Picturing the Land Beyond: The Films of Penny Woolcock

To mark the release of Penny Woolcock's documentary From the Sea to the Land Beyond on DVD, Anthony Nield gives an overview the director's work

It’s a sign of Penny Woolcock’s astonishing work rate that she premiered not one, but two new films at last year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. From the Sea to the Land Beyond, her account of Britain’s coastline as seen through over a century of documentary film, stole the headlines and understandably so. It played at the Crucible Theatre that June to the live accompaniment of British Sea Power and would later enchant television audiences when it screened on BBC4 in November. Yet just two days after From the Sea… opened the festival to a standing ovation, Woolcock’s other feature, One Mile Away, was showing in the no-less-comfy environs of the Showroom Cinema to an industry-only crowd. As she’s stated in interviews down the years, Woolcock has any number of projects on the go at any given time – documentaries, fictions, even the occasional opera. Such is the precarious nature of arts funding in this country not all of them will come to fruition, but with a bit of luck her next production is only just around the corner. Indeed, since first coming into contact with a camera in the mid-eighties luck would appear to have been in abundance – Woolcock can nowadays count herself among the UK’s most prolific filmmakers.

That initial encounter came through the oppositional film movement. Woolcock’s earliest credits were on politically-motivated short films intended for screening at youth clubs, unemployment centres or local trade union branches. The most significant work came with Newcastle-based Trade Films, whose efforts had included campaign tapes during the miners’ strike of 1984 and 1985. For much of the decade they regularly put out the Northern Newsreel, again on video, which offered up items of regional interest within a magazine format, more often than not from a political standpoint thanks to the industrial decline in the area. Woolcock worked on the Newsreels as both director and editor, subsequently describing them as “the most fantastic training” but also admitting that she felt “imprisoned” by their need “to have a ‘message’ to everything”. In 1987 she made a segment on the rise of the National Front in Consett, a former one-industry town in County Durham that had closed its steelworks in 1980. The end results (which can be seen on the BFI’s upcoming DVD release, Steel: A Century of Steelmaking Film) were as you would expect of the format – a combination of talking heads and on-the-nose talking points – but also proved vital to Woolcock’s next artistic step. The following year she returned to Consett for her first full-length work, When the Dog Bites.

Screened as part of Channel Four’s late night arts slot, The Eleventh Hour (a regular showcase for experimental and/or collective filmmaking), in September 1988, When the Dog Bites remains a key work in the Woolcock back catalogue. It blended drama with documentary, building up to rich portrait of the town that looked both forward to the idiosyncratic non-fiction that would screen under the BBC’s Modern Times banner during the 1990s and back to the social realist methods British cinema had been making use of since the Second World War. Like the propaganda films of Humphrey Jennings or the records of working class life essayed by Amber Films, When the Dog Bites drew its cast from non-professional locals and captured its dramatized sections as though they were documentary. Woolcock wasn’t averse to the occasional overt touch – the film opens with lengthy continuous take to rival that of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil – though never at the expense of the key issues. Such moments linger in the memory, of course, but it’s the sense of anger that hits the hardest and the sense of community that really shines through.

If Woolcock’s career has a watchword, then community is it. Her career diversified following When the Dog Bites resulting in numerous documentaries for British television during the nineties, yet returns to communities, and especially working class communities, were commonplace. Mad Passionate Dreams, which screened on the BBC in 1995, looked at an area of Mid-Glamorgan with a 95% unemployment rate. Macbeth on the Estate, another BBC production, transposed the Bard to Birmingham and mixed professional actors (including Ray Winstone, Dorian Harewood and a Kappa-clad James Frain in the lead role) with residents of the Ladywood estate. It retained Shakespeare’s text, albeit with a Brummie accent, and switched banquets for stoning sessions to the accompaniment of Massive Attack’s ‘Weather Storm’. There was even a rare foray outside of the UK in 1992 with The Hurting Church, which focused its attentions on a poor Christian fundamentalist community in West Virginia.

