for making a film came from the theory of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, that in encouraging older people to reminisce about their youth while using props from that time, they will act younger and therefore receive real health benefits.
And both Eileen and Jo are outspoken in their approval for the scheme and are delighted about how it’s changed their lives.
“It has changed me so much... brought me out of myself again,” nods Eileen, setting the six gold hoops which hang from her self-pierced ears swinging gently.
“After my husband George died I became totally agoraphobic.
“I just couldn’t go out. Once he was buried and my door was shut, that was it.
“It was like a prison I suppose and I was slowly sinking. I would stay in bed all day... and although I had a carer who would urge me out, I would just say I wasn’t feeling well.
“The doctor said I was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. I had given up my singing when I was 45 and George was diagnosed with throat cancer. I wanted to look after him. He had his voice box removed but the cancer was still there.
“Eventually it ate through his jugular vein and I watched as the blood began to spray up the walls... that’s what the doctor said caused the stress syndrome.”
As a result she would break into a sweat at the idea of going out and of speaking to people. She even believed that if she did go out there would be people following her with knives. So she stayed indoors.
“It got to the point where my son said to me I needed to be in sheltered housing and after a long time I agreed. He lives in Easthouses, so he applied for me to go nearer him and his wife at a Castle Rock Edinvar place in Mayfield. The day I left the flat they had driven the car right up to the stair door, so I wasn’t really out in the open.
“It was completely different from what I had thought sheltered housing would be, but it still took me a long time to mingle. The door was still shut.
“It wasn’t until the lady who runs the place told me about Rhona and the film because she knew of my past career that things changed.”
Eileen, who grew up in the southside of Edinburgh – when her family wasn’t travelling because of her father’s naval career – attended Jimmy Clark’s school in St Leonard’s. But the age of 11 she found her voice and began singing with the Two Tones, her husband-to-be’s band – after her mother had recommended her to them at the hall where she played bingo.
For the next five years she sang as Elaine Andrews in bingo halls, pubs and clubs every weekend for £1 a time. Then when she was 16 they started touring the seaside resorts of the UK and music became her life. The group even had a number one hit in the Scottish charts with their version of Amazing Grace.
In 1975, she entered the national contest Pub Entertainer of the Year – winning the Scottish heat and coming fourth in the televised final from London which was hosted by Ted Rogers and watched by 19 million people. “So to go from being able to do that, to not being able to go outside... it was such a huge change, it was debilitating” she says.
“George was diagnosed with cancer when he was 58 – he was 13 years older than me. That’s when I stopped singing. When he died in 1991 I just stopped altogether I suppose.”
Making the film has turned that around. The Wayward Wind is a tale of twists and turns and flashbacks, involving four sheltered housing residents who are transported back to the night of JFK’s shooting, but who also have a mystery to solve and a party to organise. They’re determined to overcome every obstacle – giving viewers a no-holds-barred look at the physical frailties of old age, while acknowledging that these people were, 50 years previously, young in heart and body.
Making it involved Queen Margaret University’s costume department as well as its lecturer in drama Irvine Allan who helped with the script – though the majority was written by playwright Ronan O’Donnell – and directed the movie. Holyrood High school pupils also had parts in the younger scenes.
“When I spoke to Rhona the first time I knew I was going to say no, that I didn’t want to be involved. But she’s good at twisting arms,” says Eileen.
“I went to the first meeting – that was the first time in 22 years I’d been in a taxi on my own. And when I got there I realised that all of us were in the same boat, I wasn’t the only one who had had problems. That this film could be a way to sort some of them out.
“It’s taken a lot of courage but that’s what it’s done for me.
“When I stood up to sing The Wayward Wind with the band on stage for the film it was like I was 18 again.
“I had worried I wouldn’t be able to still sing, but as soon as I heard the accordion – which is what George played – I was right back there. I did it in one take. I was buzzing for days after - now my family think I should enter Britain’s Got Talent,” she grins.
“I might just do that. And to even think about that - well that’s what making this film has done for me. It’s been magic.”