In 2016 I was commissioned to create a film for the Broadway Gallery in Letchworth Garden City. ‘The Last of Letchworth’ featured in the ‘Alternative Letchworth’ exhibition at the Broadway Gallery and is now available to watch online via Vimeo (see details at the end of this post).
The Research Behind The Film
In a review of the exhibition in Dezeen, Owen Hatherley described the film as “a hallucinatory film in which a toga-wearing figure limps through the garden city.” Clearly he was not entirely sure what was going on so to help, here are some key points from the research behind the film’s somewhat surreal narrative.
The film opens in the morning with a red sky. The central character in the ‘The Last of Letchworth’ with his shepherd-like appearance is loosely based upon recollections of an early Letchworth resident – Earnest Edward Ironside. He was a simple lifer who, according to the recollections, would walk along the Pix Brook wearing sandals, a loin cloth and walked with a crook. For the purposes of linking the film stylistically to one of the main archive images in the exhibition, he wears a toga more akin to this image: http://gardencitycollection.com/object-lbm1158-1. The character to the top right in this image represented the simple lifer, often referred to as ‘cranks’. Cross-referencing with other records allowed me to pinpoint the position of Ironside in relation to the Pix Brook and his possible route. Choosing specific locations was an important factor in the making of the film.
Ironside is symbolic of the steady decline of the early pioneers’ way of life leading up to World War I. The explosion, part way through his journey, references a bomb dropped on Letchworth (albeit in Willian) during World War I by a German Zeppelin.
Ironside is also followed by another character in the film, William Gaunt. Gaunt takes on various forms in the film, including an animated version of a 1940’s poster (See: http://gardencitycollection.com/object-lbm1150-2) and an incarnation of the WWI Zeppelin itself. Gaunt is represented as the figurehead of a First Garden City Ltd actively opposed to the simple lifers, fearing at the time that they may deter businesses from coming to the town.
The film is intersected at the point where onlookers come to watch the simple lifer Ironside by the appearance of Miss Black. Black lived along the same road as Ironside but was a starkly different character. From the recollections she had a dislike for children (her line ‘King Herod was the wisest man that ever lived’ indicates quite a disdain for youngsters) but most interesting it was rumoured she had two homes, ‘one for herself and one for her cats’. This rumour is partly backed up by cross-referencing with directory listings from the time – she is indeed registered at two neighbouring addresses in 1916. Her significance in the film will be discussed later.
Ironside comes to the end at a point where it is visible that the Pix Brook has been slowly covered over the years, burying an aspect of nature under the tarmac of a car park. The real life Ironside died in 1916 mid way through WWI at a time when attitudes in Letchworth were changing and the early pioneer days were at an end.
A fourth character based on Charles Purdom, exists in the background and informs much of the film with his ideas of the ‘spirit of the place’ and the ‘Wolf Gaunt’ through his work as a clerk for the First Garden City Corporation and as an independent writer. As far as I could see, he sat somewhere between the attitudes of the business minded and simple life communities. It is almost as if his character is a silent narrator in the film.
Ghosts Through Time
I was interested in creating a time traveling aspect in the film where the characters would phase in and out of their time and ours. I was also interested in location. I chose locations in Letchworth that matched closely to the places I had once lived and localised the research to those points.
Ironside is continuously tracked throughout the film as if electronically tagged. A suggestion perhaps that today, someone with his ideas and way if life would be face suspicion and derision.
I used to live close to Wilbury Road on Grange Road where three of the four characters used to live. New meaning was added to another road I was very familiar with – Gaunts Way (at the far north of the Grange Estate) but the most astonishing discovery – and with a fear of sounding like a crank myself – a real life (childhood) experience of a scary apparition of a Victorian woman whilst living on the Grange was the central reason for including Miss Black. Living only a stones throw from the house where Miss Black used to live – could that have been her coming back to haunt the local children? A coincidence I could not let go.
Showing in its original form with text from the exhibition, and some minor audio corrections, here is a link to The Last Of Letchworth: