Christopher Ian Smith (director)
04 May 2018 (released)
26 April 2018
New Town Utopia is a documentary feature from Christopher Ian Smith, exploring the town planning dreams, and harsh realities, of post-war Britain, through the story of how the Essex town of Basildon, was born.
Smith sets up an unfussy structure in which contributors, poets and musicians respond to the rallying quotes of MP Lewis Silkin, from his House of Commons address on the 8th May 1946.
In his speech, as Minister for Town and Country Planning, Silkin lays out the Labour Government’s grand ambitions for the New Towns Act. The aim; to provide a better standard of living and a more fulfilled existence for people then living in sub-standard conditions across Britain.
Lewis Silkin’s voice is narrated by Oscar winning actor, Jim Broadbent. An inspired casting choice as Broadbent’s tone and delivery conjures a politician from a bygone era, with an idealistic vision for community living in the future.
Whilst some Basildon residents and workers, past and present, reflect on the initial excitement of a new “social paradise,” offering up big open spaces and modern living quarters. Others, saw design flaws from the outset. Joe Morgan, a former Labour councillor, described one housing estate at the time as Alcatraz, “a prison for the working class.”
Moving chronologically through key moments of Basildon’s brief history, memories of pride and optimism, give way to criticism of the planning process. From putting heating pipes in ceilings, to creating nooks and crannies on developments which would become ideal hidey-holes for criminal and anti-social activity.
The Conservative Government’s right to buy scheme for council house tenants is seen by many in the film as the architect of community fragmentation, even by those who felt they benefitted from the policy.
Whilst underinvestment, movement of labour and cuts to leisure and arts facilities are raised as potential reasons for the town’s downward shift in fortunes, the film still feels light on analysing the divergence between contemporary Basildon and Silkin’s utopian blueprint.
Christopher Ian Smith is adept at drawing out a mixed bag of emotions and stories from his interviewees, showing very well the internal conflict they feel about the place where they live. As one person sums up, “it’s complicated.”
Creativity pulses throughout the film. Basildonian poets punctuate the narrative with sharp social commentaries for modern times and along with the other contributors, they are given time to think and express themselves on screen and the documentary is all the more interesting for it.
Stylistically, there is an artistic sensibility and look to the production, utilising tracking shots, slow-motion and sped up sequences; to ‘still-life’ painterly images of the once new-age architecture and of the many civic artworks.
Today the town plays host to ‘Modies’ (Depeche Mode fans) who pilgrimage to the birthplace of their musical heroes, and Basildon’s cultural standard-bearers continue to do their thing demonstrating, that alongside township investment, access to the arts will always be key in achieving the ultimate design for living.