OK, so just who are you? What gives you the right to go sounding off?

I was born in 1948 (you do the maths) in the Home Counties. In 1968 censorship in British theatre was abolished and experimental (and often overtly ‘political’) theatre took off. I was studying drama but I wanted to be part of the post-68 action. In 1970, more by a series of accidents, I ended up living in a squat in Bradford which was just round the corner from the university. It turned out that, for me, this was the best place to be in the whole universe.

 

Bradford University was a centre for technology, but also for applied social studies. In order to introduce some ‘arts’ into the place they appointed Chris Parr as fellow in theatre and they paid him to do whatever he liked. And Chris liked the new world of censorship free theatre, and so he programmed the university main hall with all the experimental theatre groups on the circuit: The People Show, The Brighton Combination, John Bull Puncture Repair Kit, you name it. He also liked the idea of finding and developing new writers, and it was Chris who discovered a local newspaper reporter by the name of David Edgar…Chris also liked encouraging people to form fringe theatre companies, so some of us on the extreme left formed ‘The General Will’, whilst other more anarcho-hippie types such as myself got more into organising community theatre, festivals and events. So Chris was continually using students ‘actors’, drawn from such as Chemistry, or Law, or Social Studies, to perform new writing. The one problem was that, despite the fact that Chris was a great director and a great organiser, he couldn’t personally act his was out of a paper bag – and someone had to give some of the students some lessons, which was where I came in. Chris Parr was to go on to be head of drama at the BBC.

 

About three years later I was still skint and I realised in needed to take it all a bit more seriously, so I moved to London and joined Roland Muldoon’s theatre group: CAST. But I was soon having woman trouble – acting and fucking have always been good bedfellows, as have ‘acting’ and ‘insecurity’ and ‘drama’ and ‘going over the top’ and, well I ultimately thought, fuck this for a game of soldiers, here we are trying to make theatre about contemporary political issues so you spend most of your life performing to tiny audiences and sleeping on other people’s floors. Maybe it’d be much more sensible to make films. But did I know anything about films, besides having acted in one or two underground shorts? No. Could I act? Yes. Could I knock on doors and pretend I knew…Yes. So, after about four months I was a trainee cameraman working at least five days a week. And I’d also become less of an anarcho-hippie and joined the west London libertarian left. I became good friends with a charismatic bloke called Alan Hayling whose radical politics had brought him into severe conflict with the BBC.

 

One day a shop steward from the local hospital told us that there was a strike brewing and that, because a lot of her members were immigrant women, literacy was a real problem. “You’re filmmakers. Why don’t you make a film for us about the issues?” she said. “Err, well it’s not quite as simple as that. We’d need to set something up and get some money from somewhere.” “So when are you going to start?”

 

That’s pretty much how we started the Newsreel Collective in 1975. Pretty much by default I became the group’s secretary, so it was me who wrote the submission which got us what at the time was maybe the biggest grant that the BFI had shelled out – but it was Alan who’d brokered the deal with its Production Board head, Peter Sainsbury, over countless drinks in the backrooms of numerous Soho pubs. And we did have as members certain people like Pascoe MacFarlane and Adrian Cooper who, when it came to left-wing political documentaries, had serious international reputations. Oh yes, and we always made sure we had members who were National Film School students to provide cover for us whilst we borrowed their kit, or used their editing rooms in the middle of the night.

 

And we did make quite a few films. We started off with one for the National Abortion Campaign, An Egg is not a Chicken. It wasn’t very good, but it certainly got shown a lot. There was also some other rubbish on housing and unemployment, but we did make a couple of films on the overthrowing of fascism in Portugal, and another couple on the Grunwick strike which I’m really proud to have been a part of and which all raised a lot of not just awareness but also money for causes far greater than ourselves. So that’s another piece of history which someone should write up in more detail another day.

 

Alan Hayling went on to spend quite a few years working on the line at Ford’s truck plant. He was one of the key people behind the ill-fated ‘News on Sunday’ (no tits but plenty of balls). Much later he became head of documentaries at Channel 4.

 

Newsreel had this ‘collective’ structure, which meant that anyone who screamed and shouted and locked themselves in the toilet could get their own way. So after about two years Newsreel had torn itself apart. I wanted to have a jolly good think about all this before making the same mistakes again, so I went and enrolled on a Media Studies degree at the Polytechnic of Central London School of Communications which was located in what the Daily Express was to come to call “Little Red Riding House St.” just round the corner from Broadcasting House. At the time the department was famed for a mixture of extreme academic rigour (grade V establishment) and for propagating an overtly Marxist analysis. In other words it was right up my street, I loved every minute of it, graduated with not just a First, but a ‘Starred First’, had stuff published in Media, Culture and Society; and was head-hunted by the University of California. But being an ivory-towered academic catering to, whatever one’s politics, the privileged elite, was not what I’d set out to do.

 

No, I’d gone back to the conclusion that, if you really wanted to examine the major issues in society, it was drama not documentary that allowed you to say what you wanted to say – you had to make narrative features, and I’d already been recruited as a key figure on the pre-production of a planned Anglo-Sri Lankan co-production with a script that could have come from the pen of John Pilger.

