British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

NEW WORK NEWCASTLE: art/film crossovers, Part 1

The closing plenary of our conference will take the form of a debate about the support from broadcasters (particularly Channel 4) for regional film production in the North East. One of the case-studies of this plenary will be The Artist’s Cut, a development initiative led by Newcastle-based creative industry development agency Northern Film & Media (NFM) and supported by Channel 4, with Kate Leys (freelance script consultant/story editor) and Roxy Bramley (Northern Film & Media) reporting on its progress to date.


Taking its inspiration from the recent success of films by artists-turned-directors such as Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor-Wood and Gillian Wearing, the initiative is based upon an intensive mentoring programme, covering storytelling, cinematography, casting, directing, distribution, and marketing strategies. Kate Leys, Tabitha Jackson (Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Arts), and producer Samm Haillay (Better Things, Self-Made) have all offered their expertise or acted as mentors in this process. It has already provided opportunities for artists in the North East to break into film, and is designed to build on Channel 4’s creative diversity drive. The Artist’s Cut is supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and by the ERDF Competitiveness Programme 2007-13.


We will look in more detail at the scheme and also at precedents for Channel 4’s support for artists’ film and moving image in Britain in the next in this sequence of blog posts on art/film crossovers, but for now it’s important to start at the beginning, by highlighting the role that Northern Arts, the Regional Arts Association, played in supporting the visual arts, which has helped to give rise to the flourishing contemporary arts scene in the region.


Writing in The Times in 1974, Richard Overy described the arts ‘landscape’ in the region:


“The Northernmost part of England comprising the counties of Cumberland, Northumberland, Westmoreland and Durham, has a surprising number of enterprising small non-commercial galleries and arts centres. The survival of these is partly due to the support of the Northern Arts association, one of the first and the liveliest of the regional arts associations, which so often act more humanely and intelligently than the bureaucracy of the Arts Council. But they owe their tenacity to the dedication of the individuals who have laboured to get and keep them going. It is probably no co-incidence that so many of these centres should have sprung up in the poorest and least privileged part of England. From the mouth of the Tyne to the Solway Firth, across the neck of Britain, are The Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, the Bede Gallery in Jarrow, the Sunderland Arts Centre, the Spectro Arts Workshop in Whitley Bay and several more springing up. Many of these are as much concerned with the performing arts as with the visual ones, but generally their origins, and those of the people who run them, lie in the visual arts.”


Clearly the region had a thriving grass-roots visual arts culture, much of which reflected the desire of younger artists not only to make new kinds of art but also to create new institutions for the production and exhibition of work, as an alternative to the commercial galleries and traditional forms of patronage. In a fascinating document on the development of the Newcastle art collective originally known as The Basement Group (later to be renamed UK Projects and then Locus +), Richard Grayson discusses a nexus of activity that formed around Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University), Spectro Arts Workshop (now Newcastle Arts Centre) and The Basement Group in the 1980s.


“There was a history of experimental activity in the north east, albeit often heterodox and isolated. The region had maintained a slightly wary distance from metropolitan centres and discourses but fostered innovative practices, often informed by the trajectories of international modernism.” Richard Grayson, 2006.


Poster for Basement Group video arts shows, 1982. © The Locus+ Archive

The Basement Group was an art collective based around the idea of open access to the Group’s venue – that anybody who submitted a proposal would be able to put on a performance or time-based event, leading to work by established practitioners as well as experimental work by students and other interest parties. This reflected the group’s non-hierarchical structure. This open access policy meant that the Group put on an impressive amount of work, but it became increasingly problematic over time for practical and curatorial reasons to do with the number of applications and the issue of quality control. This led to the establishment of curated strands of programming. As Grayson observes,

“That the regional funding authority was willing to engage such a left-field enterprise was in turn largely due to its Visual Arts officer, Peter Davies. He had a profound commitment to encouraging experimental practice in the region and supported The Basement and its activities in many different ways. This consisted of financial support (the first grant was £1,250, rising to £5,000 in 1980), attendance at events, and at one point even making a performance/installation, Administration Works (1982).”

Spectro Arts Workshop (who were supportive of the Basement Group’s activities) became the Newcastle Media Workshop, and in 1984 began offering video facilities and training to interested individuals and groups, whether making a video about a local issue, recording a band, or just learning about the medium of video.

Amber’s Murray Martin & 16mm Bolex Camera, 1970s. © Amber Films Collective.

Artists from the Basement Group (originally known as Ayton Basement) went on to be active in the London Film Makers Co-op, London Musicians Collective, and London Video Arts (the LFMC and LVA merged some years ago to form LUX).

A similarly co-operative and non-hierarchical structure was also characteristic of the Amber Film Collective, which was originally formed by Murray Martin (pictured) and Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London in 1968. The group relocated to Newcastle where it expanded, seeking new ways to operate outside of the mainstream film industry, building engagements with community groups and representing labouring and working class cultures. In 1977 they set up the Side Gallery dedicated to politically-engaged photographic practice.


Amber has continued to produce a steady stream of innovative documentary films and photographic exhibitions from its Newcastle base ever since. Amber will be represented at our plenary by Graeme Rigby (see interview with Graeme here by Jack Newsinger), who has been involved with the collective since 1982, and Dr James Leggott of Northumbria University, who is preparing a book on Amber. We are also planning to show a short film about Amber’s documentary work in North Shields, which gives a sense of Amber’s relationship to the community. It also gives a sense of the scale and focus of Amber’s work at the height of the workshop movement’s relationship with Channel 4. As well as exploring their North Shield’s residency, which ran from 1986 to 1991, the films draws on earlier work which took place there, with extracts from Seacoal (1985), T Dan Smith (1987), Shields Stories (1988), In Fading Light (1989) and Dream On (1991). Amber will feature in a blog article on this site very soon.