Images of Regeneration

Film propaganda and the British slum clearance campaign – 1933-1938

In the summer of 1996, after more than a decade writing about China, I needed a break. I returned to England and settled down in a small house in Kent countryside, a million miles from stress of big city life in Beijing and the constant demands of journalism.

I needed a change of pace as well as a change of scene so I enrolled in a Master’s degree at the University of Kent in Propaganda, Persuasion and History. An important focus of the course was the use of film propaganda in the 20th century, and one documentary in particular got my attention; Housing Problems by John Grierson. The film, depicting the grim reality of life in Britain’s slums, had been heralded as a ground-breaking and innovative production and an agent for positive social change and reform. However, after studying British housing policy in some detail during my undergraduate degree at King’s College, London, some 15 years earlier, I had a different take on what the documentary was trying to say.

Seen from the perspective of class relations, Housing Problems was simply part of the dominant social, cultural and political narrative of the early 20th century; the desire to build a strong, healthy and powerful nation. In order to do this, the diseased and deviant elements of nation, most visibly the slums, would have to be surgically removed and their working-class inhabitants placed in nice, clean, modern housing where they would be reborn in the image of bourgeoisie and become productive citizens of a cohesive nation state.

The fact that many of the buildings erected to house the people saved from the slums in the 1930s later became slums themselves shows that the slum clearance campaign, and those who promoted it, failed to understand the realities of class, capital and land in 20th Century Britain. Other, less well-known, working class film-makers did understand those realities however, and a good part of my thesis was dedicated to highlighting their work as a counterpoint to the dominant narrative voiced by Grierson and his acolytes.

One of the most enjoyable parts of my research was the time spent at the British Pathe Archive in Pinewood Studios outside of London, which contained a wealth of primary sources related to the production of the government-backed propaganda film on the slums, The Great Crusade, including letters to and from senior government figures on the screenplay, images and publicity material for the film. Incidentally, Tomorrow Never Dies was being filmed while I was doing my research at Pinewood but sadly I never got to see 007 in person.

I completed my thesis in June 1997, and my supervisor suggested I submit it for publication in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. It was accepted and was published by Taylor & Francis (in modified form) in 1999, Volume 3, No.3. The article is paywalled so I have uploaded it here (with permission) as a PDF.

Incidentally, the house where I wrote my theses is itself a good example of residential regeneration, although its development was more organic than planned. It was originally a workhouse for the poor, built in 1835. My section of the complex was the chapel, where divided families could meet once a week during the church service. The complex later became a hospital, and then in the early 1980s, it was converted into 26 private residences with each owner having an equal stake in the management of the complex.

My home in England

My home in England; the former chapel of a Victorian workhouse

I lived here for a total of 11 years, from 1996 to 2007, although much of that time was spent travelling; travels that would eventually lead to the publication of my book Why did the White Fella Climb the Rock.