Unhomely: new towns on film

A shot of Bracknell with its flyovers and tunnels with the caption UNHOMELY: New Towns on film

On film, the post-war British new town is an uncanny space – heaven, hell, or somewhere between, but certainly not quite real.

The idea of the new town was born out of hope and optimism. With population growth, cities half-demolished by the Blitz and increasingly demanding expectations around quality of life, ordinary working people in Britain needed new and better homes.

The British government set about identifying sites across the UK where large residential towns could be built from scratch, or by drastically expanding existing smaller settlements.

This was revolutionary, contrary to the usual British wait-and-see gradualism, and not everybody was convinced by the idea. It’s certainly difficult to find wholly positive depictions of the new towns project on film outside government propaganda.

Contemplating life in the post-war Britain to come in They Came to a City, 1944.

Right at the beginning, when the new towns only existed in plans and papers, Basil Dearden directed a film based on J.B. Priestley’s 1943 play They Came to a City. Released in 1944, it’s not explicitly about new towns but rather about the need to reorder British society along fairer lines after the war.

It just so happens, however, that Priestley’s metaphor for this new society is a city. A new one.

Priestley’s script acknowledges that not everyone wants to come on this journey – and those who choose to stay behind have their reasons. Nonetheless, the argument is clear: things need to change and someone needs to have the guts to explore the frontier.

Almost as if they couldn’t help themselves, however, Dearden and Priestley make the new town not only ambiguous but also unsettling, alien and even a little threatening. A supernatural, spiritual force rather than the product of pure bureaucracy.

Dearden’s previous film, Halfway House, had a similar structure – strangers gather to solve an existential mystery – only in that case, the twist is that they have all gone back in time to fix their mistakes. Here, they’ve gone forward, and are being given a chance to prepare for Things to Come.

We never get to see the town, only the giant portal and staircase that lead to it, and the alternately appalled or euphoric faces of the visitors as they return. That makes it all the more unnerving. What on earth can be at the end of that staircase? Surely something more exciting than, say, Harlow.

After the war, the New Towns Act of 1946 triggered the building process. Development of the first wave was focused on London and the South East.

From then on, the idea of the new town as a point of tension – new versus old, planned versus organic, urban versus rural – would be played out on film, consciously or otherwise, time and again.

An alien colony or a home counties new town? (Quatermass II.)

Some filmmakers were drawn to new towns because, half-built in the 1950s, they offered plenty of unsettling atmosphere off the peg. They were strange spaces. Silent. Disconnected from the world. Alienating.

Literally so in the case of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass II.

The original 1955 BBC television series features scenes set in a ‘prefab town’ built for workers at the sinister secret facility around which the plot revolves. By the time Hammer adapted it for film in 1957 (dir. Val Guest) the setting was very clearly a more permanent new town, filmed on location at Hemel Hempstead.

It is presented as bleak and windswept, like a colony on Mars. The houses, in rippling rows, are surrounded by moorland. From one angle, it is urban. From another, rural. Both, and neither.

This plays on a feeling that new towns simply should not be. Towns should grow over the course of decades, over centuries – not overnight.

In his 2016 book The Weird and the Eerie Mark Fisher wrote about a container port in Suffolk as “a weird phenomenon, an alien and incommensurable eruption in the ‘natural’ scene”. Its silence, when viewed from a distance, contributes to this sensation. New towns can have a similar effect.

There’s also cold war paranoia in Quatermass II, and a suspicion of anything resembling socialism. The people of the town are unwitting worker drones for alien invaders, their servitude bought with these bland, identical homes, and the promise of food on the table in return for no questions asked.

A later television production, Danger Man, took a more head-on approach to the same idea. In the 1964 episode ‘Colony Three’ John Drake (Patrick McGoohan) is kidnapped and taken to Hamden New Town. (Played by Hatfield.) It’s perfectly clean, perfectly civilised, but of course it’s not an English town at all – it’s an unnamed Eastern bloc country and is a training ground for spies.

X marks the spot. (The Big Job.)

This sense of the uncanny, of the new town as an unnatural invader, is even present in ostensibly comic films.

In The Big Job, a not-quite-Carry-On from 1965 directed by Gerald Thomas, Sid James (also in Quatermass 2) plays a gangster who buries the spoils of a robbery in a country field. Fifteen years later, when he is released from prison, he returns to find that a new town (Bracknell) has been built on those very fields – and a police station right on top of his treasure.

It’s a funny setup but it also underlines the pace of change in post-war Britain. Who would expect deep English countryside to become a settled English townscape in such a short span of time? Turn your back and the very fabric of the country will shift.

This leads us to another question: what does the new town bury or replace?

All this used to be fields. (Requiem for a Village.)

In the American film Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982) a Spielburbian planned community (housing estate) is built on the site of an old burial ground that was never cleared, which is the source of its haunting.

But almost every inch of Britain is a burial ground or battlefield.

Requiem for a Village (dir. David Gladwell, 1975) is almost a ghost story, or perhaps an example of folk horror, built around the growth of a new town around a country village.

In the opening scenes we see an old man set off from a modern housing estate on the edge of the town, wobbling along on his bike. He negotiates roundabouts and a dual carriageway, eventually finding his way to a secluded village church. While tending the grounds, he has a vision of bodies rising from the graves, returning to the pews in the church. He follows them and so begins a trip through his own memory, and a collective memory of a lost rural life.

The new town here isn’t bad – the houses are large, clean and comfortable. And the past is murky, too, blighted by war, poverty and rape.

But, still, there’s a suggestion that the modern world has rolled concrete, closes and crescents over something richer and more complex. The bulldozer is an existential threat.

New town madness in The Alf Garnett Saga, 1972.

