I’ve been called worse. Still, it’s not the greeting I expect to hear as I stand in the suburb of Osmaston, Derby at 6.30am, while pointing my camera at a row of terraced houses. Nor do I expect the elderly man to cross the street to iterate his point but he does. Without much prompting he tells me about his upbringing in a small village near Burton on Trent; another encounter experienced in pursuit of this film and another memory stored.
Filmmaking, we’re told, is a collaborative venture with each cast or crew member bringing specialised skills to the table. Had this project been funded as per my original plan it would have offered me the chance to employ people. In the event “Voyageuse” was turned down for support, leaving me with a decision – do I abandon the project or pursue it using my own meagre resources?
To make a film, any film, takes confidence. If I don’t believe in my work who else will? For a while I considered crowdfunding but rejected the idea not only because it demands a full-time commitment and social media savvy but also the selling involved, i.e. the pitch – as opposed to the film’s deeper narrative – can’t be shaped endlessly in order to meet putative audience expectations.
Last week I went to England to shoot the major part of this film. Like all location shoots, the schedule was planned meticulously to the day and hour, even allowing for a contingency: travel, accommodation, parking, permissions and all the other logistics involved. Unlike most shoots, however, this was accomplished without a location manager, production coordinator or any other crew. My decision to work alone is a pragmatic one. To meet the schedule: 44 locations over 9 days, travelling and working 16 hours a day – meant travelling light, fast and sometimes invisibly.
In that time I covered Derby, Didcot, Harwell, Oxford, Cambridge, Ipswich, Orford, Croydon and Central London. For some locations I obtained permission in advance. For others I used stealth and discretion. I also had a lot of luck – several chance meetings resulted in unexpected bonuses, for instance, meeting the owners of three of the houses Erica lived in at various times in Allestree, Gravel Hill and Addington. In Oxford and Cambridge I gained access to both of her former colleges – Somerville and Newnham. During a pre-planned visit to Erica’s old school my two guides were delighted to find her name emblazoned on the roll of honour displays not once, but three times, in recognition of her various scholarships.
At Erica’s former places of work access proved more complicated. At The Maudsley Hospital in south London I was greeted by an over-zealous security guard who informed me – erroneously – that a major highway was private property. I was not about to quote the Terrorism Act pertaining to photography in public places, especially when I spotted a police car parked yards away. After some negotiation I got my shots and the guard later asked if I had ‘got what I wanted’. Fair enough. The black snood I wore hijab-like to counter reflections in my display screen may have been worrisome but the fact the guard wore a stab vest gave me pause as to the quality of his daily workplace experience.
At the Harwell Science Campus – the site of much clandestine work since the 1940s and, one suspects, to this day, my pre-emptory efforts to gain access were met with caution. The most visually impressive building is the Diamond Light Source, the national Synchotron science facility. My initial contact was helpful, even sending me aerial photos for use in exchange for a credit but caveated with a demand for context. When I conceded Erica had no involvement with the facility my contact suggested helpfully that the Campus admin might be better placed to advise. To cut a long story short, I was pointed to a group of early buildings – Thompson Avenue, once the site of an RAF base – that were more appropriate to the era cited in my emails.
On the recce I felt uneasy. With its clipped gardens, pristine cricket grounds and croquet lawns Harwell was and still is, I suspect, a place of guarded secrets. As daylight faded I watched a small group practising archery, the straw-backed red, white and blue targets reminding me of Powell and Pressburger’s company logo for The Archers. On Thompson Avenue I spotted diversion signs due to decommissioning work at Magnox, confirming Harwell’s original purpose as the UK’s first atomic research base. The newer end offered little of interest, at least in architectural terms: by-the-yard glass and steel with primary-coloured embellishments apeing Googlesque corporate playfulness. In contrast the stern greys of the MRC and Health England displayed a level of security more conspicuous than that of Magnox.
The next morning I woke at 5am and arrived on site before 7am. In promising sunshine and feeling bold, for the first and only time on my trip I donned a hi-vis jacket and stood my camera. This proved a good tactic, I realised, when I noticed that in every passing car, the occupants wore the same. In this guise thankfully I got the shots I came for.
At the end of a nine-day stint, having met the schedule, I returned to Glasgow exhausted but satisfied. On the journey home I noted thousands of CCTV cameras lining the highways, cameras that track our every move, recording not only our car license plates but our faces and who knows, our motives for being elsewhere. Musing on this, I understand how those I met on the road might find me strange but no stranger than the mass surveillance that in this country has become so depressingly normal.
The above image is a frame grab showing that in 1950-51 E. Eisner was awarded an ‘exhibition’ to Newnham College, Cambridge in Natural Sciences.