Category: TV

Industrial decay: reflections on the ‘working class’ in England in 2014

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Pear Mill, Stockport, one of the last cotton spinning mills to be constructed, 1913

You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different.  You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated.  You thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring.

George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

I don’t often write about where I am from, mostly because it depresses me, and the majority of my life has been spent in failed attempts to get away.  Recently however a renewed interest in the history of the town has made me appreciate it with new eyes, even if hasn’t contributed anything in making me want to stay.  Stockport is an old industrial town on the outskirts of Manchester which was formerly a centre of manufacture.  Although recorded as being in existence as early as 1170, Stockport is really a baby of the industrial revolution, the traces of which still form a large part of the landscape of the town today.  Terraced houses.  Cobblestones.  Mills.  Chimneys.  Rats.  Soot blackened red brick.  Canals.  Poverty.  Rain.

As the industrial revolution gathered momentum in the north of England, but especially in Manchester throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Stockport’s mills sprang up in earnest to take advantage of the roaring international trade in cotton.  Impoverished agricultural labourers and hand weavers who had been put of business by new machines flocked to towns to work in the factories, producing a quantity and quality and woven cotton that had not been possible before.  So far so good, I learnt all this in school without any particular interest . . . but then I picked up a copy of ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ by Friedrich Engels, and suddenly the industrial revolution has come back to haunt me.

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Meadow Mill, Stockport c.1880, cotton and wool spinning

Engels was born in Germany, and at the age of 22 in 1842 his parents sent him to Manchester to work in the ‘Ermen and Engels Victoria Mill’ in the hopes that it would encourage him to reconsider a career in business, as his father had intended.  Far from this, Engels began an in depth study of Manchester’s mills and slums, carefully considering the horrendous conditions of the working class and their station in society.  The outcome of his work was a call to revolution; ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ (which also prominently mentions Scotland, Wales, and Ireland).  It was a detailed and disparaging study, which surely would have scandalised the mill owning bourgeoisie had it been published in English (which didn’t happen until 1887, when a number of improvements had necessarily already been made).

He describes my hometown of Stockport in somewhat uncomplimentary terms, ‘There is Stockport too . . . [which] is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent.  But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town and valley bottom to the crest of the hill.  I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.’

Stockport in my opinion is still ‘excessively repellent’, and the recession has not been kind to the town centre; now containing a familiar financial downturn collection of payday loan shops, betting shops, £1 shops, charity shops, and of course the pre-requisite large number of empty premises.  The mills these days (where they are still standing) have been divided into units of furniture show rooms, museums, cafes etc. and are in various states of disrepair.  Several are now listed buildings, but the mills in general are so numerous and just so big that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to maintain them all.  Some attempt has been made to convert them into luxury apartments, but I’m inclined to think they would probably make draughty homes, and wandering around the ones I visited today I would guess it probably takes a lot of work to convert them into something liveable.

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Meadow Mill

The cotton trade relied on slave labour on both sides of the Atlantic, from the slaves in America who picked it to the mill workers who wove it.  Engels suggests that the mill workers, ‘are worse slaves than the negroes in America, for they are more sharply watched, and yet it is demanded of them that they shall live like human beings, and shall think like free men . . . the bourgeoisie [exploit] the workers in good times and let them starve in bad ones’.  While I wouldn’t like to make a comparison between the slaves and the mill ‘hands’, it is a cruel type of freedom that offers a choice between starvation in the streets or a short lifetime of toil, misery and boredom in the mills for barely subsistence wages.  What is obvious is that the success of both England and America, and perhaps every nation that has undergone/is undergoing industrialisation owes much of its development to human exploitation, ‘the destruction of their health, the social, physical, and mental decay of whole generations’.

This is particularly poignant when considering countries such as Bangladesh which have made headlines in the past year over working conditions, pay, and even the safety of the buildings.  Engels noted that Manchester had been constructed in such a way that the bourgeoisie could go about their business without ever having to enter a working class slum, and the same might be said of the west today.  We outsource manufacture to developing countries to exploit cheap labour, keeping the factories quietly tucked away in corners of the world we are unlikely to go to – saving us from being confronted by terrible conditions that capitalism has created.

