Humphrey Trevelyan. Member from 1969 to 1970.
Cameraman and Lecturer – Interviewed 1996.
I had been in South America for two years up until the Christmas of 1968. I came back to London and a Latin American contact there was in touch with Ann Lamche. So, we went round together to meet up with Ann, probably in February or March 1969.
Did you have a long-standing interest in politics or film or both?
I had become interested in film making in South America although I had done quite a lot of photography before and some 8mm. filming on personal projects. It had no political content at all then but there was an aesthetic search.
I don’t think I was very politicised before I went out to South America. I’d done a degree in social anthropology at Cambridge and a sociology MA at the University of Essex. I initially went to Buenos Aries to do some sociology research. Then that rather fizzled out and I did some theatre with an Argentinian group – it was living theatre, anti-imperialist stuff.
When I got back to the UK my ideas for film projects were based on working with anthropologists I had met in Peru, in the Amazon jungle, but I was aware that great revolutions had occurred while I was away and all of a sudden England seemed to be transformed and I jumped into political film-making very enthusiastically.
At that time Cinema Action, to my knowledge, consisted of Ann Lamche and Richard Mordaunt, a 16mm. projector and a copy of a film of May/June ’68. My friend and I joined and within a few weeks another 3 or 4 people came.
What was Richard Mordaunt’s role?
He had set up a production company called Lusia Films with a couple of rather upper class friends of his – one of them was Lord Henry Herbert – and they had made quite high class corporate films for big people like BOAC and Richard particularly had concentrated on music films. He’d just finished a film on Otis Redding, They were quite successful and Richard himself was a very, very accomplished film maker. I don’t think he ever went to film school but he just had a fantastic feel for the medium. He had celluloid fingers.
The company was in Mayfair, in Shepherds Market, a small but quite luxuriously appointed production house and I do not know still to this day quite what moved Richard towards taking a very radical position in relation to film. But in quite an extraordinary way he completely opened up all the facilities of Lusia Films to Cinema Action.
At that point the the work consisted of showing the French film and one or two others films to shop stewards’ committees and one of the first things I did was to go up to a British Leyland factory which had gone on strike for the first time in 30 years.
How did the film go down?
I think there were mixed reactions. You tended to find in those days in shop stewards’ committees a left Labour/Communist Party majority and then quite a large Trotskyist minority. This film that we showed is heavily critical of the French Communist Party. So, obviously, that didn’t go down too well but they were terribly polite about it. That’s what really struck me, how polite they were.
One of the reasons for going round doing the projections and the talks with shop stewards’ committees was to get them interested in collaborating on film projects because at that time the British Shop Stewards’ Movement appeared to be very militant and the idea was that Cinema Action was going to be a servicing agency for it.
This was very much influenced by the Continental experience. Although Schlake at that time was not directly involved in Cinema Action, clearly he and Ann thought very similarly and , if anything, the approach was syndicalist but with this strong, rather complex German imposition which came from Schlake and the various German friends that they had. I’d be hard put to define it now. The German SDF movement, Rudi Dutschke, and people like that were prominent because Rudi Dutschke was a very close friend of Schlacke. Later on it became influenced also by the beginnings of the women’s’ movement brought over by a couple of American members later on in ’69.
How were decisions taken about what films to make and how to make them?
We used to have general meetings which would take an exceedingly long time – I think the record was 12 hours – and I think people were fairly autonomous. So, people proposed something and if there were enough people who supported it and there seemed to be the finance to do it, it was agreed.
You were, presumably, only having to pay for film stock and processing?
And transport. I, for instance, bought an old transit van which became the Cinema Action van and had a very honourable and chequered history in radical British politics.
What about paying for the film stock?
I think Lusia Films bore the brunt. Richard continued to do commercial work. So, he was able to make bits of money here and there. But certainly, what did happen after a while was that Lusia Films ran up huge accounts all round Soho and it all came to quite a crisis.
And then what happened?
That was later on, I think in 1970/71 and that really was one of the things that fuelled the mistrust and the aggravation particularly between Richard and Cinema Action.