 

The producer was a Sri Lankan business man (‘K’) – part of the family which was the Sri Lankan film industry in those days, producing about 40 studio-based sub-Bollywood features a year as well as one or two more serious productions. This was great! This was something that was really going to happen, investment finance had been secured from several European TV companies and I was doing quite a bit for “K”s own business as well. Trouble was I was owed all this money…. Turned out I wasn’t the only one. One night I sort of broke into K’s office and found all the solicitor’s letters. I started adding up the debts. It was quite literally hundreds of thousands. A few days later K disappeared…

 

Nothing for it, the only way I could keep all the bank managers that I owed money to at bay was to get a full-time job – and that’s how I ended up teaching media, communications and ultimately TV and video production at Blackburn College. Along the way I helped the photo-journalist, Nigel Dickenson by writing the text for some exhibitions, as well as for our book about the miners’ strike, Hanging on by your Fingernails. Nigel went on to take photographs in all of the world’s major hotspots, to expose illegal logging, to survive several attempts on his life, and to win World Press Awards. He now lives in France and is close to giving up photo-journalism all together as magazines today can sell more copies from printing photos of vacuous ‘celebrities’ with accompanying articles about their new kitchens, so the rest of the world can go hang.

 

My style of teaching could perhaps be best summed up like this: I’d start off by saying to new groups of students, “All of you are here because you want to get distinctions. Well as far as I’m concerned you shouldn’t set your sights so low. A production only becomes something when audiences see it; till then it doesn’t exist. So you’re not here to get distinctions, you’re here to win festivals.” And they did. And one of them, Michael Booth, got a forty minute black-comedy horror, Come With Me accepted at Karlovy Vary. He’d made it when he was about 19. He wrote and told Peter Jackson about this and sent him a copy. And he got a reply – a whole page! Peter ended up by writing, “Michael, one day you’ll be making features.” 

 

In 1997 I became very ill for many months with a mystery virus which finally left me with chronic fatigue syndrome; it’s never gone away. Writing stuff like this is really hard and I can only manage it in short bursts, after which I often have to go and lie down. But I found that creative writing gave me an escape into other worlds; worlds of the imagination.

 

A few years had passed. Michael had been getting nowhere with some brilliant scripts; and it was obvious that, if you lived in Blackburn, no one was going to give you any money. Michael had become very depressed. So I wasn’t having that. “Hey,” I said, “We’ll just have to go out and make something on no money. In fact I know just what to write. It’s a bit like Nick Broomfield does Man Bites Dog, except it’ll be the antidote to British gangster movies rather than the antidote to the serial killer flick; and it’ll be the best no-budget movie ever made. But you’ll have to bear with me, this could take quite some time. Hmmm, you know I think I’m going to have to write this as a novel first just so that I can work it all out. Now there’s this partly deranged college lecturer who used to work in documentaries who reckons that he can somehow make an exploitation movie in his spare time on no money if he can just somehow manage to persuade someone, who used to be involved in everything from prostitution to importing cocaine, to let him and some of his ex-students follow them around with a camera. And if he fails, if the guy and his associates won’t play ball, so what? I mean, Nick Broomfield made a whole documentary about how Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t give him and interview. And, come to think of it, wasn’t Michael Moore’s first film something like that….And I’ve even got a working title for it: A Diary of a very Bad Lad.

 

“Diary of a Bad Lad” was finally completed around about Easter 2007, and this was thanks to Jamie Parry and Paul Shields at Sumners – Manchester’s premier post-production house. Jamie and Paul had discovered the film, largely through John Wojowski’s Kino/Manchester International Film Festival, and they offered to grade it, master it to high-definition and cut a trailer – and all FOC. This was a very different attitude to the one we experienced from the Film Council who we approached with an enquiry about completion funding once we’d done the rough cut. The Film Council refused to even look at it. Personally I thought their e-mails were rather rude. So we ploughed on, did the fine cut; and Simon Auster, a local composer and music producer did all of the audio post (from surround sound mix to full music) for a stake in the finished film.

 

A copy of the ungraded fine cut ended up with the British Council who were so impressed with it that they made it one of the handful of features that they submitted to Cannes 2006 – we were an official entry. And if it was accepted somehow we’d have to raise the money for a tape to 35mm film transfer and God knows what else. That year Cannes took no British films; rumour has it that this was for various reasons ranging from the war in Iraq to objections to what the French considered to be an attempt to impose British-style economic policies on them. Still, we did think that the fact that we were an ‘official’ British submission would cause sales agents and distributors to sit up and take notice. How wrong you would be…

 

So, as you can see, I’ve also spent nearly three years in ‘distribution hell’…..

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2 Responses to “OK, so just who are you? What gives you the right to go sounding off?”

  1. James MacGregor Says:

    Jon, congratulations on your “cahiers de Jon” blog.

    It is an excellent piece of work, so none of your long struggle has been in vain. It has, at the very least, produced a healthy scepticism about the UK film industry’s many faces, some of them false and some of them duplicitous, as you know only too well.

    I hope your readers will benefit from reading your articles if only to come to a realisation what a mountain they are going to have to climb for themselves in order to succeed in what they want to do. Then they still have to find an audience so it is, after all, merely a beginning.
    Despite the adversities still to come, bon chance mon ami.

    Best wishes

    James MacGregor

  2. Stephanie Bloom Says:

    Lord are you noxious and self important too,! Stumbled upon this and really wish I hadn’t now need a shower.

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