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Room with a 19th century view, in the spinning room at Meadow Mill

The more I read of Engels, the more I was able to apply his descriptions directly to what I see happening in front of me in England today, and I have been reflecting on this more acutely since watching the controversial new Channel 4 series, ‘Benefits Street’.  This program, which documents the lives of benefit claimants and low paid workers on a street in Birmingham has clear parallels with many of the things that Engels discusses in ‘conditions of the working class’.  Although the clear difference is the government issued benefits, which outside of workhouse provision for the most desperate, did not exist in 1844.

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Vernon Mill, Stockport, constructed 1881, cotton spinning

Last week’s episode featured a number of Romanian workers, Britain’s most recent influx of ill received migrant workers, who had arrived on the street.  Working exhaustive hours for low wages, living in cramped conditions and derided by their unforgiving British neighbours, the Romanians received a raw deal in their hopes for a better life in England or of saving enough money to send home.  Engels, too, discusses migrant workers, but in 1844 the majority were from an impoverished Ireland, and from 1845 onwards an impoverished Ireland starving in the grip of a potato famine.  Desperate families left Ireland, only to receive a predictably hostile reception in England and were bound to slave away in a squalor which Engels described as being synonymous with the Irish.  The very worst slums in Manchester (a quarter known as ‘Little Ireland’) were those inhabited by the immigrant workers;

‘The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by the Irishmen.  Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces . . . the Milesian deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he is accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working people’s quarters and poison the air . . . The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses themselves is impossible to describe.  The Irishman is unaccustomed to the presence of furniture; a heap of straw, a few rags, utterly beyond use as clothing, suffice for his nightly couch . . . When he is in want of fuel, everything combustible within his reach, chairs, door posts, mouldings . . . finds its way up the chimney.  Moreover, why should he need such room?  At home in his mud-cabin there was only one room for all domestic purposes; more than one room his family does not need in England.  So the custom of crowding many persons into a single room, now so universal, has been chiefly implanted by Irish immigration.  And since the poor devil must have some enjoyment, and society has shut him out of all others, he betakes himself of the drinking of spirits.  Drink is the only thing which makes the irishman’s life worth having . . . so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness.’

The concerns of English workers at the time were much as they are now, that the immigrants would bring unwanted competition by agreeing to work for less money and in worse conditions, and so would undercut the natives and bring standards of living down; not to mention introducing an element of moral decay.  Descriptions of the poor treatment of Irish workers was slightly painful for me to read, given that this almost certainly would have applied to my own great grandfather (from a family of Irish immigrants working in the mills in the late 19th century).

Those who have seen ‘Benefits Street’ might recognise a few of the things described above; namely rubbish supposedly scattered by immigrants, overcrowding, and alcohol consumption as a means of escape.  With so much against the workers of the industrial revolution, I wonder how the members of the upper class could reasonably have expected the working class to better themselves?  It is easy to casually suggest (especially from a height) that if people work hard and ‘get on’ then they can clamber their way out of poverty, but I believe that unless you are made of exceptionally stoic and inexhaustible stuff, as well as having a little luck – then it is nearly impossible now, just as it was then.  Engels regrets the decline of social mobility as he sees it, ‘The disappearance of the lower middle class deprived the working man of all possibility of rising into the middle-class himself’ and this well applies to England today.

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Steps worn down by the clogs of the workers. Although I did go into the mills the interiors are very plain and I didn’t find much of interest to photograph on this trip. These were utilitarian buildings so nothing has been spent on interior decoration – the corridors and rooms are all plain brick as seen here.

I haven’t had the time to talk about many other things that Engels mentions; the health issues suffered by workers, child labour, widespread illiteracy, industrial action etc.  However, Engels was outraged by all that he saw, damning ‘the property holding class, when it is so blinded by its momentary profit that it no longer has eyes for the most conspicuous signs of the times’.  I think this is a sentiment well worth remembering.

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The ‘pear’ dome at Pear Mill

Photographs my own.  If you’re interested in ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ then it is can be downloaded for free off the amazon, go check it out 🙂  And if you’re interested in unearthing a bit more of Stockport’s industrial past, than I highly recommend taking a look at some off road urban exploration of the town here.

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What ever happened to Effy Stonem?