I left because I wanted to go on a photographic, ethnographic trip with a Peruvian friend of mine to India. I think things had got very tense in Cinema Action but that was not the overt reason for me leaving.
. – Member from 1970 to 1976.
Freelance film editor and independent film-maker. Interviewed 25/6/96
I got involved with Cinema Action because I went to a showing of Fighting the Bill at a large political meeting against the Industrial Relations Act. I was at art college in London by then but my father was a Marxist Leninist and I’d gone to the meeting with a bunch of people from Coventry, from the political group he was part of.
Seeing that film was revelatory. It wasn’t that it was a great film as a film. But it was direct and talked to working class people about things which were theirs. The people who spoke in it were very powerful speakers and that was one thing that the working class movement had going for it: a strong tradition of oratory.
At the time I was trying to make a film about the Shrewsbury building workers who’d been charged with conspiracy for trying to cause an affray. So, I went to talk to Schlacke and in the process got involved with working with Cinema Action. Probably the reason I was accepted straight away was that I came from Coventry, from a working class background and very few of the people connected with Cinema Action then were from working class backgrounds.
Did you find that odd?
SS No. What I did find odd was that when I went to art college (St Martins) most people were ex public school.
Some of the people at Cinema Action had been to public school. Did you find their perception of working class life a bit abstract?
No, I found them very straight forward. They were very committed to what they were doing and very down to earth. Ann was a member of the same trade union, the AEU, which I joined because, when I left art college, I went to work in a car factory. She spent her time amongst working class people or people who were political revolutionaries. The people at Cinema Action didn’t have dinner parties with middle class people at night and then mix with working class people in the day. It wasn’t like that. They were squatters. Also amongst them there were a lot of foreigners. I didn’t see them like the public school people at college who did seem to come from an alien class.
At the time you were in Cinema Action, how frequent were the showings?
In the early period we were showing films a couple of times a week, mainly in the evenings but also in the day, lunch hour screenings. With the Shrewsbury building workers’ campaign we did a lot of showings on building sites organised through shop stewards.
Were the films adding anything beyond getting people together in a situation in which there could be a debate?
They were adding in something to do with the history which people who weren’t active in it at the time wouldn’t necessarily have known about and they were adding in other themes. If you take Fighting the Bill , it talked about the relationship between two ideals of democracy, working class democratic practices as opposed to bourgeois democratic practices and raised those ideas for discussion.
If they were shown where people were militant, wouldn’t the audience already be familiar with the arguments?
SS No. When a film was shown on a building site everyone who was on the building site would be there. The people who organised the show would already be aware of those ideas but there were people on the building site who had not thought about them. They were also bringing new things in that, for instance, the Clyde film brings experiences of an occupation, something which no one would have been able to experience without seeing that film.
But you don’t see what is really happening from a film – you only see a representation of it.
Of course, but the representation is that of, say, one of the shop stewards who ran the occupation. So, even if you went to the occupation, that is what you would see. It’s not just film that does that. It happens in real life. You get a representation of something in the way that people articulate it.
In a case like the Clyde, where the people engaged in the occupation were from various political parties, would Cinema Action be more reliant on one group than another
No, Cinema Action was more interested in an enabling action rather than in giving a particular line.
But how was the enabling process seen, because by filming some things and not others you are making judgments?
Was that acknowledged?
It was acknowledged within Cinema Action. You were doing research, you saw yourself as active. But when films were shown it was represented as if the workers had made them which I felt was a misrepresentation because it denies that active element, that there is something coming from outside which acts as a catalyst.
Given that there was so little money and film is an expensive process, why didn’t they move to video?
I suspect there were two reasons for this: one is the power of film that you don’t get with a small screen and the other is that you have a large screen and you draw a large group of people.
Now you could show video on large screen.
Now you could but then you couldn’t. It also had something to do with the discipline of a film-making practice, that you work with small amounts of footage. If you look at the Cinema Action films they are conceived as filmic as opposed to being like a tv programme; they are conceived of as almost epic: with The Miners’ Film this is a film to represent the story of the miners, of their traditions and aspirations. It goes back to the Joris Ivens tradition of film making.
