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John Burkhill: One in a Million

An engaging new documentary from Sheffield filmmakers Matt Exton and Sean Lovell tells the moving story of one man’s triumph over adversity - and his place in the hearts of the people of Sheffield.

John burkill film
Neil Kitson

No one could have failed to be moved at the Showroom premiere of One in a Million, where John Burkhill saw the film for the first time and was presented by the Lord Mayor, Gail Smith, with his second British Empire Medal.

Opening with John reciting a heartfelt poem of his own, a love letter to his native city that he regards as "England’s finest city, better than all the rest," the film begins by chartering his life from marriage to his beloved wife June. It looks at his long distance walking in the late 1960s and through the seventies to raise money for ‘special’ schools.

Following the tragic deaths of June and their daughter Karen, in 1992 and 1991 respectively, his project over the last 30 years has been fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Appeal. He has been raising money through running marathons and pushing his pram around the streets of Sheffield, in shorts, no matter what the weather.

In effect an interview with the legendary John, now 82, from his front room, the story is illustrated by well-chosen, evocative stills spanning the decades, together with contemporary footage. The flavour of the city is captured through a landscape of city streets and Sheffield voices.

Notable amongst the people interviewed are former MP Richard Caborn, business woman Grace Bolsover, ex-cancer sufferer Sharon Harris, Macmillan spokesman Steve Loane, and former Lord Mayor, Councillor Tony Downing.

The tributes to John, in terms of his exceptional achievements - at the time of the screening he had raised £800,000 for Macmillan - and his decency, compassion and humanity, come from all quarters.

Close-ups of John’s wonderful, characterful face are used to poignant effect as he talks about his own sadness, his drive to help his fellow human beings, and his recognition of the courage and generosity of others. Watching the beautiful camera work frame his face as he remembers a little girl with leukaemia putting money in his bucket on Barnsley Road is heartbreaking in its tenderness. "On a bad day, her little face comes to me. It never shifts and I don’t want it ever to shift," says John.

John receiving The Freedom of the City in 2019 is impressive to watch. Clearly not a man to court ceremony, he accepts this honour from Lord Mayor Councillor Tony Downing with humility and characteristic humour.

In these days of changing and challenging narratives, this sensitive and deeply humanistic film is a timely celebration of the importance of community and the extraordinary difference one individual can make.

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