Classic Effy: season one

Classic Effy: season one

I was the original target audience for Skins. Aged 18 (just) and in my final year of sixth form college, weekends were a round of pills and parties, underage bars, cheap printed dresses from H&M, and the lengthy university applications that threatened it all. Cue the entrance of smug Tony, Sid and the gang who breezed onto the scene just to confirm we were doing it right. In 2007 Skins caused a stir. Was this really what the nations youth were getting up to? The house parties, the drugs, the casual sex, the breakdowns and intense relationships? The uneasy tension between young adults about to fly the nest and their oblivious suburban parents. The short answer is yes, which was why the series was such a hit – and had my friends and I gossiping right from the beginning. A year later when series two was released I was in my first year of university (I am a year older than the ‘first generation’ of characters). Having escaped parental confines completely we were a wild bunch, and we loved Skins. We would gather together to watch it in our filthy kitchen, drinks and joints in hand – looking for ourselves in the characters.

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Cast of series one in 2007, minus Effy who was just the kid sister

Skins was a condensed version of what we might get up to across an entire year, I was angry with those who brushed aside the series as being ‘extreme’ and ‘ridiculous’ – of course – it is tv! So yes, some of the storylines and the parties were taken to dizzying heights that we were unlikely to reach, but we were still able to identify with the situations and the characters. Skins felt real, as if someone had shone a light through the grey boredom of Hollyoaks and discovered what was really going on.

One of the breakaway stars of the first two series was Tony’s asinine younger sister Effy. A silent and menacing 14 year old slinking back into the house in rave gear early morning, and changing immediately into her school uniform, Effy Stonem was a force to be reckoned with. Easily the most troubled character in a turbulent sea of teenage angst and growing pains, it came as no surprise that Effy became the focus for the ‘next generation’ in series 3. Kaya Scodelario was mesmerising as the headstrong teenager; socially awkward, fiercely intelligent, and unwilling to take any shit from anyone – while conducting an immense battle with herself.

After a meandering divergence into feature length films (including playing a slightly unconvincing Cathy in Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaption of Wuthering Heights) Scodelario now returns as young professional Effy in a cut throat corporate world. Skins has grown up.

Trouble in the city: Skins Fire (photos courtesy of Channel 4)

Trouble in The City: Skins Fire (photos courtesy of E4)

Two weeks ago I went on a business trip to London and was surprised to find myself on the 28th floor trading office which constitutes my company’s London HQ. For me this was dazzling and slightly unreal; traders barking into phones staring intently at screens full of figures, occasionally glancing up to look out on the Shard dominated London skyline.  The money and the adrenaline were flowing, and it felt a long way from the crippling iron grip of the financial crisis.  Bearing this in mind I laughed when I saw the advert for ‘Skins Fire’ where Effy appears looking bored and restless in an almost identical London office. Once again Brian Elsley and Jamie Brittain nail it. I can think think of a dozen people I went to university with working a reception job in an industry they would really like to break into, and I can think of a dozen more lucky people who are definitely working in the financial district Effy is in. Bravo Skins creators, you still know exactly what we’re up to.  I was even more surprised/delighted when I spotted that one of the locations for filming was the outside of an upmarket bar in Manchester that I have recently frequented.

Skins always represented a bizarre kind of idealism despite the heartbreak and the drama. They had the clothes we couldn’t quite afford, the bigger parties, the cooler flats. And now Effy appears with the almost perfect office and career. But in true Skins style things are not quite right from the start, and the foundations have already been laid for disaster. I can’t wait for the rest of series. I would like to see some of the first generation of characters return, and I think Hannah Murray as Cassie is set to make an appearance.  Skins Fire (feeling the echoes of Twin Peaks pre-equal ‘Fire Walk with Me’ in the title here – on a similar messy teen theme) makes me feel less alone in the multiple fuck ups and false starts of my young adult life, just as it did when I was sixth form college kid.

10 Things I learnt while working on a film set

Before Christmas I was lucky enough to work as an intern in the production of a new drama series due air later this week.  Working within the media is not something I had previously considered as I knew that the competition was rough (but then – isn’t the competition for everything these days?)  My search for work/work experience since graduation has been somewhat rocky to say the least, so it was not with some small amount of shock that I found myself on a film set.  I realise that I was in a very lucky position to be able to work on something so high profile, especially considering that I did not study anything particularly TV related at university.  As I recognise that are a lot of aspiring media, design and broadcasting types out there I thought I would share some of the things I learnt:

