Amber History - 1982 to 1991
The Current Affairs Unit
NUPE, Richard Grassick
Photographer Richard Grassick, social worker Pat McCarthy and filmmaker Elaine Drainville all joined Amber in the 1980s. Richard had set up the National Union of Public Employees’ regional paper during the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, when a photographer with Durham Street Press, and he continued to run it as an Amber member until the union became part of Unison in 1988. Elaine came at the beginning of the 1980s, stating an interest in work as a sound recorder at a time when, Graham Denman having left, the group felt the need for another film practitioner. Sharing Amber’s political perspectives, she helped to develop a Working Class Women’s Cinema programme and was strongly engaged with the issues surrounding the Greenham Common peace camp. Pat brought her experience as a community activist, creating a role in distribution and in developing the different networks at local, national and international levels to underpin Amber’s approach. All three were extensively involved in the operation of a Current Affairs Unit.
Campaigns & Contemporary Issues
Miners Campaign Tapes
A series of documentaries were made, distributed in a wide-ranging programme of trade union education and campaign work. The News from Durham and Where Are We Going? (1983) were part of the same engagement that had seen the coalfield commissions for John Davies and Bruce Rae. 1984 saw Behind the Voteand Beyond the Vote and, during the Miners’ Strike, participation in the production of the Workshop Movement’s Miners’ Campaign Tapes. Alongside Isabella’s and John Davies’ For Druridge, 1985 saw Can’t Beat It Alone, an engagement with the debate on nuclear and coal-fired energy. In 1986, the unit made both The Sadler Story, a personal history of a peace activist, and The Box, an animation exploring fear and isolation in the new urban environment, by Judy Tomlinson.
In 1985, the unit mounted Making the News, a major exhibition exploring media coverage of the Miners’ Strike. Moving between international, national and regional issues, it developed a range of photographic projects, and between 1988 and 1990 the NOW series of exhibitions created a space for immediate responses to contemporary events such as Mik Critchlow’s Seafarers, Gilles Peress’ Haiti, Shahidul Alam’s work on the Bangladeshi flood When the Waters Came, Mark Power, Paul Lowe, Ivo Gill & Lubomir Stiburek’s Glimpses of Change in the East and Steve Conlan’s Poll Tax.
Robson Green, Shields Stories, 1988
After completing the film Seacoal and developing considerable work around the miners’ struggle, Amber felt the need to root itself in a commitment to a specific community. Various locations were considered, but it decided upon North Shields, in part because substantial work had already taken place, and the group had the contacts through which it could quickly open up a serious engagement. To facilitate this, it bought and ran the New Clarendon, a pub overlooking the Smith’s Dock shipyard, which would act as a meeting place, a social centre and a regular film location. It also bought a disused chapel as a workshop space. The Current Affairs Unit developed the video documentaries The Privatisation Tapes (1986) and, with writers Kitty Fitzgerald, Steve Trafford and Tom Hadaway, Shields Stories(1988), a series of ten minute soaps exploring issues such as health, education, debt, crime and privatisation, which featured Robson Green in his first screen role. Kitty, who had joined the group as a writer, had also been centrally involved in the gallery’s NOW programme.
From Marks & Spencer to Marx & Engels was made in 1988 as an exchange project with the East German state film group DEFA, in which Amber documented women crane drivers and the fishing industry in Rostock. The German group came to the North East and made From Marx & Engels to Marks & Spencer, linking up in particular with unemployment groups in Newcastle and North Tyneside.
In Fading Light
In Fading Light poster
Having worked for so long with Tom Hadaway, a writer who had been involved with the fish quay all his working life, Amber was keen to make a film about the fishing industry. Tom’s advice was that it needed to be about an anchor seine boat, and Murray went to Denmark to buy one. Delivered to North Shields by two Danish fishermen, their crossing eased by a crate of Tuborg, the Sally arrived just in time for the start of filming. Actors, who innocently came for auditions, found themselves at sea for days on working vessels, learning the trade and being judged by fishermen as to whether they could cut it. It’s worth noting that Brian Hogg was deemed good enough to be offered work on a local fishing boat.
In Fading Light, 1989
In spite of the extensive preparations, some members of the film crew never fully adjusted to work on a moving deck. There were particular problems related to the need to see the horizon as well as focus the camera. In the shooting of one scene, the actor Sammy Johnson went overboard and was very nearly lost. There was a heroic quality to the making of In Fading Light, which was released in 1989. Sadly, on an attempted voyage to the San Sebastian Film Festival, the Sally started taking in serious water, but it was eventually sold, like the pub and the chapel, even managing to attract a slight profit. There are risks, but the group’s approach to locations allows for longer shoots than could ever be contemplated in the context of a hire. It gives greater flexibility, makes a depth of exploration possible and opens up a completely different relationship with the communities in which the work is developed. Alongside the making of In Fading Light, Peter Fryer was commissioned to produce the photographic exhibition Let Go. Nick Hedges’ earlier work formed the bulk of a pack of images on the Fishing Industry, published and distributed to schools in North Tyneside.
Dream On & The Meadow Well
Dream On, 1991
The Filleting Machine was set on the Shields estate, The Ridges. To improve its image, it had been renamed Meadow Well. Kitty, Ellie, Pat, Lorna and other members of the group, worked there extensively, developing a range of activities, including a women’s writing group. Dream On (1991) was developed through improvisation and engagement with the women writers and with members of a New Clarendon women’s darts team, which Amber members and actresses joined for a complete season. The lead roles were taken by Anna Gascoigne, blues singer Mo Harold, and Amber Styles, a local woman who had first been drawn into the touring productions of The Filleting Machine, who later appeared in the film version and many of the subsequent dramas. Blues musician Ray Stubbs and Brian Hogg, a member of Live Theatre for many years, are two others who have appeared in most Amber dramas, their enduring appeal stemming, at least in part, from their abilities to blend with the lives depicted.
Meadow Well, Steve Conlan
Steve Conlan’s Poll Tax (1990) had formed part of a broader exhibition project Meadow Well: an English Estate (1991), which was commissioned in parallel to the making of the film. The estate won notoriety that year for its part in the wave of riots that spread across the UK, something which gave Dream On a higher profile locally and nationally, helping it achieve an Odeon release and the minor distinction of out-grossing Oliver Stone’s JFK in its Newcastle run.
In 1991, working just with Sirkka’s still images of life on the beaches of North East England, Amber made The Writing in the Sand. After it was completed, Sirkka herself went back to Finland for a year, reconnecting with her homeland, a personal journey out of which came the photographic project My Finnish Roots and the documentary Letters to Katja.
The Writing in the Sand, 1991