MAKING THE SPIRIT OF '45 DIGITAL?...
In the spring of 2012, Anna Higgs of FilmFour approached myself, Kate Ogborn and Rebecca O'Brien about making a digital project to accompany The Spirit of '45, which was funded by Film4 and the BFI. To say we were skeptical is an understatement. We were like the three witches in Macbeth -- predicting the downfall of our film with the intrusion of the digital side dish.
How wrong we were. Looking back, we were concerned that a digital project could only ever be a marketing tool, that it might trivialize the content of the film, and that would lack the integrity and vision of The Spirit of '45. We also thought that digital people got paid a lot – and we didn’t!
Anna and Lizzie Francke from the BFI answered some of these concerns by sending us to digital summer school, under the guidance of the brilliant tutors Matt Locke and Kim Plowright. In these sessions, we were able to articulate the ideas and themes of the film, and learn how a digital project could expand on them, get audiences sharing and talking about the film and the wider issues, and drive more folks to the cinema. It also got us excited about the whole idea of a digital project and how it could compliment the film and helped us to understand the team and the budgets. It provided us with vital practical and creative information and knowledge, demystifying the process so we could engage with it.
We felt strongly that Ken’s lengthy, in-depth interviews with those who lived through the forties, as well as current activists and political thinkers, must provide the backbone for the project. Audiences could learn more about the time period, and how we are losing sight today of the vision set out in the Labour Manifesto. Ken supported this approach, and was totally open minded and keen to communicate to a wider audience through the internet.
We developed the initial concept with the support of Kim, Matt, BFI and Film4.0. The project then went to tender, where we met four companies. All of the pitches had merit and it was clear that a lot of thought goes into how a digital project is conceived, executed and managed, and that the technical delivery requirements were complex - something we hadn’t grasped in the beginning.
The Project Factory and Syndicut got the gig, with a pitch and social interaction plan that was visually innovative, included several avenues for the audience to engage, and crucially allowed us the scope to shape the ideas together.
Things moved quickly once they were in place, and in the autumn of 2012, the project began to take shape, also with the input of our distributors Dogwoof, who have made a name for themselves screening quality documentaries and reaching audiences in new ways.
We wanted it to look retro and modern – at the same time! That was our big note on the visuals, and The Project Factory and Syndicut got this immediately – using bold reds and blacks with softer greys and greens, mixing photos (literally matching then and now images), with graphic symbols and drawings, that would appeal across the ages.
During this time we met a statistician, and together formed the questionnaire for My ’45, which invites users to put in details and imagine their lives in 1945 prior to the huge political and social changes. There are timelines that cover health, housing, welfare and infrastructure, using our treasured interviews to both offer more details and expand out beyond the story of the film.
What else did we learn? That it's a LOT of work, that it needs a big team, , that we had picked exactly the right collaborators who were hard working, imaginative, problem solvers with no visible egos who were very easy to work with.....that we STILL didn't get paid for our time! But that we can go into future digital projects with a great experience behind us and with our eyes wide open.
One of my favourite bits of the project is the compelling interview with Ken about growing up during the war, and how the events of the time shaped his own commitment to the ideas of socialism. He makes an impassioned plea with current generations to revisit the ideas of The Spirit of ’45, and work together to make the world a better place.
I went into film and television because I believe documentary is a tool for social change, and although I have made a range of films in all sorts of genres, The Spirit of ’45 and the digital project have energised me to carry on engaging audiences with the key political and social issues of our time - because we have a duty to make the world a better place.
THE SPIRIT OF '45 WAS A RARE THING...
When I heard that The Spirit of ’45 was going into production, I was determined to be involved. I’ve been working in documentary films for a decade, making predominantly historical films, and I’m passionate about what I do.
But The Spirit of ’45 was a rare thing; in this age when history’s baddies dominate our screens and imaginations, this was to be a film about the good guys. A film that promised to be positive and powerful and – most importantly - timely, celebrating huge achievements in British history at a moment when they most needed to be remembered. Directed by Ken Loach, it was likely it wouldn’t only do good, it would probably also be good. I wanted to be part of it, and I harassed producer Rebecca O’Brien until she invited me in to meet her and Ken. Luckily for Rebecca’s email inbox, I got the job.
