The release of the new Shane Meadows film Somers Town in the UK has been accompanied by an unusual amount of soul-searching and questioning re the role of investment by Eurostar. This was evident in the (very positive) review on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row last night and formed the basis of Xan Brooks’ argument in a Guardian article this morning. These are just the latest two examples – I’ve seen earlier references and I’m sure that the argument will be mentioned in several reviews on Friday. I haven’t seen the film yet but I’ve gambled on it being a useful educational resource and I’ve booked it for events this Autumn.
Somers Town began as a short film that was intended to act as a form of promo for the movement of Eurostar’s service from London’s Waterloo station to St Pancras. (See Rona’s post from the Edinburgh Film Festival screening for more on this background.) ‘Somers Town’ is the area of London situated between the railway terminii of Euston to the West and St Pancras and Kings Cross to the East – an historic location which once housed railway goods yards, hospitals and social housing. The new development (an extended station area and the restoration of the historic St Pancras station and hotel as well as the new high-speed rail link to Europe) impinges on the lives of the locals in two ways. First it has brought increased employment opportunities (and prompted the arrival of migrant workers) and second it has brought a further element of regeneration and ‘gentrification’ to the area with new services allied to the upmarket shops in the newly expanded station (following the building of the British Library and parts of University College (UCL) in Somers Town itself). Here are two potential social issues that could contribute to narratives set in the area. This is one of the parts of London that sees a juxtaposition between working class housing and Central London commercial and entertainment activities and the local community which was once very settled and close-knit is presumably seeing changes. The whole wider area of St Pancras south towards Bloomsbury and Grays Inn is to some extent unique in London and has not often appeared on screen. The most famous images of Kings Cross are probably those of the railway bridge in The Ladykillers (1955) and the skylines of Mike Leigh’s High Hopes (1988).
When Meadows began to shoot Somers Town (according to Brooks) he quickly found that he had far more material than could be contained in a 9 minute short. (He first refused the commission, then got interested again when he saw the script produced by his frequent collaborator Paul Fraser.) Eventually, he expanded the narrative to a 70 minute feature (just long enough to count as a feature in UK exhibition). The film was first seen at Berlin earlier this year and then won the major prize for a British film at Edinburgh Film Festival in June. The budget of the film is reputed to have been about £500,000, initially from Eurostar with additional funding later, including support from UK Film Council. It is now being released by Optimum.
The ‘controversy’ seems to be about whether this is a Eurostar ‘branding exercise’ and whether Meadows has ‘sold out’. Should we see this as akin to the massive product placement deals in Hollywood, is it the thin end of the wedge that will drive through UK independent filmmaking? It all seems a little silly to me, but it does help to expose the whole fraught process of how small films need promotion. Meadows, in one of the many interviews he’s given (see www.shanemeadows.co.uk/ for links), reflects that throughout the shoot, Eurostar didn’t interfere in any way apart from helping the producer with locations permissions. However, since the film’s completion, “. . . they have been brilliant at supporting it without ever trying to make into something that it isn’t” (Meadows on LastBroadcast.com).
Given the generally positive reviews and eager anticipation (it’s great to see the enthusiasm for Meadows’ work), Eurostar would be mad not to support its release, but as the coverage shows they need to do it sensitively. It’s a silly debate, however, because all films depend on financial backing which has strings attached and potential constraints for innovative filmmakers. ‘Artistic independence’ is mostly a myth and I’m sure that, for Shane Meadows, this was just a shoot like most others.
Xan Brooks does make a number of useful points in passing, I think. He mentions the legacy of filmmaking commissioned by the British Transport Commission and other public bodies in the 1950s and 1960s, including many fine documentary films about the railways such as the John Schlesinger film Terminus (1961). He also suggests that the film encourages ideas about travel to Europe and Meadows himself has said he has become more interested in what is happening in eastern Europe after his experiences directing Polish characters. There is a general argument about product placement and the ‘non-accountability’ of sponsored filmmaking (Brooks points out that sponsorship of cinema films is not subject to the Ofcom/ASA controls that face TV and print advertising), but it shouldn’t obscure debates about the funding of independent filmmaking generally.
I’ll blog what I think of the film when I see it, but as a railway fan knocked out by the restoration of St Pancras station and an advocate of Eurostar as the green way to travel across Europe, I’m already in the camp. The only sadness for me is that Eurostar is not publicly-owned or that Shane Meadows could not be commissioned from public funds by a London community arts grant.