“Basildon is complicated,” wrote Norman Scarfe in the 1968 Shell Guide To Essex. He was right – and that’s the reason I chose the town as the subject of my upcoming documentary New Town Utopia. It’s a film of memory, poetry, music and architecture that explores a complex social history and the power of art.
In 1946, Lewis Silkin, the Minister for Town & Country Planning, delivered a lyrical and impassioned speech to parliament. In the midst the Labour government’s radical post-war policy drive, he announced a plan to build ten ‘new towns’ across the UK.
The plan addressed the major issues facing the cities of Britain – includeng the devastating impact of WW2 bombing and atrocious living and working conditions – by relocating families to new, purpose-built towns. Silkin’s speech expressed a desire to create “a new type of citizen” who would develop through living in the new town “a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride”. He evoked Thomas More’s Utopia in the scale of his ambition.
The new towns and their early residents were invested with these post-war hopes and aspirations. Seventy years on, Basildon, of this first wave of new towns, is a challenging place that’s been through difficult times. According to recent research carried out by its council, Basildon houses one quarter of the most deprived areas in Essex. The gap between rich and poor is huge – it’s the 6th most unequal city in the country – and 29 per cent of workers in Basildon earn less than the living wage. Art and culture seem to be a distant memory. Its negative reputation precedes it, having cemented a place in popular culture as a paradigm of a shit British town.
So what happened?
I grew up in the area in the ‘80s, as Basildon’s reputation from the outside seemed to nosedive. At a national level names began to stick – Basildon Man, Chav, Essex Girl – labels that were sometimes ball and chain, sometimes badge of honour.
Unsurprisingly these were not coined by the locals. A Sunday Telegraph article first Coined the name “Essex Man”, defining him as “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”. It was patronising, superior and fully intended to reinforce negative perceptions of successful working class people.
Basildon has long been a political bellwether – it voted for Thatcher, Blair and then Brexit. With this in mind, I hope that the film, through its focus on one town, reveals something about the state of modern Britain. In the ‘70s the town began a shift from being a socialist stronghold dubbed “Little Moscow on the Thames” to a Tory stronghold within ten years. This was destabilising change, with Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy policy at its heart, as the individual trumped community in a town built upon communitarian values.
On top of this, the adversarial nature of British politics led to changing parties in power, nationally and locally, pulling the town in different directions, at a time when it was still growing. As Vin Harrop, a champion for the arts in Basildon, once told me, “Democracy does not build new towns.”
Somehow, somewhere, over time, Silkin’s aesthetic and civic dream had faltered. In New Town Utopia I try to understand why and how this happened, and what this means for Basildon, its people and the rest of the UK. In doing this the film touches on some key challenges facing British society, including the housing crisis, the sucker punch of globalisation and new technology on our high streets, and the continued demonisation of people from working class backgrounds.
Many or the people I met were artists, poets and musicians whose creative pursuits occurred either in spite of the town, or as a reaction against it. They were individuals with imagination, talent, fight and a shared belief in the positive power of self expression.
These characters included Steve Waters, the puppeteer behind Old Man Stan, a puppet pensioner activist who gained a cult following on YouTube; folk and blues musician the ‘Bard of Basildon’ Phil Burdett; poets Ralph Dartford and Ölmo Lazarus; and musicians such as Sue Paget and Rob Marlow from the ‘80s electro scene that spawned bands like Yazoo and Depeche Mode.
Their thoughts, work and memories are the narrative engine of the film of New Town Utopia. One particular line from Silkin’s speech lingered: “A sense of beauty, culture and civic pride.”
This aesthetic utopian dream felt so alien to the mood of the town – a mood that I gauged through time spent with many Basildon people during my research. It’s true that many of the first generation ‘pioneers’ maintained pride about the town, what it represented, and the shelter it provided; but I found that many from later generations were desperate to escape, and seemed to blame the town itself for many of their own personal ills.
Camus considered Utopia to be “in contradiction to reality”. Basildon is not Utopia – but then again, where is?
Christopher Ian Smith is director of New Town Utopia.