When I started work on The Spirit of ‘45, the bulk of the archive research had already been done. The footage was the starting point for the whole project, so Ken and I spent my first day in a little attic room at the top of the Sixteen Film offices watching hours of black and white footage. It was moving, rousing and funny in parts, and a bit overwhelming in all. As images of coal mines, railways, hospitals, factories, steel works, houses, towns and cities flickered on the screen, the scale of the project undertaken by the Attlee government was immediately obvious. So too was the scale of the task we faced, reflecting six years of endeavour – and decades of its legacy – all in only ninety minutes! It was daunting, but exciting.
As was the focus of my job: finding the film’s interviewees. We wanted to represent the different industries and institutions that were affected by the changes after 1945, as well as the different regions and landscapes of Britain. Obviously, the necessary age of possible interviewees meant we were searching only a small pool of people in the first place. Ken handed over many of his political contacts to me, who rallied to the call and searched for people of the right age in their own networks. I also contacted relevant organisations: trade unions, campaigning groups, museums and historical societies. Gradually, word got around and people started popping up who represented, in their own ways, the spirit of ’45.
Ken didn’t want to meet anyone before interviewing them, so it was up to me to try to find the right set of people to make up the tapestry of viewpoints and experiences we wanted. I spent weeks on trains and in hire cars, drinking endless cups of tea in living rooms all over Britain, talking to people about what the spirit of ’45 meant to them.
One of many memorable moments was meeting Sam Watts, who was introduced to me by a contact of Ken’s in Liverpool. We turned up at his small council house on the outskirts of Liverpool at the end of a long day. I was tired; Sam is in his 80s and not in great health, and I didn’t expect we’d have that much to say. But as soon as I’d sat down his life-story started to pour out of him. He’d lived an incredibly hard life, and I struggled at times not to cry, which was embarrassing given his immense dignity. He said he’d never really told his story before – I asked him if he’d tell it again.
A few weeks later I was there with Ken and the crew, setting up in an empty, run-down pub near Sam’s house, chosen because he couldn’t travel far. Ken and I squashed onto a little bench seat opposite Sam, who was sat with two dock workers we were also interviewing, Tony and Terry. We did all the interviews in groups, with both Ken and I sitting in and asking questions, to make it less formal. I was worried it wouldn’t be the same second time round, in front of the camera. But as soon as Sam started to speak his story stunned the room into silence, and he didn’t stop talking until our sound-recordist’s arms began to buckle under the boom. The atmosphere in the very ordinary pub function room was remarkable, and none of us could stop thinking about it afterwards; we sat in a motorway café eating sandwiches and talking about Sam. It was then I realised how powerful this film would be.
It felt like we were doing something very positive: collecting people’s stories and memories of an era written out of British history; and capturing the last remnants of a mood of optimism and activism at risk of falling out of our consciousness altogether. At a time when I personally was incredibly frustrated by the political decisions being taken on my behalf, and going largely unchallenged, this felt like a way of doing something. The Health and Social Care Act passed in the first weeks of my time on the project, and talking about the NHS and what it meant and means to us felt valuable. We were collecting memories and opinions that would capture and present an alternate viewpoint on the Health Service to the public.
What have I learnt from it all? Masses. I now feel armed with a patchwork of knowledge crafted from all these different people I’ve met, all experts in their own ways. And I hope I will keep with me a bit of Ken’s political tuition – the sense that you can’t analyse anything without seeing the politics in it. I’ve realised how much my generation - Thatcher’s children - have had politics drummed out of us, taught to see things not as political decisions but common sense. We’re told that the current economic system, for example, is just common sense. But as one interviewee said, we “need to zoom out” and see that it is a choice. And hopefully this film shows that there are other options. I would say better ones… but that’s up to the viewer to decide. I feel very proud to have worked on something that will at least get people talking about those choices.
