“I found the transcript of the New Towns Bill drawn up for parliament in 1946. It’s a lyrical [and] impassioned speech…”
For the latest in my series about those who work on the urban past today, I was lucky enough to speak with Christopher Ian Smith the Director of “New Town Utopia”. Focused upon Basildon in Essex, “New Town Utopia” is a documentary about how the Utopian future envisioned by the planners and builders of Britain’s post-war new towns failed to materialise. This makes the situation grim but not helpless. Through focusing on contemporary Basildon’s musicians, artists and other creatives; the film suggests that even at this time of austerity and neglect of the built environment all might not be lost.
The filmmakers are currently part way through a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising the funds needed to make the film ready for distribution.
What first made you interested in Basildon?
“Basildon was built to be a hub for the arts [today] you have to smash the surface to glimpse it But it’s there…”
I grew up in Essex and spent a lot of time in Basildon as a child. It always had a sense of ‘otherness’ compared to other towns. This came from the architecture and textures and the intriguing sculptures and public art.
Basildon is representative of many British towns in its economic an social struggles – and not just new towns. The high street is populated with betting shops, pound shops and payday loan peddlers. Artists struggle to get funding or support from the people of the town and local government.
When it comes to art and culture, London (and some other major cities and towns) exist in bubbles. I live in London now – on my street there are 5 art galleries, 4 more than Basildon.
Basildon was built to be a hub for the arts – you have to smash the surface to glimpse it But it’s there, and the people in my film are all ‘artists’ in one sense or another… poet, puppeteer, musician, actor, sculptor. They are all people with talent, fight and never ending belief in the power of the creative spirit. Through exploring the story of the town through their memories and observations it highlights the importance of art and culture to the well-being, happiness and communities that ‘work’.
What were the key steps on the way to the genesis of the New Town Utopia project?
I found the transcript of the New Towns Bill drawn up for parliament in 1946. It’s a lyrical, impassioned speech given in the midst of the post-war government’s progressive and radical policy drive. It evoked a desire to create a new type of citizen – with: “a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride” and evoked Thomas More’s Utopia. Beauty, culture and civic pride are not terms associated with Basildon now. It has a terrible reputation locally and nationally – in fact in popular culture its often referred to as a kind of cultural paradigm ‘the shit British town’. It’s a challenging place that’s been through difficult times, but I knew there was more to the place and its people.
What did Basildon’s residents make of the film’s concept?
Those interested in art and the town’s history have been very vocal and active in supporting the film. But the general populace has been fairly apathetic towards it – which is a shame but when the film comes out I’ll try to arrange free screenings to get as many people as possible to experience it.
How did you come across the film’s participants?
“Those interested in art and the town’s history have been very vocal and active in supporting the film.”
It really has been a four year process – a combination of research and networking gradually led me to discover and meet different characters. Its been a privilege to share in the lives of so many interesting people.
Most contributors didn’t need much persuading to be in the film – all had something to say about the town!
Are there any stories or characters you are especially looking forward to sharing?
It’s difficult to pick, but Steve Waters, who inspired the whole film with his activism through puppets and colourful life is crucial to the film. The story of Alan Joyce is a challenging one filled with humour and tragedy. He died a few years back but left a shed full of amazing, abstract, anti-capitalist paintings. He’s survived by a fantastic family who took part on the film.
“I hope this opens up debate about how important art and culture is to well-being and happiness…”
Does the film reach any conclusions about where a wrong turn was taken on the road to “utopia”?
Basildon’s history is complicated, but over the years it has had to deal with: industry (and key jobs) moving out in the ’70s and ’80s; right-to-buy leading to upwardly mobile migration… out of the town; self-serving and/or weak local politicians, lack of art and culture funding from national government, out of town development sucking life out of the high street, and some pretty bad luck at times.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
I hope this opens up debate about how important art and culture is to well-being and happiness (and this what role it should play in education and communities) – but also shines a light on towns outside of London that aren’t just dismissed as racist/Brexit.
If you would like to support the “New Town Utopia” project their kickstarter can be found here. You can follow the film’s progress on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. If you would like to read about other people actively involved in understanding, interpreting and sharing the historic urban environment see here.