The Manchester Film & Video Workshop
"One minute you're planning to overthrow, or at least challenge the stranglehold duopoly of ITV and the BBC (as it was then) and in an instant 25 years later you're working as a freelance for that same duopoly.
It's reassuring to know that Time has a sense of humour.The following is a personal memoir of the 8 years or so that I spent working at MFVW in the late 70's and early 80's. It is not intended as an in depth analysis of the sometimes heated debates that went on at the time but more as a subjective reflection aided by the 20/20 vision/hindsight of then and now. This by its very nature is a personal reminiscence, and as such, I can only take responsibility for recalling my own version of events.
We all have a history. A bit of mine may help to understand how I reached the hallowed portals of 5, James Leigh Street.
As a fine art student at Nottingham College of Art I'd been able to make a couple of my own half hour films. 'One More Chance' (1972) starred Graham Langford as aging rock 'n' roller Shane Ventura in an early example of both rockumentary and mockumentary. In my final year came 'Heave Too' (1973) an out and out comedy about the perils of seasickness with Harry Stephenson as the ingénue Frank Thrower on his first trip to the Isle of Man.
After graduating with First Class Honours, I returned to my home city of Manchester to seek my fortune, or least some sort of living in the film or TV industry. I was back living at my parents in Wythenshawe when through a couple of old school friends I got involved with a grass roots youth and community group, Wally's Place. There were no cinemas built on the estate despite proposals in the Council's original 1930's plans and we didn't want the locals to be deprived of their cinema culture so we started Wally's Flicks, a Saturday morning film club for youngsters in the Co-op Hall in Sharston.
Each Friday we had to go into Manchester city centre to collect a cine-projector and screen from the A/V Department of the Education Office, set up and run the show on the Saturday and then return it on the Monday morning. We also made a few 8mm films about our activities, ran the Expanded Cinema Lightshow at the Wally's Place pub discos, and promoted a few fund-raising concerts.
One evening I went along to the Altrincham Cine Club where I met Arthur Smith, a professional cameraman who was the Club President. He offered me some assistant film editing work at his company's cutting room-Rose Productions- in Stockport. Roy Newton was the editor there and I learnt a lot from him, as I was new to this professional world. He was an accomplished filmmaker himself, and had co-produced a few 16mm documentary films with Martin Lightening, a college friend of his and now a freelance cameraman.
They were both to play a significant part in helping set up the Workshop a couple of years later when Andy Boyd, an ex-Manchester University student who had made a film about a 'gay lad coming out to his parents' phoned me. He asked if I knew of any filmmakers keen to meet together and see how we might pool ideas, contacts, and resources and put pressure on the regional Arts Association to foot the bill for what we wanted to do. Not wishing to state the obvious this is invariably the case with grant applications from artists to funders.We met monthly at Andy's flat in West Didsbury. We were virtually all twenty somethings, idealistic, enthusiastic, energetic, earnest, in a hurry, determined, disgruntled and angry at the system, wanting an alternative, wanting change.
From the Bolsheviks to the Beatles it has been always thus.
Andy was in one faction with his brother Phil, an aspiring writer with connections at the newly created Commonword Worker Writers Workshop, Susie Maher, an actor and feminist and Humphrey Trevellyan, a Granada cameraman on World in Action by day and a radical filmmaker in his own time. He had co-founded the Berwick Street Collective in London to make films, one of which Nightcleaners had acquired critical praise for its merging working class subject matter with an avant-garde experimental use of images and sound. They wanted cine super 8 technology, predominantly an amateur format of the time, to take on a role as a low cost alternative to televisions standard of 16mm, regrettably it never did.
The advocates of 16mm film comprised Roy, Martin,Bob Andrewes and me . Bob had worked with Roy and Martin before and had funded and directed a film drama of his own, Many Happy Returns with an improvised approach not unlike early Mike Leigh had pioneered. He worked nightshifts as a film laboratory technician. The rest of us admired (in a dropped jaw incredulous kind of way) the fact that he paid the film lab to process his film footage! He was unarguably a very talented and ingenious director.
