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Film of the Week A portrait of the socialist as photographer

MARTIN HALL marvels at the life and work of Tish Murtha, whose images of the working class in Thatcher’s Britain carry resonance today

Tish (15)
Directed by Paul Sng

TISH, which documents the life and work of documentarian Tish Murtha, is a delight from start to finish. The minute you see those images of Newcastle in the 1970s, full of stark power and also joy, you know you’re in good hands.

Murtha’s work documents the end of the post-war consensus and the beginning of the neoliberal era — though few were calling it that at the time — and its devastating effect on working-class communities; specifically, Elswick, where Tish grew up as one of 10 children.

Sometimes documentation of working-class life can fall into cliche or not ring true, but that’s never the case with Murtha’s work.

She knew her subjects and was of their tribe, be it in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, where she lived towards the end of her life, or London, when she came nearest to success with her 1983 exhibition on the sex industry in Soho, London by Night. 

The photos of Newcastle are most typical of her style, though, and at once represent a world that has gone, but also one that has returned with a vengeance since austerity became government policy in 2010.

Her 1981 exhibition, Youth Unemployment, was raised in a House of Commons debate that year. 

Tish died in 2013, though we can assume that she would be horrified by the increasing levels of poverty in Britain today.

The film is narratively driven by the conversations her daughter Ella has with family, friends, colleagues and tutors. We learn of Tish’s fierce commitment to socialism and anger at the destruction wrought from the 1970s onwards.

All speak of her lack of compromise, and we get a glimpse of what it was and is like to enter further education and the art world when you’re working class.

There are distressing conversations with two of Tish’s younger brothers, Carl and Glenn, both of whom discuss the difficulties of the lives they have led; it is etched into their faces. Sadly, we learn that Glenn died after the film had been shot.

We also hear her voice, via Maxine Peake, who conveys the power of Tish’s personality and the strength of her convictions with great skill, as you would expect.

But mostly, it’s her work that draws you in. Sng gives us her photographs and their context with great skill, making use of split screen, and a moving mix of interview and reportage with voiceover. 

Thoroughly recommended viewing.

Out in cinemas today.

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