MAKING THE FILM 'THE SPIRIT OF ‘45'
I’m so pleased we managed to make “The Spirit of ‘45”.
It started off when I eavesdropped a phone call between John Woodward (then CEO of the UK Film Council) and producer Kate Ogborn who had been involved with Terence Davies’ archive film “Of Time and the City”. Kate and her partner at Fly Film, Lisa Marie Russo, were looking for other directors who might be interested in taking up the archive baton – the film with Terence had been a real success and it seemed such a good way to curate archive film – to get active contemporary directors to tell stories of their own using old material.
I suggested to John that Ken Loach might be interested. I put it to Ken and he said, well yes possibly, but could we do an era rather than a place? He thought there might be real currency in exploring that moment when, immediately post-war, Britain firmly rejected the conservative leadership of the war years and elected the first and only truly socialist government to rebuild the country. I talked to Fly Film and they didn’t see why not. So “The Spirit of ‘45” came into being.
We didn’t have a script, we just had an initial plan to review archive film of the era and see if there was enough we could use to tell the story of what happened in Britain immediately after the Second World War. We asked Terence Davies’ film researcher, Jim Anderson, to have a good scour through the archives to see what he could find that would be relevant to the era. Of course there was tons of material. Jim brought us footage from archives around the country: public archives like the BFI, the Imperial War Museum and the BBC; private archives like British Pathe (with their amazing news reels of the time) and Movietone. Terrific footage, but tons and tons of it!
Ken and his long time editor, Jonathan Morris, set aside some time in the autumn of 2010 to have a first trawl through the material and whittled it down to a bin with about seven and a half hours of potentially useful material over a couple of months. But we still didn’t have a structure to hang it on. We went away and made another feature film “The Angels’ Share” which kept us busy through 2011 and then returned to the project after that. The BFI and Film Four became natural partners for the project that autumn and Ken decided that the best way forward would be to find and interview people who had memories of the era – and those who had worked in the nationalized industries that had evolved during that time. We employed a researcher, Izzy Chapman – whose expertise in modern history and understanding of the era’s politics made her ideal for the role – to help seek out the people who would tell their stories.
Izzy will tell you about the search for contributors in a separate blog, but we found an amazing, diverse bunch of people, old and young from all over the country, who gave us their time during April 2012. We found people who remembered the era of real poverty before the war. We found people who had worked in the nascent nationalised industries after the war; doctors who worked during the establishment of the NHS; miners who remembered the dangers of the mines before health and safety was enforced; nurses who recalled the day the NHS was launched; railway workers who reminded us of the chaos of multi-owned railway companies. We met economists and historians who could guide us through the political and economic structure of Britain during that time. We filmed in small groups of two or three which made the sessions more conversational and relaxed, with Ken doing the interviewing. We recorded a real wealth of material and heard some amazingly moving stories.
Ken Loach and Jonathan Morris spent the summer and autumn of 2012 crafting the interviews and archive footage into the film that is now “The Spirit of ‘45”. George Fenton recorded an original music score to complement the music and popular songs that we used from the time. Eimhear McMahon waded through a heap of archive clearances, formats and rights which gave permission to use the material. We managed to finish the film in time to launch it in official selection at this February’s Berlin Film Festival.
We found, however, that we had a surplus of terrific material from the interviews that there wasn’t room for in the film. This is where the digital project came to the rescue and for several months we’ve been working with The Project Factory and Syndicut to deliver a website with a questionnaire and timelines which expand on the story of the film. Using further interview material and additional archive footage from British Pathe, we’ve built a site that will contextualize the story and provide a useful educational tool for users.
It’s been a very special project to work on and one that we feel is completely timely. During a period of recession it’s important to look back and see how we handled tough times in the past. The Spirit of ’45 has revealed to me that the power of joining together with your brothers and sisters can rebuild a poverty stricken and war-torn country. We have lost that spirit through years of greed and indulgence. We could get it back if we wanted and the world would be a better place. These may seem simplistic sentiments, but there is genuine potential in the ideas of 1945 and the time has come to revisit them.
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