Saturday, 20 November 2010

Ralph Brookes — Salford newsagent and amateur filmmaker

Ralph Brookes saw almost a century of Salford life. Born in 1900, he was a delivery boy for the Evening News and Evening Chronicle who then joined the navy, became a docker and went on to run the family newsagents on New Park Road in Ordsall. In the late 1950s, Mr Brookes, already a keen photographer of everyday people and places, took up a video camera and started recording life in inner city Salford on Standard 8 film*; the man who sold the official version of the news and had delivered the news to local houses started to create his own, informal stories of the neighbourhood around him. The resulting silent films show some of the radical changes the working class area underwent in the space of a few years as part of Salford Council’s slum clearance plan, which led to Mr Brookes’ newsagents being knocked down and him and his wife being moved into new housing.

The film People and Places Around Ordsall starts with Mr Brookes mingling with a crowd that has gathered to watch Coronation Street stars film a tug-of-war in Ordsall Park, which is later shown on Mr Brookes' TV screen as it is being broadcast. Mr Brookes’ shop and home stood in a row of other shops and houses bordering the park, in an area of traditional Victorian terraces not far from a real life street called Coronation Street on the New Barracks Estate.

Mr Brookes’ highly personal films are home movies and thus probably weren’t meant to be seen by a wide audience. They celebrate events such as weddings, birthdays and Christmas — showing his grandchildren dressed up smartly, the house decked out for Christmas and the table laden with festive food. But his camera also frequently visited the outside of the shop which, it seems, was a meeting place for local children who hung around and read comics or played games in the street. We’re also taken to the local nursery, full of smiling children and to the local swimming pool, as well as venturing into the shell of a church mid-demolition.

Mr Brookes also often travelled further afield, and showed the world outside his immediate community. It appears that he took his camera nearly everywhere: window shopping in a toy shop in Manchester city centre, admiring central library, taking us round the exhibits at the zoo, even on a daytrip to Liverpool on the train to look at the Christmas lights — Mr Brookes spent the train journey glued to the window, his camera speeding through the snowy landscape outside.

People and Places Around Ordsall is a collage of snippets of film spanning the seasons, shot across a wide time frame, which leads up to a scene showing the empty plot of land where his shop once stood. Though there’s no commentary explicitly stated in words, by choosing to take us into his bathroom earlier in the film, and showing us how the floor tiles match the bath, with a carefully co-ordinated checked towel hung neatly over the side, you get a sense Mr Brookes was proud of his home. Mr Brookes’ camera closes in on the compulsory purchase order made for his property in 1969, returning several times to the value of £5 which was to be given by the council in compensation.

I watched the films People and Places Around Ordsall and Christmas Streetscenes; Manchester and Liverpool in the North West Film Archive.

*There is a fascinating essay by Heather Norris Nicholson comparing the films of Ralph Brookes and Michael Goodger from 1957-1973, and their differing representations of Ordsall, which can be read here.

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