Penny Woolcock’s new archive documentary Out of the Rubble is an angry, hard-hitting critique of public housing policy in the postwar era. The film was skilfully assembled using archive footage from the collections of the BFI National Archive and other archives across the UK, all of it unearthed for BFI Player’s Britain on Film.
For BFI curators, it was a huge pleasure working with Penny and her team, and fascinating to see familiar archive films afresh through the eyes of such an accomplished filmmaker. Here some of them explore the very diverse original films that yielded Out of the Rubble’s powerful images.
Barbican Regained (1963)
From the golden age of sponsored filmmaking, Barbican Regained is a pleasant minor work chock-a-block with valuable colour coverage of the Barbican redevelopment (near Whitbread, the film’s sponsor). Woolcock uses it in two small, crucial ways. It furnishes her first archive shot, of the Blitz aftermath (a double quotation: this was library footage the first time round); then, near the end of her film, she borrows the opening of Barbican Regained’s soundtrack: a cheery if caustic cockney ballad that gains greater ironic force when juxtaposed with later footage taken elsewhere in London (Brixton in 1979 and today) alongside building-site images from the 1963 original. As you’d expect, Barbican Regained is missing Out of the Rubble’s politicised critique but it does harbour hints of ambivalence.
Glasgow Housing (1967)
This eye-opening report for ITV’s current affairs strand This Week (1956-92) highlights the appalling slums of Scotland’s largest city and presents, among others, the experience of the nine-strong Downey family (with another child on the way) living in almost unimaginable squalor in a damp, cramped and crumbling two-room Gorbals tenement. The Downeys are at the heart of Woolcock’s film, which updates the story with a powerful new interview with Glasgow-born Reverend Richard Holloway (later Bishop of Edinburgh), who was an eloquent and passionate contributor to the original report.
Belfast — No Way Out (1970)
An alternative view of Belfast in 1970 is presented in this edition of This Week, which sidesteps the political and sectarian problems driving communities apart in favour of investigating a common issue that brings people together: poverty. Poor housing, low wages and unemployment all contribute to a crisis in Belfast which sees many families struggling in squalor as the cost of living continues to rise. The programme takes an intimate and memorable look at some of those living in deprivation, including a spirited demonstration by women against rising rents – a sequence used to great effect in Woolcock’s film – and an elderly man who pawns his beloved radio every week to survive.
New Towns for Old (1942)
This Ministry of Information-sponsored propaganda short, scripted by Dylan Thomas, promised a brighter postwar future of mass slum clearance and new public housing. Two of its most powerful images – two men stand on a hill surveying the bomb-ravaged city below, and the closing shots of a Yorkshireman pointing his pipe at the viewer, with the words “Remember, it’s your town” – top and tail the arguments explored in Penny Woolcock’s documentary. In New Towns for Old, the finger-pointing recalls Kitchener’s famous WWI exhortation, and is a clear call to communal action. But in Out of the Rubble, the meaning seems more ambiguous – is it a call to arms or an accusation of the failure of individuals, governments and society to keep those postwar promises?
Do Something! (1970)
I was enthralled by this edition of This Week when I first viewed it. Not only because it was shot around the corner from where I live in north Islington, but because it so beautifully captures the passion and dedication of a group of local women, who built what is now the Martin Luther King Adventure Playground. The Islington conjured is blighted by extreme poverty, poor housing, evictions and racial tension. 46 years on, for all its famed champagne-swilling ‘super-gentry’, the borough ranks as the third most deprived local authority in England for children living in poverty. Woolcock’s film borrows extensively from Do Something!, and tracks down some of the inspirational original participants.
Housing Makes History (1953)
Residents of Stockton-on-Tees and Barnet in north London are the lucky beneficiaries of a government scheme to remedy Britain’s housing shortage in this Conservative party film, which proclaims the achievements of the then Conservative government’s housing policy. With a running time of 18 minutes and a lengthy address to camera by then minister of housing Harold Macmillan, the film is a far cry from the pithy and combative political party broadcasts of today. Macmillan – Stockton-on-Tees’s MP for some 20 years, but by now the minister for Bromley – was probably the first politician to master the filmed speech, and this film highlights his skills.
A very different political piece is this campaigning film, boiling with anger at the injustices of London’s housing situation. It was made by radical film collective Cinema Action, established in 1968, whose members rejected the idea of the cinematic auteur. Instead they worked closely with the subjects of their films, inviting those directly involved to express themselves without commentary. Their films were designed to illuminate working-class struggles, and screenings were frequently followed by audience discussion – often with the aim of encouraging future action by trade unions and political groups.
Ladywood Redevelopment (1965)
At the peak of Birmingham’s housing modernisation programme, children play among the rubble of a city deep in renewal. As the washing dries in the few back alleys that are still occupied, there is plenty of fun to be had for the children that remain. Ladywood’s communities were being destroyed in the name of progress and in this local news report the Canon Norman Power, vicar of Ladywood, expresses his concerns for “the forgotten people” to an accompaniment of images of a Britain on the point of vanishing. A Midlands gem and a memorial to the predecessor of today’s high-rise Ladywood.
From Delhi to Southall, this edition of ITV’s current affairs programme This Week portrays some of the challenges facing Indian immigrants in Britain in the mid-1960s. The aspirations of a Delhi taxi driver hoping to move to London are juxtaposed with a Punjabi man surveying his newly purchased home in Plumstead, while young British Asians offer candid insights into their lives and families. Street scenes in Southall show a burgeoning community as people gather to worship at a Sikh Gurdwara and crowds queue at the cinema to see the 1964 Bollywood smash hit Ayee Milan Ki Bela.
Milton Keynes – A Village City
When I sat down some months back to write about Milton Keynes – A Village City, was I aware that I had before me what was to become one of BFI Player’s most popular films? Nope, no idea. But this film is ‘top of the pops’ on the BFI charts, with over 6,000 more views than its nearest rival in the last year. Why? Good question. ‘MK’ has been the butt of a thousand jokes, but the ambition captured in this film to do something different and better clearly speaks to people. That seems to be why Penny Woolcock has used it in her documentary – which is not necessarily to say she considers the aspiration met. I grew up down the road and remember many trips to the sprawling shopping centre and the Point cinema. MK can be accused of placing commerce at its heart rather than culture or community – but which ‘old town’ could you not say the same about?
Bull Ring Shopping Centre (1965)
Promising “a gay adventure not an ordeal” for Birmingham’s punters, the Bull Ring Shopping Centre was the first indoor retail hub of its kind in the UK. The concrete behemoth aimed to offer a consumer experience with a difference, but patrons and traders rejected its brutal exterior, unreliable escalators, isolating subways and high rates. Considered a failure, the eyesore was replaced with a new shopping centre 20 years later. Woolcock’s film savages the optimism of Britain’s postwar regeneration and new towns, and exposes the altogether less uplifting realities of Britain’s housing problems past and present.