Award winning film maker Penny Woolcock admits it was nice to make a film in which no one wanted to kill her.
That film is largely set in Blackpool – and she hasn’t done a bit of the filming herself.
What Penny has brought to the editing suite is a documentarist’s eye for popular culture and a painter’s attention to fine detail.
She also has a ready grasp of what Blackpool is all about which goes beyond the quick hit of a so called seasonal spotlight special or even the more prolonged exposure of Channel 4 show 999: What’s Your Emergency?
Born in Argentina, raised in Uruguay, she was a painter before becoming a film maker in her mid 30s, and has since directed a string of award winning documentaries, television, feature films and opera.
She’s won a host of awards for unflinching films about gang culture, homelessness, street life, along with the respect of those she’s filmed for all the occasional death threats – and standing ovations from festival audiences for the results.
But even Penny admits her Blackpool project, From the Sea to the Land Beyond, was rather special. For a start it’s not her work, in the sense she didn’t shoot any of the reels. Instead she indulged in what she calls the “guilty pleasure” of watching hours of black and white footage from the British Film Institute Archives while “the rest of the world worked.” Pre-selected for her task by equally assiduous staff at the institute to whom she could send out for more, like pizza, ordering in another cinematic slice of long gone life, to fill in any gaps in the viewers’ appetite for more.
The BFI asked the award winning independent film maker and her editor Alex Fry to make a film out of 100 years of archives. Fresh from a film about gangland culture, made after she was mugged herself and glimpsed a moment of “shared humanity” in her assailant and the fact he was as “freaked out by it as I was”, she leapt at the chance.
And this was to be silent, bar the compelling musical score by the band British Sea Power. It’s set about the coast of Britain but Blackpool is the undisputed star. Penny, like so many, has had her fill of formatted factual entertainment, docu-soaps, and constructed reality shows. She’s tired of tabloid television created with twitchy fingers on the remote control in mind. She concedes: “The opportunity to make something without these attendant anxieties was irresistible.”
Not that she could resist sprinkling a bit of fairy dust over the film, the sound of the sea, snatches of original narration, intermittent effects to punctuate the band’s score. But the individual snippets get by on merit alone, each capturing a moment in time, edited to represent the sum total of their parts.
Most enthralling is the earliest material by Blackburn film makers Mitchell and Kenyon whose moneymaking mission was to provide “local films for local people”.
“I found myself thinking ‘ I know you’,” recalls Penny. “Edwardians look straight at you with an open ingenuous gaze and a hundred years evaporate. That’s why film is so powerful. We surrender to it so completely.”
The previously lost archives of Mitchell and Kenyon had much the same impact upon audiences at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, some years ago when presented by two of the resort’s finest heritage champions, Professors Vanessa Toulmin and John Walton.
But the surprising strength of Penny’s already award winning film, which is released on DVD today, is there’s no running commentary. Just that haunting music.
And it works. Like a charm. It is mesmerising in its magic. It also begins and ends in Blackpool, the Blackpool of 1900 and the Blackpool of 2000. People at play. Looking straight to camera with curiosity and candour, surprising confidence and composure. Children clamouring to be kept in shot. Girls of stunning natural beauty smiling, frolicking in the Irish Sea, giggling through a beauty pageant. Smart chaps in suits doffing hats as cameras go by. Fast forward to 13 years ago and the humour’s still there but the innocence has gone, and our shapes have grown wider, and we’re more streetwise, girls playing to camera flashing their bras, lads larking around. But there’s still something irrepressible about the spirit of the resort. And the bracing winds haven’t changed either, in 100 years, still making fools of us all, chasing hats, or bent double against the prevailing wind. Penny adores it all – including reels that ended up on the digital equivalent of the cutting room floor.
It’s not some gentle stroll down memory lane but raw and gritty, often poignant, such as when 1914 coastguard try to revive a half-drowned, the shadow of the cameraman cast across the bodies as he handcranks his heavy 35mm camera, to the marches against unemployment in the 1920s, and the pinched faces of hungry children in 1930s coastal communities. Social history. Their story. Our story. It takes a film maker of the calibre of Woolcock to recognise good film making in others – and then make the rest of us see it. The recognition is more than a century overdue.
l Inspired by the film, viewers are encouraged to go online, select themes and locations which mean something to them from an interactive map of the British Coast. They will use these clips as the basis for dynamic video postcards, which they can add segments of the British Sea Power soundtrack to add a message and then share on The Space and Twitter and Facebook.
The BFI DVD costs £19.99 and is available from all good DVD retailers; by mail order from the BFI Shop by calling 020 7815 1350 or online at www.bfi.org.uk/shop