  1. The hours are a bitch.  I didn’t realise that making TV was – well – quite so much work.  Preparation on set would start from 7am and filming would go on until 7pm (later for night scenes).  Depending on which department you’re working for it might also be necessary to hang around and clear up/view end of day ‘rushes’ after this point as well.  The filming schedule for this production operated on alternating 6 day and 5 day weeks.  If you’re thinking of working in film or television then you probably want to think about this carefully; if you have a twelve-hour turnaround (and this can be much less for really big scale productions) then you can forget about having a life outside of work.  The film set is your life.
  2. There’s a lot of hanging around not doing much, punctuated by  short bursts of manic activity. The first few days I spent on set it seemed like there were an awful lot of people who didn’t seem to do anything, but after careful observation I realised that actually every single person had a very specific job and if just one was missing then the whole crazy machine would grind to a halt.  In no particular order this might include: the director, various assistant directors, the camera man, the sound guys, the actual actors, tutors for child actors, costume people, make up people, lighting people, prop men, electricians, carpenters, animal handlers, runners, assistants, overwhelmed interns etc.  Long periods of not doing anything while a scene is being filmed from multiple angles are followed by ten insane minutes where everyone scrambles to turn everything around for the next scene as quickly as possible.
  3. Continuity is key.  Who knew there was a person on set whose entire job is spotting continuity errors before you get to spot them and point them out on IMDb?  Continuity is a pain in the ass though if you’re filming consecutive scenes over several days/weeks.  You can guarantee that distinctive blue jug in the background of every one of last weeks shots has inevitably been lost in the murky depths of the prop store or the general chaos of the set; never to be seen again.
  4. Things don’t always go to plan.  Children, animals, food and anything that even hints of special effects are the key culprits here – although pretty much anything can (and does) go wrong.  Working a on film set involves a lot of thinking on your feet, taking the initiative and general creative lateral thinking.
  5. Working on a film set is not glamorous.  Film set?  Glamour?  You must be joking.  As I was working on a drama set in the early 20th century a lot of the locations were in old and sometimes long empty buildings that were in no way designed for hostile takeover by a film crew.  When we weren’t out and about we were in the ‘studio’, re: unheated warehouse in the middle of November.  The sets were dark, cold and cramped with a lot of bulky equipment, and a whole lot of perpetually ill, overworked people in thermals and North Face jackets muttering darkly into their earpieces.
  6. Film crews have a language of their own.  Reccie?  AD?  Honey wagon?  Rolling?  Speed?  Hold the work?  What?  Obviously though the very best phrase is the one that concludes your mammoth working day – that’s a wrap.
  7. People who work on film sets are really interesting.  You always suspected they might be a breed of super cool roadies, and guess what, they are.  The majority of the people I met had worked at the very least all over the country, if not all over the world – some of them on very large-scale oscar winning blockbusters.
  8. Food is a pretty big deal, from breakfast to elevenses, lunch and everything inbewteen.  An army marches on its stomach, and so too does a film crew.  It took me a long time to realise that the caterers were specific film industry caterers.  At first I assumed I was taking massive liberties by asking them to store a box of dead rabbits in the freezer, or kindly requesting some authentic liver and tripe stew for the next days filming.  Then it slowly clicked that they must be contracted to deal with this sort of weird shit on top of having to feed everyone as well.
  9. This is not the real world.  Not just in the sense that this is a long way from your average office job, but also in the very literal sense that nothing is actually real.  Those slate tiles are actually MDF, that stone wall is made of fiberglass, the smoke from the fire is steam and dry ice and that natural daylight is actually the product of some seriously fancy lighting equipment.  And that’s before you spot the world war one soldier in the corner eating crisps and playing on his iPhone.
  10. Seeing your work on TV is the most exciting thing ever.  Obviously that adrenaline kick when you see the first advert for what you worked on is what makes it all worth it in the end.

This was my experience of what it was like to work on set, as part of my internship I also spent a lot of time working in the office – and that’s a completely different ballgame, but I’ll save that for another post.

I know who killed Laura Palmer

But I’m not going to tell you.

Hallucinations, giants, a lady with a pet log?  Yeah, this is David Lynch.  It’s business as usual here, so we’re dealing with something between the slightly odd and the totally fucking crazy.  But you already know all this David Lynch fans, and what did you expect really?

Twin Peaks was a drama about the murder of a young girl in a sleepy industrial town.  It ran for two series between 1990 and 1991 with the first series attracting critical acclaim, and the second absolutely bombing.  All the action is based around the sweet and innocent Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), wholesome prom queen who tutors kids and volunteers her spare time helping the community weirdoes.  Laura also likes cocaine, works in a gentleman’s club and has a few other skeletons in the broom closet.  One chilly morning in Twin Peaks Laura’s plastic wrapped body is washed up by the lake and chaos ensues.