Video makers were also present at Andy's smoke filled flat - Bob Jones, a free-spirited musician, video maker and ex Granada employee, and Greg Dropkin, an American photographer and campaigning political activist. Both were residents of Moss Side and heavily involved in local housing issues, and both had experience of using portable video as an instrument for agitation, change and reportage. Low-resolution portapacks developed in Japan in the 60's had earned a reputation as instruments for social change in the hands of non-professionals. Courtesy of the Canadian Film Board's "Challenge for Change" projects in the late 60's and early 70's, disenfranchised minority groups had used this primitive (in today's terms) technology to record and highlight social injustice and living conditions across the Atlantic with great success. So why not try it in the UK?
The group became MIFA - the Manchester Independent Filmmakers Association. Through no fault of our own it was a predominantly male group but we all had Left leanings and considered ourselves supporters of equal rights and feminist politics. This lopsided gender imbalance was reflected when the Workshop eventually opened its doors, although staffing appointments later re-dressed this. Maybe it was just boys with their toys, but today I know that such an imbalance would be hard to imagine fortunately.
In any case, the Workshop grew out of a loose grouping of individuals who were all eager to make their own productions outside of the constricting confines of broadcast television. We all hoped to deal with subject matter the TV establishment considered too 'cutting edge', using new and innovative techniques and addressing ourselves to an understanding working class audience. Or so I think we thought.
Like all groups we got to know each other through debate and discussion. Eventually we came up with a wish list of equipment and started having meetings with North West Arts Film Officer Paul Habbeshon to discuss the possibility of establishing a production workshop. I was quite friendly with Paul, as through him NWA had purchased a couple of my student films for possible future distribution. We got on well together. He was easy going and very amiable.
I really wanted the job of co-ordinating the proposed new workshop, having got the 'taste for work' (and some regular income) as a volunteer co-ordinator. Organised by Community Service Volunteers and based at Granada TV the job entailed dealing with the response to the Reports Action programme. It was a year's graduates job creation scheme that was coming to an end shortly so I badgered Paul for the new Workshop post and he agreed, subject to his Film Panel's approval. Perhaps he considered me a relatively safe pair of hands. It was to be an initial year long contract for the princely salary of £3,000 p.a.
WELCOME TO ENGELS COUNTRY!
The Workshop was always going to be a proverbial camel designed by the Horse Committee. Initially funded by the North West Arts Film Panel it was envisaged as a main component of the BFI's vision of a future Manchester Film Centre. As per usual with great ideas from above, nobody locally had been consulted as to the suitability or desirability of such a venture. We'd all had trouble getting our hands on equipment, so consequently all the people initially involved were committed to a more or less open to everybody-access policy. Right Wing Fascists being the exception.
Unfortunately the premises had already been selected - a far from ideal ground floor and damp basement in 5 James Leigh Street, just a 100 yards from the River Irwell. It was on the edge of "Little Ireland", the area Engels had used as the source for his landmark treatise of 1842, "The Conditions of the Working Class in England". Just outside, where there is now a nightclub, two old fellas spent all day weaving cane baskets. We always had a plan to make a video about them but never got around to it. Although it was a city centre site, access was down a blind alley with yellow lines restricting parking on the cobbled streets to front and back of the building. Furthermore, in the interests of saving NWA's budget we had to share the cramped space with The Manchester Print. Fellow travellers they were not. They were 3 experienced artists/printmakers solely concerned with their own artistic output. We weren't too sure what we wanted to create but "cultural elitism" wasn't part of the equation, in fact just the opposite.
When they moved out about a year later no tears were shed and more space became available. A 16mm editing room was set up as well as an animation rostrum (that never worked properly). There was a largish room for group meetings and training, film shows and repair work, adjacent to an office with desks and equipment storage racks. Downstairs housed a B & W photographic darkroom, a B & W video editing area, a super 8 editing space and later a small sound recording studio. NWA donated a couple of 16 mm projectors, and new and used equipment was purchased as time went on.
At the time there was virtually no inexpensive equipment or facilities available for hire, so from the outset there was a heavy demand for the gear. Film makers, environmentalists, animal rights supporters, ethnic and left groups, community artists, freelance photographers, musicians, film societies, community activists, writers and poets to name but several made a beeline to the door. The place was invariably busy, people collecting/returning equipment, impromptu training sessions, phone bookings, repairs taking place, video's being viewed or edited and the darkroom in constant use.
For the first four years or so I was the co-ordinator of the project. Manager was a non-pc word at the time, particularly in such a loose-knit and co-operative grouping of strong individuals, each with their own agendas as to the work they wanted to undertake. Nevertheless, I was essentially responsible for the day to day running of the workshop: administration, accounts, writing reports, ordering equipment, maintenance, dealing with clients and funding bodies. The really boring stuff, somebody has to do, and without which nothing happens. I'm fairly adaptable so with a bit of perseverance I managed to keep on top of it, but it wasn't what I really wanted to spend my time occupied with.
