Thomas More’s Utopia – Christopher Smith (The VH Interview)

Last month, we reviewed the wonderful New Town Utopia, documenting the creation and development of Basildon in Essex. We were lucky enough to catch up with the creator and director of the film Christopher Smith to chat about the documentary.

What was it about the new towns which made you want to make the documentary?

I initially started this project as I wanted to explore the modern love and appreciation for brutalism, modernist architecture and post-war design – and how this is in conflict with the real, lived experiences of these that grew up on these estates and in these ‘iconic’ buildings. I grew up in Essex and spent a lot of time in Basildon as a child so it seemed like the right place to take this approach from.

There were 10 first wave new towns built in the 50s. What was about Basildon that particularly took your interest?

As a kid, it always had a sense of ‘otherness’ compared to other towns. This came from the architecture and textures and the intriguing sculptures and public art. I  found the transcript of the New Towns Bill to parliament from 1946. It’s a lyrical, impassioned speech given in the midst of the post-war government’s progressive and radical policy drive. It evoked a desire to create a new type of citizen – with: “a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride” and evoked Thomas More’s Utopia. Beauty, culture and civic pride are not terms associated with Basildon now. It has a terrible reputation locally and nationally. It’s a challenging place that’s been through difficult times, but I knew there was more to the place and its people.

You tell the story mainly from the viewpoint of Basildon’s artists. Was that something you intentionally set out to do?

It was, because I believe in the importance of art and creativity to personal well-being and communal, shared experiences. Basildon is representative of many British towns in its economic and social struggles – and not just new towns.   The high street is populated with betting shops, pound shops and payday loan peddlers.  Artists struggle to get funding or support from the people of the town and local government.

Basildon was built to be a hub for the arts – but you have to smash the surface to glimpse it, but it’s there, and the people in my film are all ‘artists’ in one sense or another… poet, puppeteer, musician, actor, sculptor. They are all people with talent, fight and never-ending belief in the power of the creative spirit. Through exploring the story of the town through their memories and observations it highlights the importance of art and culture to the well-being, happiness and communities that ‘work’.

The movie was crowd-funded. How did you find that process?

It was painful, and a lot of work, but absolutely necessary to pay for the post production of the film.

Crowdfunding takes a lot of preparation and time to do it successfully, but the process of putting together the campaign was important to realising who the audience was going to be for the film.

I remember initially reading about your documentary about 3 years ago in the local press. Are you surprised by how much it has gained traction since then?

Yes – I had no expectations regarding how widely seen or reviewed the film would be. I thought that the subject matter would be too parochial even within the UK, but the film’s themes have been resonant to people outside of Basildon and the other new towns.

In fact it was only when the first reviews starting coming in that I realised how important they were, and how tough it is reading critiques of something you’ve spent so much time working on.

Given such a passionate topic, you seem to paint an excellently balanced picture of the history of the town, both socially and politically. It would have been easy to create a flag-waving socialist piece, yet you didn’t, and it’s more powerful for it. Was that something intentional and did you struggle with not creating something more aggressive?

It was intentional. I am by all accounts a leftie, but I know that most of the people in Basildon aren’t, so I tried to be as balanced and honest as possible in the way I look at key social and political moments. In this time, everything is becoming so polarised, especially in politics, that I wanted to demonstrate the grey areas in our thinking and behaviours which are more representative of reality. There is a simplification, and stereotyping of Brexit/conservative voting people in the home counties – that as far as I’m concerned is just a new form of demonisation of working class people. I hope the film serves to bring some nuance to the way people see Basildon, Essex and the other new towns.

Have you had much feedback from Basildon locals?

Yes – and its generally been very positive. Some have said they see the town differently to the way the film is portrayed and that’s fair enough. I’ve screened the film in Basildon a couple of times now and its gone down well. There also seem to be quite a few ex-Basildonians and new owners around the country who I’ve spoken to after other screenings.

What did you learn during the making of the movie?

Ultimately I learnt how to make a feature film – which is good! Although I think I’ll play a few less roles in the next one. A lot of mistakes were made in the process but they won’t be repeated again.

It changed the way I view Basildon I’m much more understanding of how complex this place is – over time hundreds of thousands of people have shaped Basildon’s history – some in good ways, some not so good…

You touch on the fact that even today, the parks are making way for a new generation of apartments for London commuters. A new town within a new town if you like. Do you think planners, councils and government will ever learn from their mistakes?

I hope so, unfortunately failure is often the best way to learn. The new towns and post-war estates were something different, experimental – and many of them have struggled. It appears to me that the planning process is now more consultative than it was back then – which is an improvement on the ‘top-down’ approach behind the new towns.

What are you working on next?

I’m hoping to get another documentary off the ground focused on Epping Forest – and the characters that have lived around it. It would be similar in some ways to New Town Utopia in it’s focus on place, art and activism – but would be darker, weirder and span thousands of years.

New Town Utopia is available now on DVD and Amazon Prime