What did you do after you left the group?
I went to the Poster collective and then we made Year of the Beaver. about the Grunwick strike which took place in 1977, looking back on it from the 1980s .
You have said it couldn’t have been made within Cinema Action. Why?
The strength of Cinema Action films is that they are made very much from within the situation whereas Year of the Beaver is made in a situation which is being represented by the people involved in a way which was totally at odds with the reality. So I had to take a much more independent position. But it couldn’t have been made by someone who hadn’t worked with Cinema Action. Because people who worked with Cinema Action went through a whole experience and a whole practice over a lengthy period of time where they became educated and became able to relate to working class struggles, be part of them, be able to film them. Its not the kind of thing you can read about. It only comes out of the experience of working in a situation, of being engaged in it.
Member of Cinema Action from 1971.
Miner and NUM activist. Interviewed 23/11/96
Note Dave Douglass was one of about 20 trade unionists who worked closely with Cinema Action. Others include Mike Cooley of DATA, Don Cook and Dick Jones, Jimmy Reed and Jimmie Airlie of the AUEW.
When was your first contact with Cinema Action?
It was the time of the UCS occupation. A lot of other things were going on then and, in Doncaster, our house often had people from different revolutionary organisations staying en route. Cinema Action came on their way back down from Clydeside and after that we became lifelong comrades with frequent exchanges of people. When we went to London we would stay in the Cinema Action centre and before that in the houses that they squatted – ‘we’ being members of the various socialist organisations I belonged to.
At that time I was on the fringes of the Revolutionary Workers Party (not to be confused with the Workers Revolutionary Party) but we had a miner’s organisation, the Mineworkers’ Internationale, which brought together people from different positions: Maoists and Trotskyists and members of the Communist Party There was cross involvement with all kinds of organisations, like the Agit-prop Bookshop, which was in Gower Street and later moved to Bethnal Green, and the History Workshop. A lot of us thought the revolution was round the corner and it was time to start arming the masses and Cinema Action was part of that arming.
Which of the Cinema Action films were you involved in?
The student film, The Miners Film, Fighting the Bill.
What was your role – or roles?
Advising, helping to plan, working on policy. We set up a lot of the places where the workers were interviewed and scenes were shot.
I was part of the discussions, part of the team.
How did you and your comrades in the union see film contributing?
People like Lawrence Daly, who was General Secretary of the NUM at that time and Mick McGaghey saw films as being very important. You couldn’t attend a world conference or a demonstration every week but a film could show you what was happening. That slogan, ‘Dare to struggle we shall win, London Paris and Berlin’ really struck a chord with my generation of young workers. We felt part of a whole European and world process and Cinema Action was able to give you a window onto that and could introduce you to people who spoke French and German and took us away from the little England attitude which existed round trade union circles.
Cinema Action were making films and showing films on the hoof. The people who were making the films were presenting them. It was a very exciting thing. They’d put films on in factory canteens, in bus depots, in dock areas, in ship yard assembly areas, in locations where there were masses of workers. The UCS film was shown at Plesseys during the occupation there. It’s very evocative when you’ve got films thrown as a huge projection against a big factory wall showing images of workers in struggle!
The films were essentially made by the workers, particularly the UCS film where they had complete editorial control.
You mean the Shop Stewards’ Committee had control?
Yes, and and there were criticisms of the way the occupation was run which could have been made in the film but weren’t. There were arguments between those who wanted to take the struggle out and those who wanted to keep it a parochial fight. But overall, that was a film that everybody could live with.
With hindsight wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the film had articulated those differences?
Well, it wasn’t something that was put on and then people went home to bed. It was put on and engendered a discussion with the audience. So, all these arguments came out anyway.
Did you see some of the films made at the time by other groups?
If you got Cinema Action to come along, you got other films as well, like Rosie the Riveter
Did you see Nightcleaners?
