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The Warp

Up the Junction

Trains ran along a viaduct raising them above the level of all the decaying terraced houses, and their hootings and shuntings were a part of our days and nights.

Nell and I had moved from Cheyne Walk to a small terraced house in North Battersea, then a very poor part of London.

Clapham Junction, five minutes walk along terraced streets, was then, as now, a very large railway station with pedestrian tunnels running under it and it was there and in the forecourts both sides of it that the local lasses, in spectacular outfits and startling high heels and makeup, went to hover of an evening. Nell went with them and wrote poetic pieces about their escapades for the New Statesman and Nation.

The visit to Clapham Junction was known as ‘Going up the Junction’ and later provided Nell with the title for the book which she created by putting a number of these poetic sketches together.

The book was very successful. Partly this was because of Nell’s ear for the way that people actually talk, and her eye for detail. It also caused a stir because it described young women going out on the town actively searching for excitement and this ran contrary to the contemporary received wisdom which was that women were basically passive in their social reactions, not active.

Many people found this idea hard to handle and the few professional class inhabitants of Battersea also found this shocking and made public announcements that such things did not take place in Battersea.

Although Nell does not see it like that, I believe it was an important early feminist document, since it showed women as protagonists.

It also provided the subject matter for a film directed by the young BBC director Ken Loach who, at Oxford, had been president of the OUDS drama society. Like my ‘Cathy Come Home’ which was to follow it, ‘Up the Junction’ would in due course provoke outrage and admiration among television viewers.

Ken’s film owed a lot to Nell’s powerful author’s voice and her portrayal of young working women whose joyful style had not yet found its way into literature. The film was also innovative and special in its own right.

Television dramas had so far largely been made in the studios, and part of the importance of both ‘Up the Junction’ and my drama ‘Cathy Come Home’, which Ken was to direct a year later, was that the most important parts of both were shot on 16mm film and thus were trailblazers for the made-for-television films that are to be seen everywhere these days.

This happened despite, rather than because of, the BBC establishment.

The theory was that TV plays were a different genre to film and must be shot in the studio. However, the BBC did allow a director two or three days of location filming for exterior things, like shots of people getting in a car, driving somewhere, and then getting out of the car and going through a door, at which point the audience would find themselves back in another set in the studio. Ken booked a cameraman for three days and added a fourth, and in those four days the cameraman, Tony Imi, ‘put the camera on his shoulder and ran’ and they shot about half of the film.

Ken and the rest of the team were aware that it would be difficult to mix in this racy hand-held footage with the rest of the film, which had to be shot in the studio using the huge studio cameras. Ken got the cameramen together and told them, ‘This isn’t like a normal TV drama. The action will happen, and I’ll tell you roughly where it is, but you’ll have to find it, as if it was a piece of unscripted reality happening in front of you.’

And so the action in the studio was also shot more like a documentary film. The trouble about this was that the tape the studio cameras shot on was very difficult to edit, and only about three cuts were allowed.

At this point a crisis meeting was called by Ken’s superiors who told him that what he’d shot in the studio was unusable. Luckily, at that time, the BBC also used a 16mm film camera in the studio as emergency backup and so they edited the studio material on this and, so Ken told an interviewer, ‘this was greeted with absolute horror because they said it wasn’t up to broadcast quality; it was very grey and misty. But they let us cut on 16mm in the end because it was the only way they could salvage the material. We’d known of this possibility beforehand, which meant we could, in effect, make a film. But it was totally breaking the rules.’

‘Up the Junction’ was chaotic in many ways. But it did show that there was a way of subverting the conventional, stolid, ‘man-walks-through-door, cut-into-centre-of-room, cut-to-close-up’ style of TV drama of the time. Ken and his script editor Tony Garnett, who was soon to be his producer, had already decided, just as Nell and I had, that what we wanted to do was to make films, not studio-based theatre.

There are sequences in ‘Up the Junction’ in which the actors speak to the camera and thus directly to viewers as if they are being interviewed for a TV documentary. And when one of Nell’s characters, the Tally Man, is driving his car through the streets and bragging about how he exploits his customers, Ken filmed him talking over his shoulder to the camera in the back seat of his car, as if viewers were in there driving in the car with him. This was inspired by those parts of the book ‘Up the Junction’ where some people are talking directly to Nell. It also gave a sense of documentary reality to the film by using actors as if they were part of a documentary.

‘Up the Junction’ was transmitted as part of the Wednesday Play series which went out after the evening news. Nell and the team wanted it to be received not as a drama but as a continuation of the news. As part of this, Ken was trying to imitate the ‘rough, raw, edgy quality’ of investigatory documentary programmes like ‘World In Action’.

There was a debate about abortion, which was still illegal, going on at this time, and in ‘Up the Junction’ one of the girls has an abortion. The voice of a real doctor talking about the need for abortion to be legal and available and the consequences of it not being available, was used as a voice over in the drama.

Ken was later asked whether he felt that ‘Up the Junction’ was a political film and he responded that, like Nell’s writing, it is more of a celebration, an enjoyment, of people’s company, sharing their disasters, sharing their humour, and sharing the fun of being with them. Ken’s view was that ‘Up the Junction’ shows that people ‘have a value, which is political, I suppose, because, by and large, working-class people are not given that value and that dignity and that respect. We are all equally important and drama is not the preserve of the middle class.

‘There’s actually a lot of working-class drama, but you often sense – and that was certainly the case at that time – that the people in them are being patronized, although perhaps not intentionally. It happens particularly when you have actors imitating the way they think working-class people speak, which leads to caricature. That was something we were very determined not to do, out of respect.’

Ken then introduced a Marxist slant to these remarks by adding, ‘Identifying ordinary people as the proper subjects for drama is a way of saying these people have political importance. If there is ever to be change, then it will come through working people. It won’t come because somebody who is elected thinks they’re going to do a little bit of good. It comes through people like those in “Up the Junction” getting organised and motivated to change things.’

That is textbook Marxism, and those were the affluent never-had-it-so-good sixties. My own view is that most of the intellectuals and ‘working classes’ who, in Marx’s view, would together make the revolution were, possibly, too intrigued by the little bit more wealth they had acquired at that time, to think much about revolution; or were too bamboozled by the mendacious propaganda of consumerism to become politicised.

Now, more than thirty years later, all classes seem even more to have adopted a revisionist point of view rather than a revolutionary one.

What about the exploited workers of the Far East or India? Revolution might make sense for them; but, thrilling though the Marxist dream may be, it is important to question whether anywhere in the world has a Marxist revolution ever taken place that has not replaced the old order with something worse.


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