Agent Cooper of the FBI (Kyle Mac Lachlan) comes to town to investigate the murder and begins to uncover the dark underside of this sleepy town meeting a lot of the wacky residents along the way.  I’ve always imagined that relatively isolated small towns are a ripe breeding ground for eccentrics and Twin Peaks does not fail to deliver on this.  As well as speaking to the residents of Twin Peaks Agent Cooper also begins to have cryptic dreams and hallucinations that he must decode in order for them to help with the case.  We are drawn into Agent Cooper’s complex psyche; enter a giant, a midget, the ghost of Laura, a red room and a creepy butler.  Everyone speaks in riddles and nothing makes a lot of sense.

Not having done a great amount of research on Twin Peaks or met anyone who had seen it, I didn’t realise that Laura’s murderer would not be revealed until season two (I thought the second series was going to deal with something else).  So I felt massively cheated at the end of season one when things did not reach a conclusion.  Also I’d made the mistake of buying the seasons separately and the second one was twice the price.  Season two seems to move a lot more slowly than season one, although I don’t know if this was just because my impatience was mounting and my enthusiasm was starting wane.  Also things got really super freaky with the mention of messages picked up in outer space.  This was really just unfathomably weird, even for David Lynch, and I wasn’t altogether impressed.  My frustration with series two apparently reflected that of the American public in the early 90s.  Network pressure lead to the revelation of Laura’s killer in the middle of season two, when it was apparently planned for the end.

There are maybe nine or ten episodes left for me to get through and at this point I think I might have to shelf the rest of Twin Peaks for a later date.  I feel like the real conclusion has been reached and I’m not sure I really care that much about seeing the other plot lines reach their end.  The only one of the side stories I was really interested in by mid season two was the relationship between Agent Cooper and Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn).  Apparently the original plan had been for them to get together, however Kyle McLachlan voiced his disapproval because he felt that it was not right for his character.  I understand that it would be unlikely for an FBI agent to get together with a teenage girl, who he had recently rescued from a brothel, but hey, this is Twin Peaks – stranger things have happened.  I think it is a shame that this storyline was not developed, and think it would have been good to have a new relationship to keep things interesting after the killer has been revealed.

Damn fine coffee: Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne

Damn fine coffee: Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne

I realise that this review has a kind of negative slant, and I don’t mean it be that way at all (at least not entirely).  Season one had me absolutely hooked; I couldn’t get enough of it.  And even season two had its compelling moments.  I love the ‘look’ of the series.  From a cinematic point of view the surrealist scenes are really cool – in the sort of way that you just know that large copies of the stills would make excellent prints because the composition and choice of colour is so good.  I have to admit that I was also guilty of analysing the clothes, and I was pretty much dying for a pleated tartan skirt and a pair of brogues a la Audrey Horne by the end of series one as well.  I get a big kick out of the inherent surrealist weirdness typical to David Lynch films.  The surrealist elements in Lynch’s films are always something that makes me wonder about how appealing they are to mainstream audiences.  If the very hint of an arthouse film is something that sends you running then I would suggest that David Lynch is probably not for you, and you should probably just stick to Spiderman or whatever.

I think my main problem with Twin Peaks was structure of the plot in series two, and the way that it began to become confused and without focus.  David Foster Wallace is able to express this a lot better than I can:

‘Like most storytellers who use mystery as a structural device and not a thematic device, Lynch is way better at deepening and complicating mysteries than he is at wrapping them up.  And the series’ second season showed that he was aware of this and it was making him really nervous.  By its thirtieth episode the show had degenerated into tics and mannerisms and red herrings, and part of the explanation for this was that Lynch was trying to divert our attention from the fact that he really had no idea how to wrap the central murder case up.  Part of the reason I actually preferred Twin Peaks’s second season to its first was the fascinating spectacle of watching a narrative structure disintegrate and a narrative artist freeze up and try to shuck and jive when the plot reached a point where his own weaknesses as an artist were going to be exposed.’

David Foster Wallace, David Lynch Keeps his Head, 1996

I don’t like to leave anything unfinished, but unfortunately I think that Twin Peaks is going to have to be tossed aside with all those craft projects that were never quite right and those books that I just can’t seem to persevere with.  So long Twin Peaks, we had a good run, and it was fun while it lasted.