A less arty but perhaps no less heartfelt take on some of the same ideas can be found in, of all places, the second film based on the TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

Released in 1972, The Alf Garnett Saga (dir. Bob Kellett) relocates Garnett from the East End of London to a tower block in a new town – Hemel Hempstead, once again. He not only dislikes it but cannot cope with it. It has the trappings of a community, such as a pub, but is configured in a way that leaves him bewildered, imprisoned and humiliated.

At one point, he takes LSD, imagines himself to be a chicken and nearly falls from the balcony: “Out the window, fly away… Open the window, open the cage…”

In an essay translated into English as ‘The Uncanny’ Sigmund Freud actually uses the German word unheimlich – ‘unhomely’. Are new towns homely?

A common criticism of new towns and overspill estates is that they lack soul or character. “Rows of houses that are all the same” are contrasted with the individuality of the buildings found in towns which developed organically over centuries. And because these houses are built in clean, straight-line modernist style, they seem to lack individual texture.

There’s another kind of place they call to mind, especially when seen in their pristine state in films from the 1960s and 70s: the ‘tin towns’ in which the British Army trains for urban warfare. Or, of course, standing sets on studio backlots, whose houses are usually hollow shells.

Beige, white, oatmeal and ‘elephant’s breath’: the bland perfection of a new town flat in I Start Counting.

In both I Start Counting (dir. David Greene, 1969) and The Offence (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1973) the new town is dangerous in another way: as the hunting ground for a serial killer.

I Start Counting makes explicit an alienating quality in new town life. “The rain don’t even fall on us here,” says Granddad, looking forlornly from the window of the family’s tower block flat. The flat is actually a studio set and, painted beige and white throughout, evokes the alien simulation of a bland hotel room where Dave Bowman ends up at the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If the new town feels unreal, like a simulation, then what might that do to the mind of a psychopath already struggling to ascribe real feelings to, or empathise with, his victims? They’re just non-player characters in an open world game.

Then there’s the would-be utopian landscape of pedestrian underpasses, footbridges and green space. A dream in the promotional films made by new town corporations to market themselves to the young city dwellers they hoped to lure. But also appealing to parasites looking for opportunities to kidnap, maim or kill.

Something something liminal spaces something something. (The Offence.)

In I Start Counting it’s parkland at the end of the bus route – the new town’s weirdly hard edge – where young women are most vulnerable. In The Offence, it’s tunnels running beneath brand new roads where a child-killer strikes.

Built-up but sparse, populated but somehow empty, this new town (Bracknell, again) feels especially psychically dangerous. Look what it does to Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery): he loses his grip on reality and morality, brooding in his tower block flat and the new-build brutalist police station like a man in purgatory.

New towns are appealing to criminals of other varieties, too. As a composite of both Kray twins in Villain (dir. Michael Tuchner, 1971) Richard Burton plans the perfect payroll robbery to take place on the beautifully empty roads of (yet again) Bracknell.

For the East End villain, this is ideal: do your business out of town, on the wild, distant frontier, with only provincial policemen in your way.

Bloody kids. (A Clockwork Orange.)

And then, of course, there’s Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), which used Thamesmead, marketed as “London’s new town!”, to represent a dystopian future.

More than any other film, this cut through the PR and foresaw problems to come. When footbridges and underpasses cease to be cared for, when the gardens become overgrown, and the concrete sickens, the shine can go off a new town pretty fast.

Despite the recurring portrayal of the new town as uncanny, unsettling and alienating, it’s not all bad news. In two notable sex comedies, it’s not a training ground for aliens, spies or criminals but for randy teenagers. It’s a playground. A safe space to practice being an adult.

A backdrop to young love in Gregory’s Girl.

In fact, rewind: there’s even some of this in I Start Counting. It offers glimpses of a town centre where young people are given places of their own – record shops, cafes, nightclubs – and where there are plenty of precincts and arcades, squares and parks. They’re new and shiny, too, not yet haunted by Alex and his droogs.

In Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (dir. Clive Donner, 1968) and Gregory’s Girl (dir. Bill Forsyth, 1980) the focus is entirely on the struggles of young men to understand young women.

The bland, clean safeness of their new town backdrops (Stevenage and Cumbernauld respectively) saves us from the heavy ‘issues’ that so often bog down British youth films. We don’t need to think about urban decay when there’s love in the air. In Forsyth’s film, Cumbernauld looks positively California, its concrete bathed in golden hour light. Shangri-La.

Christopher Ian Smith’s 2017 documentary New Town Utopia, about Basildon in Essex, gets the balance right. With time, it argues, memories have accrued and traditions have developed. If they aren’t paradise, these Pinocchio towns, have at least achieved their dream of becoming real places.

Sources and further reading

2 thoughts on “Unhomely: new towns on film

  1. An interesting piece, but I think the key is in your very last paragraph – with time, traditions develop, and the newness rubs off. These places become familiar – just give them time. It’s a process that’s been happening for 2000 years – because people have been founding towns, for a variety of reasons, for that long. The Romans founded dozens, largely to bring the benefits of ‘civilisation’ to people they regarded as barbarians; Anglo-Saxon kings from Alfred onwards founded many more, largely for defence; Norman lords a load more, to give them markets they could gain income from, and so on through history. Just think how alien a Roman town must have appeared at first to a British tribesman. Or a place like Salisbury – a new town founded in the 13th century – to a local peasant. Very few of our modern towns started spontaneously, so to speak – most started as the result of a deliberate action by someone.

    In my opinion, some of the spookiest places are the towns that failed – the ones that weren’t reoccupied after the Romans left, or the medieval foundations that failed to take off. The ones where massive defences, that must have taken hundreds if not thousands of people many months to construct, now enclose nothing but fields and a couple of cottages.

    Like

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