Friday, 15 May 2009

Manchester on Film, the Cornerhouse, Thursday May 14

I’ve long wanted to go inside the North West Film Archive on Chorlton Street, intrigued by what celluloid time capsules of Manchester life lie within. Last night I got a taster, at a special screening of films from the archive at the Cornerhouse.

I’ve also long been meaning to write an article about the decline of the local press in relation to a film about one newspaper, the Wakefield Express, that was recently rescreened during protests against moving the Wakefield Express from its city centre site to an out of town location.

I’ve wanted to be a reporter for as long as I can remember, and finished my news writing training at the end of January, only to enter an industry in decline, every week bringing news of more and more redundancies on weekly and daily newspapers.

It was during my adventures in the film section of Central Library on an early day of unemployment that I discovered what is probably my new favourite film - Wakefield Express: Portrait of a Newspaper, directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1952.

Imagine my delight when last night I discovered that Manchester has its own version, produced by the Guardian in 1960. News Story is a short documentary film that explains the function of the paper - ‘to inform and entertain through news, comment and opinion’ - as well as how it was made (these were the days of Linotype and hot lead).

Lasting only twenty minutes, the film goes behind the scenes at the offices of the Manchester Evening News and Guardian, four years before the Guardian moved to London. It’s a portrait of the Manchester Guardian, tracing the history of the paper, from its formation in 1821, following the Peterloo Massacre, through its famous editor CP Scott to its status an international paper sending news, via Manchester, to cities all over Europe, from Vienna to Milan.

The film visits each section of the newspaper in turn, including the editor and subeditors. We meet the writers on the international news desk, where we hear about floods in India, and local reporters interviewing strikers, as well as being introduced to the sports desk, cartoon section and features writers.

Reporters call in stories from telephone boxes and copy is sent around the country by wire machine before the paper makes its journey across the United Kingdom by train.

All the films shown were fascinating, including a behind the scenes look at Manchester City in the days long before football was the big business it has become today.

My other favourite, though, was Late Hope Street, from 1968, a grainy black and white film - ‘deliberately arty’ according to the man who introduced it - showing the regeneration of Hulme and Moss Side, and the slum clearance of whole areas of terraced housing. The man warned us that it would be accompanied by pathos inducing music, and sad strings led us to sympathise with the narrator, a lady who was refusing to leave her home amongst boarded up shells and bulldozers. She spoke of the pride the people around her had in their houses, and clearly couldn’t understand why the council was trying to get rid of her home. Against shots of people carrying front doors on their backs over heaps of rubble where streets once stood and children removing salvageable furniture through front windows, she told us ‘all we wanted was a bathroom and an indoor toilet’. She spoke of communities split up and flung across the city, often miles from each other.

Our Friends the Police was more lighthearted, showing an almost unrecognisable Manchester of flat caps and cobblestones, horses and carts and double decker trams, adverts for Bovril everywhere.

We were shown some propaganda films too, from a fundraising film for Manchester Society for the Blind, humorous for its outdated attitudes, to Summer on the Farm, a wartime drive to get people working out in the fields that emphasised the interdependence between city and country. A City Speaks, from 1946, was the most exhilarating, a council produced film that set the rollercoasters of Belle Vue, speeding over the city, a wrestling bout and a football match against the Halle Orchestra playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

One of the few colour films showed a 1970s Piccadilly Gardens as a riot of flowers in the sunshine - very different to how it is today! Smithfield Market, similarly, showed the activity of the now boarded up, deserted market on Swan Street in the days when it was a thriving place in which to buy flowers, meat and vegetables.

There was lots of architecture on display, including an unrecognisable Market Street, and landmark events like King George opening Central Library and laying the foundation stone of the Town Hall extension, but as ever it was the shots of ordinary people and day to day life that I liked best.

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