It involved long hours being frantic and very stressful on occasion, although exhilarating and great fun for much of the rest. I made films and tapes with all my co-workers at the F & V W and enjoyed the experience immensely especially with Bob Jones, a talented cameraman and kindred spirit. Nowadays, when every other person owns a DV cam it's hard to imagine a time when B&W ½ inch reel-to-reel video recording was the only option. It involved the laborious use of stopwatches as the only method to make edit decisions. What we'd have given then for such a cheap and reliable medium as to-day's digital equipment.
It was 1977 so not surprisingly the spirit of punk permeated the air. Bob Jones and myself even made a 45-minute documentary videotape about the rise and fall of Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds. Somehow we'd succeeded in taking control of the means of production (if not distribution) and all bets were off. However we remained drastically under funded and under resourced for the huge number of individuals and groups using the facility. Greg Dropkin and Peter Bainbridge, a Geordie community artist managed to get a part-time fee from the NWA Community Arts Panel to undertake some of the access and training work. The Community Arts Officer, Oliver Bennett's mantra of the time was 'process not product' and this divergence in philosophy with ourselves led to regular arguments with him.
As a result it was always a struggle keeping the equipment up to scratch and everybody worked hard over long hours to keep the place open. A management group was set up to oversee things and decisions were made in a democratic way. But tensions were never far from the surface between our funding bodies and us.
It was a frustrating time that I am sure all people working in small, annually and publicly funded organisations are all too familiar with. Hoop jumping as an Olympic sport? More time is spent applying for funding grants and justifying the spending of the meagre amounts awarded, than is warranted.
I appreciate it's about accountability of public funds (which I completely support) but in reality it mainly justifies keeping arts bureaucrats in their well paid posts at the expense of practicing artists. Excuse me a moment whilst I get down from my soapbox. As a pragmatist in fact I've always maintained that if an idea's good enough then one should be able to persuade somebody else to pay for it.
One very good idea was to find the money to get more paid staff employed. Roy Newton, who now works as a print-maker in the USA, had been involved from the outset and he worked for a year editing 16mm films that had been funded by the NWA Film Panel including Peter Wyeth's After Peterloo, Robert Andrewes' Making Tracks and my own and Mike Rowe's The Tea Machine.
Roy brought a much-needed level of professional expertise and experience to the filmmaking side of our activities, and was also a man of great intelligence, gentleness and generosity. A published interview clearly outlines his approach. 'The hothouse atmosphere of TV production seems to be replaced (in a workshop) by an altogether more organic scene that allows a film to grow in its own time and space rather than within the more rigid confines of deadlines and scheduling. The importance lies in the difference between mainstream and independent, because within that difference lies the option that should be open to all film-makers to choose to work in an area that first and foremost allows them maximum creative freedom.'
One of the main reasons for setting up the 16mm resources at the Workshop was to provide professional equipment either at a reasonable hire charge to independent productions or free of charge to NWA funded films. In this way it was hoped that the normal lengthy production times for low budget films might be shortened and that the money saved might be used as basic wages for those involved. In this respect we had a modicum of success. All of the 16mm films I made there had a wage element attached for cast and crew. Other productions were encouraged to do likewise. It wasn't the union rate but at least it established the principle that independent film practitioners had a right to be paid. Nearly thirty years later this seems to have has fallen by the wayside and grant-aided work is back at the starting post with no guarantee of payment for production work for the thousands of fresh faced graduates emerging from today's Media Educational Factories.
For a more contemporary perspective of the time I would suggest the reader gets hold of Graham Wade's Street Video, published in 1980, which includes a chapter on The Manchester Workshop, and deals in some detail with Greg Dropkin's video work with Chilean Refugees and immigration issues of the time. Without apology, Greg was, and remains the most politically driven of the group. Despite, or possibly because of this, he could be infuriating at times but had a great sense of humour, a generous nature and boundless energy as a teacher/trainer. To cite only one example he taught himself to speak Spanish so that he could transcribe his Chilean interviews. The book also illustrates and describes similar operations in four other UK city-based workshops in Sheffield, Glasgow, Cardiff and Bristol.
