A Teesside University academic with a special interest in the social evolution of our region captured on film, has partnered with the North East Film Archive to launch Rewinding the Welfare State, a touring programme of screenings which form part of the Archive’s North East on Film project and aims to connect the region’s communities with their heritage through film.
Dr Ben Lamb
Dr Ben Lamb, who’s day job sees him lecturing at the University’s School of Social Sciences, Humanities & Law – is the curator of an incredibly moving and thought-provoking series of interactive events – each one specifically tailored to the community in which it is shown, to reference events of particular importance for that area.
Many hundreds of hours of research for the programme has unearthed local news reports and television documentaries, trade union campaigns and community-made films. Dr Lamb explains: “Many of these films haven’t been seen since they were first made and are part of the extensive collections at the North East Film Archive”. The North East Film Archive (NEFA), together with the Yorkshire Film Archive (YFA), is a registered charity and relies entirely on grant funding and charitable donations to carry out it’s essential work at sites in Middlesbrough and York.
The aim of the project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Teesside University, is to show the impact of the Welfare State from the 1920’s to the present day.
“By reliving the courageous character of North-East communities, the audience will experience how grassroots initiatives designed to challenge national inequality have improved the well-being of many people” reveals Dr Lamb.
As part of the screenings, audiences are also being invited to share their thoughts as the journey ‘from cradle to grave’ is explored, to look at how access to healthcare, housing, education, social security and pensions has changed over the years.
Dr Lamb: “We look at life before the Welfare State, turning the clock back to the Jarrow Crusade and its legacy and people who took part in the original march”.
“We share memories of bringing up children in the 1940’s and the experiences of having children in the post-war period. The educational opportunities and training available to young people will be explored, along with developments in housing, from slum clearance and life on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ to high rise living”.
Dr Lamb’s research looks at the representations of marginalised communities within the media, wider culture and the arts, with the aim of helping to improve social integration policy. Other areas highlighted include industrial development, welfare benefits and the prejudice experienced by people ‘on the dole’.
Following a recent screening at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham, I spoke with Dr Lamb about his own views on the importance of the Welfare State and his hopes for generating discourse within communities that have witnessed seismic change over the past 70 years. You can listen to his answers to my questions below:
I began by asking Dr Lamb how his series of lectures was being received – and what was at the heart of what he was trying to achieve:
Dr Lamb: “The response from the film has been really positive – and I think everyone has taken the essential message from the film and seen how difficult things were, what positive impacts our national welfare state has had – and how it seems to be unravelling and we’re really experiencing times of hardship”.
I wondered if he’d been surprised by audience’s responses?
“Hexham was very interesting. A member there said: ‘that film made me very angry’ and as a Tory area I hoped I hadn’t said anything untoward…”.
Do you sense that a lot of people coming along to your screenings feel that there is parity now with the events of the 1930’s and ‘40’s?
“Politics is difficult to talk about these days. Ever since the ‘B Word’ [Brexit] – people are reluctant to even raise it. It’s that old adage: Don’t talk about politics or religion – but if we don’t talk about it, decisions will be made that might not be in our interest really”.
Your project is looking at the period from the creation of the Welfare State to today. Are you drawing any comparisons with the juxtaposition of where we’re at now?
“I’m quite keen not to present my own views on where we’re at now. I’m really interested in hearing what the audience have to say – and what their views are – and getting that feedback and using the film as a tool to do that, so the question I’m asking everyone is: What can we learn from our history to improve our future?”
You look in the film at issues around housing – and how the responsibility to build affordable fit-for-purpose homes for the population was vital to social, community and economic development. Have you got a view on how as a nation, we’re still paralysed by a housing crisis?
“Yeah, I think money needs to be spent. High-rises stopped being built in the early ’70’s, because of the problems that comes with displacing communities – and the quality of accommodation wasn’t quite what they expected…All these reforms happened – and this huge council house building programme from the 1940’s onwards, that was instigated at a time when the country was completely broke after a world war, so if there was enough money to be put into council housing then, I can’t see why we can’t do that now when we’re the fifth richest economy in the world…”
We look in the film at Consett [County Durham] – and how communities like it deal with this post-industrial landscape. That’s still as relevant today as it was in the ‘80’s. You’re based in Teesside which is at the heart of losing heavy industry. What are your views on the employment future for the region?
“This increasing neo-liberal economic age is that in this global economic market – you rely on market. That’s supposedly seen as the best solution, so those who can make products cheaply en masse the quickest, will get all the business. I think that’s just failed”.
Are subsidies the answer? Do we need to financially support UK industry?
“The German State, they’ve got no qualms about government subsidies to give industries a head-start – and that’s why Germany’s so successful and China’s the same…”
Going right back to the start – the creation of the NHS was a priceless gift to the nation. We’re in crisis now. It does look as though the U.S. could be deciding the future of our healthcare provision going forward.
“…A Large part of why WW2 was fought was for a socially responsible form of capitalism that could provide free healthcare. As Doctor’s have said: In order for the NHS to survive, it needs to be given 4% increase on spending year on year, because of population increases. In the UK we want the quality of healthcare seen in Scandinavia, but we don’t want to see the increase in taxes…If we want to see that quality of healthcare, we need to pay for it…”
Can you tell me about how the Rewinding The Welfare State project came about? You teach English Literature at Teesside University, where the North-East Film Archive is housed. Did you go down and spend a lot of time there – and thought ‘I would like to develop this project’?
“I did a MA and PhD in Film, because I was always interested in the representation and depiction of inequalities and marginalised communities and the working class, so I had a literary interest in that which I developed through my PhD…”
Moving forward, a lot of the subjects the film deals with chime perfectly with topics covered in the National Curriculum. There was clearly a number of teachers in today’s audience [at Bowes] – have you thought about taking the project into schools?
“I’m sure that the script isn’t overly academic or ‘lecturey’ or dogmatic – and speaks to that town [where it’s being hosted] – so I’ve been so focussed on that I’ve not really thought where to develop it next…It’s really encouraging to see people interested…I’d definitely like to get there in schools – you’ve got to be very careful and be politically neutral – and just present history as it is, but I think it would work – and any teachers who want me to [visit their school] can just get in-touch with me via my email and we’ll see what we can do”.
Dr Ben Lamb takes Rewinding the Welfare State next to Spennymoor Settlement Everyman Theatre on Thursday 26th March at 7.00pm and tickets can be purchased through the Box office on: 01388 816430. Their website is: http://spennymoorsettlement.co.uk/index.html
North East Film Archive website: http://www.yorkshirefilmarchive.com/yfa-nefa
Dr Lamb can be contacted by email at: B.Lamb@tees.ac.uk