Martin’s reels of treasure
5:30am Wednesday 16th July 2014 in By Barry Leighton
MOST of us have seen them at one time or other… those grainy monochrome films that help define our nation: Winston Churchill resolutely striding through the blitzed streets of war-ravaged London, the Coronation of the Queen in all of its pomp and ceremony, the toothless grin of Nobby Stiles as he joyfully jigs around Wembley Stadium with the World Cup on his head.
Flickering onto Martin Parry’s computer screen is something that – for him, at least, and anyone else interested in the heritage of this town – is equally as precious and compelling. They are scenes from Swindon that have not been seen for more than half a century.
Washing hangs from thatched cottages as children scurry around Little London in Old Town… the girls from Broome Manor Dairy make their morning milk delivery by hand cart in Marlborough Road… a policeman strolls by and a child breaks into a spontaneous dance as customers pop in and out of Mason’s long gone High Street department store.
A way of life – the fashions, the transport, the commerce… all changed beyond recognition – has suddenly, incredibly, been revived right in front of our eyes. For several decades these remarkable reels of footage, contained within an assortment of tin canisters and cardboard packages, had been locked away in an old safe, unloved and forgotten (see panel).
They turned are treasure, the celluloid variety… films made as long as 80 years ago by the late Alexander Morris, of the defunct Swindon Public Libraries Film Unit.
A founder member of the group in 1947, the talented Mr Morris, it transpires, was the grandson of William Morris, who launched the Swindon Advertiser 160 years ago… which also makes him the uncle of best-selling author, zoologist, artist and TV presenter Desmond Morris.
Profoundly deaf, AG Morris, as he liked to be known, for many years lived with his deaf sister in Westlecot Road – communicating with others by writing notes – before the elderly pair moved away in 1964.
For at least three decades, from the Thirties to the Fifties, Morris, whose father also edited the Advertiser, was a prominent member of the unit that created a variety of mostly locally shot films that, viewed today, shine light on a vanished world.
“I am so glad to have this stuff,” says Martin, as he shows me another clip from the “lost” Morris cache he is restoring at his town centre house. “Look at that,” he enthuses as we gaze at Haymaking in Wiltshire, a 1937 film highlighting a now archaic method of farming with heavy horses and obsolete machinery. “This is priceless to my mind. How are kids going to know how life once was without films like this?” he reasons.
In 1988, Martin founded the Western Film Archive, a registered charity dedicated to “collect, preserve and make available audio visual material” from the Swindon area. Last year we told how he had restored and placed on-line some poignant films by unit member, Denis Winslow.
One of them showed Denis’s two sons, Tony, 14, and Ken, eight, visiting some of Wiltshire’s archaeological marvels: mysterious Silbury Hill, brooding Barbury Castle, majestic Avebury. We interviewed Ken, now a 71 year-old grandfather.
The Morris movies – which will take several painstaking months to restore, digitise and place on the internet – are equally as fascinating and invaluable. “This is wonderful stuff,” he says as we admire Morris’ film on the importance of a daily pinta.
It shows a cart full of milk bottles wheeled by two female dairy workers along Marlborough Road.
“I’d no idea they used handcarts for milk deliveries in the Fifties,” he says.
Two pretty girls, meanwhile, are having breakfast after the contents of their newly-arrived pint are mashed into cornflour to help make porridge. “These women probably aren’t alive anymore,” Martin reflects sadly.
Youngsters at a Swindon school are shown taking delivery of their free daily third-of-a-pint of milk… a provision controversially axed after 25 years in 1971 by a future Prime Minister, earning her the nifty nickname Milk Snatcher Thatcher.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s declaration that “All The World’s a Stage”, Morris positioned his cine camera opposite Mason’s in Old Town – now occupied by a dreary Sixties shopping mall – and filmed Swindon folk going about their daily business.
Nothing unusual happens. It’s just normal Swindon life circa 1953 (Martin is pretty sure of the year after dating the cars that occasionally trundle by).
Ordinary stuff like this is rare precisely because of its ordinariness. Watching these films is like popping back in a time machine.
Martin says: “Alex Morris left a considerable legacy for someone so disabled.”
He goes on: “I think these archive films intimate our own mortality because we watch people whose lives have run their course passing through the same streets and places that we do now. It reminds us that we too are passing through.”
Morris didn’t only produce documentaries but also fictional movies including a “psychological drama” As Shadows Go, filmed in and around Swindon using friends as the cast.
“He seems to be suggesting that your shadow is your alter ego and would do things you wouldn’t normally have the courage to do. There appears to be a hint of sexual fantasy here,” muses Martin. “A reaction, perhaps, to the repression of post-war Britain.”
Trying to work out precise locations in the film I am thrilled to spot Evelyn Street – where I have lived for years – thanks to its familiar, long-redundant railway bridge.
Morris’s films – like most from the Swindon Film Unit – are silent, so Martin adds a suitably appropriate audio backdrop from his extensive library of public music CDs.
Amidst his delight at uncovering the Morris cache, however, is a smidgeon of concern. “Look at that,” he points at the screen. “It’s called reticulation: a pattern effect which means the celluloid base is beginning to harden and decompose.”
The Morris films, he says, have been caught just in time... another 10 years or so and they would have been beyond salvage. Others made by members of the film unit may not be so lucky.
They, too, could now be lying in lofts, wardrobes, basements, garages… slowly, silently rotting away.
“This is a real worry,” says Martin. “These films are priceless, really. If they are not restored over the next few years they will be lost forever and that would be a tragedy.”
He is urging anyone with such films to contact him so he can restore them before it is too late. Theoretically, once Martin digitises them they “last forever.”
He adds: “Usually these reels have been inherited by family members after the film-maker has passed away. They may seem safe for now in someone’s attic or garage, but they will be unwatchable if left too much longer.”
- Anyone with such films can contacted him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07816 197870.