New Town Utopia

 

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A history of one town proves to have a wider significance.

 
New Town Utopia

  

Basildon in Essex is the chosen location for this visually striking documentary about the post-war enterprise of setting up new towns in England. It looks at the original project and features the familiar voice of Jim Broadbent declaiming the words of the M.P. Lewis Silkin who defined the aims behind this scheme. But, as the film goes on, it moves beyond the aspirations to show the subsequent history as various inhabitants of Basildon - some of whom are amongst those who early in the 1950s moved there from London to start a new life, while others are of a younger generation - describe their outlook and the changes they have witnessed.

 

Christopher Ian Smith, the film’s director, producer and co-editor, is also its photographer in which capacity his work stands out - not least in the opening section in which to capture the hopes of the original planners he brings out the beauty of the modernistic designs. But what follows is for much of the time a tale of disillusionment which, depicting the uniformity, the enervating effect of the pervasive grey concrete and the unforeseen suitability of the layout to provide places for drug-dealing, renders ironic the concept that Utopia was being created.

 

As the film proceeds it suggest that the constrictions of new town life encouraged militancy, but other factors make this a wider portrayal of English life in recent decades than the film’s title might suggest. Basildon becomes a microcosm of social change with many local details reflecting matters in the country generally. We hear of how industrial closures cut across the working life of the community and of how the embrace of Thatcherism encouraged the buying and selling off of council houses. Another development was the cutting down of amenities by a council which, contrary to the spirit of the original enterprise, declared that art and culture were no longer a priority. As against these dismaying aspects, New Town Utopia speaks up for the importance of art as a counter-balance. Early on, an arts centre in Basildon became a place where theatre, poetry, punk rock and an alternative scene could flourish. Although wider opportunities of this kind may have fallen away, the individuals seen here continue to embrace art, be it personal and private or in a gallery: writing is seen as a form of therapy open to creative individuals and one man even uses puppets to protest against the council’s philistine views.

 

Although this film is only about 80 minutes in length, there is a sense that the last scenes presenting mixed views about Basildon today go on for too long. Perhaps the need to reach feature length is to blame for this. In any case, despite this falling away, there is too much of interest here for me to be willing to reduce my rating. If the film is a work in praise of art and its place in our lives, it is fitting that the visual artistry of Christopher Ian Smith is so notable a feature of this documentary.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Steve Waters, Phil Burdett, Ralph Dartford, Sue Paget, Rob Marlow, Ölmo Lazarus, Terry  Bird, Vincent O’Connell, and the voice of Jim Broadbent.

 

Dir Christopher Ian Smith, Pro Christopher Ian Smith, Ph Christopher Ian Smith, Ed Neil Lenthall and Christopher Ian Smith, Music Greg Haines.

 

Modern Moving Image-Verve Pictures.
81 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 4 May 2018. Cert. 15.