New Towns, Our Town: Stories on Screen

New Towns, Our Town – Stories on Screen was an innovative film project that sought to increase the visibility of, and pride in, the story of the New Town movement, and the unique social history and heritage of these pioneering towns. The project took place in the first four of the UK’s New Towns – Stevenage, Crawley, Hemel Hempstead and Harlow – using rare archive film footage to explore the shared experiences of their residents.

About The Tour

With support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and working closely with the BFI National Archive, the East Anglian Film Archive and Screen Archive South East, this project sought to increase the visibility of the New Towns movement and to celebrate the unique social history and heritage of these pioneering towns.

The New Towns movement is one of the South East’s most significant shared stories, with a legacy and an impact that are still felt and discussed today. In the 73 years since the first New Towns Act was passed by the post-war government, the towns it created have been both praised as modern-day utopias and dismissed as failed social experiments.

As the Film Hub Lead Organisation for the South East,  we wanted to take a closer look at the New Towns, not only because of their prominence in our Hub region, but because of their lack of provision for access to cultural cinema. Furthermore, at the time of their development there was considerable interest in, and high aspirations for, the New Town movement. As well as attracting national media attention, the Development Corporations themselves were keen to document their progress, choosing to record much of this on the new medium of film. As a consequence, there exists a large collection of archive footage of the New Towns which in itself is unique in capturing the development of the UK’s built heritage – tracing a settlement from its origins through to the present day – but is rarely seen by the Towns’ residents. ‘New Towns, Our Town – Stories on Screen’ sought to dramatically increase access to this material, allowing residents to reclaim, celebrate and contribute to this heritage.

I became involved in this project when I was asked to deliver the training programme for volunteers on using archive film as a reminiscence tool. I have worked in the film archive sector for over 20 years. Archive film can empower people and communities to discover/rediscover individual and communal memory and history. The New Towns project was an excellent example of the best kind of archive film project. The use of the rare footage to illuminate the lives of New Town pioneers and current inhabitants was well thought out, and the legacy of the project will provide useful information. I was delighted to be involved with such a meaningful and important project

Angela English, MA PG Cert in Research Practice

To do this we undertook a range of activities:

  • For two weeks in December 2018 we continuously back-projected the footage onto empty shop windows in Harlow’s main shopping centre, and on Stevenage Borough Council windows facing the town’s busy bus station. In Hemel Hempstead we were given exclusive access to screen the footage on their town’s ‘Big Screen’ and in Stevenage and Crawley we also had one-day events in their town squares. Town footfall counters indicated that this activity reached over 150,000 people, maximising the visibility of this heritage and increasing awareness of it.
  • Our community screenings, taking place between January – March 2019 in a range of spaces including museums, galleries, churches, community centres and care homes across the towns, were attended by over 1000 people (target 720) across 29 screenings, with an average audience of 38 people.
  • We recorded 40 oral history interviews with local residents, using the archive footage as a trigger for memories, stories and valuable information that further contextualises the archive films and expands on current records. We were able to deposit these recording at regional screen archives as a permanent, publicly-accessible learning resource, and validating contributors’ stories as valuable and important social documents.
  • 39% of our volunteers were aged between 16-30. Having received bespoke training in how to utilise archive film effectively with audiences, our team of 31 volunteers were key to the project’s success, independently leading screenings and recording oral history testimonies.
  • The structure of the Project enabled a wide age range of participants to engage with its activities, from an initial focus on older members of the community to school-aged children through the Education Resources, for which we commissioned a bespoke animation featuring archive and contemporary imagery.
  • The feature-length compilation programme toured the UK across a wide range of venues.

We were first approached to be involved in this project before the submission of the application to the Heritage Lottery Fund which gave us an opportunity to feed into the bid and help identify suitable organisations and partners throughout Crawley. The project worked hard to give the people of the town a sense of ownership over it – from taking the footage into Queens Square, working closely with Crawley Museum, involving local schools and finally providing a preview of ‘New Towns, Our Town’ at the Civic Hall.

Liz Hart, Arts Development Officer, Crawley Borough Council

Press coverage

“A new compilation of archive films from the Independent Cinema Office chronicling Britain’s pioneering post-war New Town movement – and our ongoing love-hate relationship with it” (The Guardian, 15.5.19)

Masthead image credit: CRAWLEY – Green Line, 1980, Beryl Armstrong (Screen Archive South East)


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