Yes. That was going around and was played to large audiences of working class women in Doncaster.
That film could be quite surprising if you were expecting something more like Rosie the Riveter. How did your audience in Doncaster respond to it?
They responded very well.
They weren’t worried by the repetition of certain images or the bits of black spacing?
No. But then again no one else was dealing with the subject. The very fact that it was being dealt with, on the screen in a debate situation was important. You were being presented with political questions about your own working life in the images of other workers. It wasn’t expected that watching it would be like watching a cartoon.
There was a lot of interaction then with the professional film makers like Phillip Donnellan at the BBC who was making a series called Where do I stand. These were four films around particular individuals, and they did one with me.
At the time, if people like Donnellan were getting political programmes on tv, was there any reason for working outside as Cinema Action did?
I don’t think they were trying to work on the outside. Some of their material did go on television. But you could wait for ever for the BBC to accept a film you were making whereas you needed the camera to be hot. It needed to be wild footage. You needed to be there on the spot. It wasn’t a documentary you were trying to make. You weren’t trying to record history. You were trying to make history. And it was set in a context as part of a debate – not entertainment, not an illustration, not a portrayal of the struggle – but part of the struggle.
The whole point of revolutionary film was to make the struggle. There’s also a place for a documentary socio-historical piece and I use a lot of those films today, like the film about Grunwick. But essentially, the work that Cinema Action was doing was different. The films weren’t meant to be there for ever, to win an Oscar. They were meant to be a tool in the struggle at the time.
Cinema Action changed in the late ‘70s towards making more reflective films which did begin to win prizes.
Yes, because the whole revolutionary movement was changing. We lost many people when the revolutionary time we thought was imminent started to retreat. The Agit Prop Bookshop closed down. In a sense, Cinema Action’s change was part of that. The tide was starting to withdraw.
There was a certain revival of effort around the 1984 miners’ strike which included the making of the Miners’ Tapes. But Cinema Action didn’t play a big part in that, did they?
No, but Chris Reeves, who co-ordinated the work, had trained with Cinema Action and some people from Cinema Action did bits of shooting. Some interviews were recorded at Cinema Action.
Ann said that when you were working with them she valued your political knowledge, your analytical understanding of a situation. Where had you acquired those skills?
My dad and my grandad had been trade union activists in the mining industry on Tyneside. It was a very cosmopolitan area next to South Shields where you had a massive influx of ships, foreign sailors, foreign influences, a tradition of political involvement in foreign causes from the Spanish Civil War on. My mother was from Kells, County Meath, in Ireland and some of her relatives had been active in the IRA.
That has to do with the politics but I was asking more about the intellectual approach.
I think that was the influence of anarchism in the city – free verse, poetry, the development of music in the city at the time, folk music and the rock music – not having a fear of poetry and art as I should have had.
Why should you have that fear?
Because it was considered middle class, soft. There was a generational in-put which took us away from narrow parochialism.
Did you do any formal academic study?
DD Yes, under Ralph Samuels with the History Workshop which published my work, Pit Life in County Durham.
I meant much earlier, in Newcastle, did you go to formal classes in politics or Marxism?
Only in the YCL. I joined the YCL when I was 14 but I was only in for about six months and was then expelled for being too Left.
We had been excluded from any intellectual practice at school. We were told we were thick and we’d failed the 11 plus. I was in a secondary modern in a C class which was the lowest and we were treated as thick proles. We were given a football to play with and I’ve hated football every since because we regarded it as collaboration. I got the cane every single day, generally once, sometimes three times, for wild extravagances like talking, looking defiant.
How was it that this didn’t put you off anything connected with learning?
It was a matter of resistance. Knowing a different intellectualism was a defiance.
We used to have open air meetings in the middle of Newcastle and I used to go along and hear ship yard workers talking and it struck me that there was a way of using education as a weapon. I remember marching into the local library and asking for Capital and the librarian said, ‘would that be Das Capital?’ and got me down the three volumes in German. So, I sat there pretending to read it, nodding sagely!
Later on did you ever read it, in translation, all the way through?