We and our social histories, like the paradox of a river, sometimes flow onward while also staying put. This year’s impressive AV Festival (Newcastle/Gateshead) focuses on socialism, holding past decades up to the light of a contemporary era in which every claim to ideals seems suspect and inequalities may be worse than ever.
Tyneside Story is a tiny understated gem of a film from 1944 which touches many of the festival’s themes. Ostensibly a government plea for more workers to help the war effort by joining the Tyne shipyards, the film (held now in the North East Film Archive) is described as propaganda; but its reality is less simple.
The Ministry of Information, which commissioned the film (and which was the model for the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’) had a bad press in the early years of the war, and by the time of Tyneside Story its work had become less propagandist in nature. The film’s official message is delivered gently, and it might simply be a morale-booster celebrating pride in shipbuilding. (“Keep Calm and Carry On”, another serious public information message of the time but reduced now to tea-towel kitsch, came from the same source).
What turns this film into something else entirely is the fact that it was scripted by local socialist writer (and Orwell’s friend) Jack Common, and it was enacted (intercut with actual footage of dockers at work) by actors from the leftish People’s Theatre in Newcastle.
The Ministry’s story is that yards which closed down in the Great Depression now need former workers to return and build warships, and with manpower still short, women can also be trained in welding and plating. The clank of cranes and rivet-hammers once more fills the air by the Tyne at Walker. Common delivers this narrative to order, but then has one of his characters rail against the employers who had earlier thrown the same men out of work, and the man ends the film by frowning in to the camera and asking whether the cycle will simply repeat itself in another five years. The message is therefore as much one from the people to those in power as it is the reverse.
The abstracted anonymity of the targets for resentment doesn’t quite ring true, and oddly the war itself does not make its presence felt at all, apart from one narrated reference to men serving in foreign fields. One mention of ship-completion that likens it to a “battle” is however a nice poetic stroke (whether intended or not!).
As a brief visual document of life and labour on the Tyne in the 1940s the film is fascinating. As a dramatic performance (perhaps like any of that era viewed from today) it is stilted, though deeply sincere. As a piece of film-making (directed by Gilbert Gunn) it is assured (apart from a few misjudged edit-transitions and awkward orchestral music), and it has some clever moments. One such is the soundtrack of “Blaydon Races” sung by the shipyard’s own choir, faded in at the point when individuals returning from other walks of life become a united workforce again. Another is a close shot of the final chock on the slipway being hammered loose under a new hull, with the camera then pulling back to watch the cathedral-high ship slide massively into the water.
Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the Tyneside shipyards in 1943 (also shot for the Ministry of Information) may well have informed the film’s style; but any distance or condescension in the former is totally absent from the latter. The sound quality throughout is surprisingly clean; testament perhaps to some skilled restorative work at NE Film Archive.
The venue for the festival’s continuous screenings of Tyneside Story is the fittingly evocative dark-panelled Victorian lecture theatre in Newcastle’s Neville Hall. The projection is nicely installed, and the organisers have been skilled and diligent in producing a range of contextualising material for the festival as a whole. So although (thanks to NEFA) the film can be viewed on-line, encountering it life-size as part of AV 2016 is an experience not to be missed.
Tyneside Story, Jack Common continues at The Mining Institute until 27 March 2016. This exhibition is part of a thematic series of exhibitions titled Meanwhile, what about Socialism? and is presented by AV Festival.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.
Images: Tyneside Story, film still, 1944. © North East Film Archive