The Workshop was not unique in the UK. We had regular contact with Nick Smart at the Sheffield Video Workshop. We put on a few screenings with the Workers Film Association who are still going strong in Hulme. We worked with The Open Eye Unit in Liverpool on joint ventures together, video recording theatre groups, rock/punk concerts and setting up Open Eye Films as the Workshop's Distribution arm.
Towards the end of the 70's the workshop had proved a success with an ever-increasing number of clients making use of the facilities
I'd always wanted to make films but in a co-operative and collective manner that would involve all parties in the decision making process. For a short period, the workshop set-up gave me that opportunity.
I'd like to describe 3 of the 16mm film projects I was instrumental in producing during my time at MF&VW. In many respects they illustrate how the workshop existed as a reservoir of creative talent for assorted projects to draw upon for positions both in front of and behind the camera.
The Tea Machine got extensively screened and had a good critical reception. It convinced me, not that I needed much convincing, that production was what I wanted to be doing full time. The chance came when Roy Newton decided to leave to pursue his vocation to be a print-maker. I became the workshop production adviser and Ingrid Sinclair took over as the Workshop co-ordinator. She came from Bristol and had a background in 'artists filmmaking'. She was fairly dynamic and set up some Super 8 'educational' training courses and screenings. The Workshop also took on 3 JCP workers, thus Greg and Pete's days were numbered. We campaigned without success to get them re-instated but neither was much good at 'playing the bureaucratic game' and telling the funding agencies what they wanted to hear.
Locally it soon became apparent that the paymasters wanted a different profile. It was not a pleasant experience and the Workshop lost out considerably when Pete and Greg left. I felt powerless but saw no point in sacrificing my own livelihood, for an argument we would never win, so I immersed myself into my new role as Production Adviser, running educational/documentary courses on 16mm filmmaking and projects to be involved in, the first Salford Festival 1980 being closely followed by Hat Block Maker in 1982 .
However, the latter film was a backward looking production and new projects were essential to keep the Workshop from stagnating. Educational programmes proved successful and a new generation of would-be filmmakers started coming in to use the facilities. Regrettably I felt that they brought with them an agenda of pretentious self-indulgence and self-interest that I found unproductive and tiresome.
The drive for political change and challenge seemed to have left the place. Times they were a changin', and not for the better, with Thatcherism in the ascendancy, and reflected in arts funding policy. Only the recently launched Channel 4 seemed to hold out any hope for the future. Unfortunately despite much effort expended on applications, we weren't selected for their funding as a franchised workshop.
At the same time, I was editing the Nello James Centre in 1983 film for Roy and Martin and this completed the backlog of unfinished 16mm material that had been on the shelf, but it seemed to take forever. Collective decision-making takes more than one person and it seemed impossible to get everyone in the same room at the same time.
I worked intensely with playwright Ernie Dalton from North West Spanner on his proposed feature film W18 and hoped that it might lead to filmmaking at a realistic level of funding. Ernie secured a project development commission from Channel 4 but again it didn't happen.
1984 and the gear was knackered, I was knackered. Eight years of 50 or 60-hour weeks had taken their toll. The sanctity of self-exploitation had to come to an end sometime and it was time for a change. Maybe I stayed too long? Who knows? We had a young son and family concerns were more of a priority. It was time to move on. I went back to working as an assistant film editor- the lowly job I'd done and been bored by 8 years earlier - but the better TV money helped soften the blow to my ego.
My experience during those years counted for nothing in Broadcastl television. In career terms I'd been in an 8-year black hole, but as regards my creative and personal development it was the best time ever. I like to think that because of the Workshop many, many individuals picked up valuable practical, creative and interpersonal skills that they were able to use for their own and others' benefit.
This was confirmed a couple of years ago when I was dialogue editor on 'Sparkhouse'. I eventually had a meeting with Derek Wax, the producer of the series and after a few puzzled ' I know you from somewhere don't I?' moments between us we realised we'd met 20 years or so earlier discussing a Super 8 project he was hoping North West Arts might fund. He's since gone on to become the award winning producer of Sex Traffic amongst other things.
The lease expired in 1984, forcing removal from James Leigh Street and the MF&VW was re-branded in archetypical 80's fashion and re-launched as Counter-image. A great name that meant little as it remained under funded and under resourced. I believe it closed in the early 1990's with few tears or obituaries. I remain grateful for what I consider its best years.