Woolcock concluded the decade with one of her best-known and most highly regarded works. Tina Goes Shopping arrived in 1999, making its debut on Channel Four that September and eventually spawning two sequels, the most recent of which was made for cinema consumption. As with Macbeth on the Estate this was purely drama, although Woolcock continued to make use of her usual documentary techniques (it helps keep the production time and the budget down, apparently) and drew heavily on real-life events as inspiration. Set in the Beeston suburb of Leeds, Tina Goes Shopping relied exclusively on locals from the area to occupy its cast list and had them effectively play variations on themselves as they recounted a heightened tale of everyday working class life in the North East. Newcomers to the film will no doubt recognise elements of Channel Four’s long-running TV series Shameless in there, not least Tina herself. Kelli Hollis had never acted prior to winning the lead in Tina Goes Shopping, but has since gone on to a genuine career. As well as 50 episodes of Shameless for its creator Paul Abbott, she’s also done plenty of British television (Casualty, The Bill and the like) and nowadays finds herself a regular in Emmerdale.

As the Tina saga continued (with Tina Takes a Break in 2001 and Mischief Night in 2006) so too the more cartoonish aspects have tended to take over. Part of the pleasure of the first two films was their refusal to provide easy solutions or happy endings: criminal activities continue, relationships fail, drug abuse takes over. Both presented an exaggerated reality, no doubt, but it was one that only occasionally pulled its punches. Come Mischief Night and Woolcock was adding CGI blue skies as a means of projecting a more upbeat vision and providing everyone with neat-and-tidy resolutions. To be fair, she never plays it entirely safe – Beeston had been linked to the 7/7 bombings during production, yet the race issues brought up during the film are still treated with irreverent glee – though you detect a sudden need to emulate the likes of The Full Monty and East is East despite this being a second sequel. Cinema audiences were to be treated differently, it seems.

To date Woolcock has made four features for the big screen, all works of fiction and all similarly feeling a tad blunter than the TV films. Her 2003 cinematic debut, The Principles of Lust, had the advantage of being able to go much further than those intended for British living rooms – to quote the BBFC it contained “explicit sex, very strong language, drugs use and strong violence”, the latter involving underage bare knuckle boxing – and yet the directness which contributes so much to her documentary work (the 2002 Cutting Edge film The Wet House, for example, gets astonishingly close to the homeless alcoholics at its centre) has a tendency to come across as heavy-handedness when placed in a cinema environment. For all of its extremity, The Principles of Lust can be boiled down to a rather black-and-white tale of a young man’s choice between hedonism and settling down. Exodus, from 2007, reimagined the Book of Exodus within a near-future Margate setting only to find its narrative the least interesting aspect. It was the ambition which jumped off the screen, not the storytelling. And likewise 1 Day, 2009’s controversial look at gang culture in present day Birmingham. The decision to make it a musical of sorts showcasing local talent provided its spark, as too did the surrounding details. Woolcock, for example, asked that a number of her cast members make short films during the production, some of which would later earn a place in Channel Four’s Three Minute Wonder slot. Her most recent documentary, One Mile Away, was also the result of 1 Day, seeking to understand and hopefully resolve some of the gang violence that had first inspired it. Once again, she was placing herself within the heart of a community, both documenting and effecting its change.

Which is why, you suspect, arts hub The Space came calling when From the Sea to the Land Beyond was first envisioned. “A lyrical portrait of Britain’s coastline” (to quote the back of the DVD) may serve as a handy summation of its trawl through the National Archive, but it’s the faces contained within those images, the sense of history, of togetherness, of both change and continuity that we respond to. Yes, we have Brighton and Blackpool and beachside promenades, but it’s the people that matter – at work, at war, at play. And they matter to us because they matter to Woolcock. Even though some these images may be more than a century old, their inhabitants command exactly the same level of empathy and respect as those of Consett or Beeston or Ladywood or anywhere she has taken her camera during the past three decades as a filmmaker.

From the Sea to the Land Beyond is out on DVD now via BFI

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