In 2016, Andrew Woodyatt started working at the Rio cinema in Dalston, Hackney, London. Handed a large bunch of keys, and blessed with a healthy curiosity, he started to explore the Rio’s basement rooms, which had been used for years for storage. Among the broken hoovers and discarded paperwork, he started to come across negatives – local street scenes shot on film strips, which seemed interesting enough to save. Then he hit the jackpot. Opening a rusty filing cabinet, he found 10,000 frames, mounted on glass slides and neatly organised into folders, some with labels such as “NHS”, “Greenham Common” and “Colin Roach”. “I just thought ‘Wow!’” says Woodyatt, who also lectures at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Woodyatt had stumbled across the remains of the Rio Tape/Slide Newsreel Group, a project that ran at the Rio from 1982 until 1988, facilitated by a young woman called Sandra Hooper. The aim of the project was simple – to give local people audio equipment, cameras and training so they could make newsreels about their area, which would be shown at the cinema before the films. Only a couple of the newsreels have survived and none of the audio recordings, but the photographs are a thought-provoking dive into a tumultuous time in Hackney – and in Britain.
Margaret Thatcher had been in power since 1979, and unemployment had reached over three million; relations between minorities and the police were still strained after the race riots of 1981. The 1984-85 miners’ strike pitted workers and their unions against the government, and Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s bullish approach to the cold war sparked off fears of a nuclear war. Those who were poor started to feel disenfranchised, and people in Hackney were among them. The area around the Rio was famed for its bad housing, in which young squatters took over empty, rotting properties; it was also known for its longstanding openness to immigrants, who faced the sharp end of racism and discrimination. “These were tough times,” says Woodyatt. “In the early 80s, more than half the tickets sold at the Rio had an unemployed discount.”
But Hackney didn’t take it lying down, with protests and community groups regularly calling for change. The file Woodyatt found labelled NHS showed protests against cuts organised by the Hackney Health Emergency, for example, while the Greenham Common folder showed support for the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, set up in 1981 in opposition to nuclear weapons placed at the RAF base. The Colin Roach file showed some of the many protests demanding a public inquiry into the death of the 21-year-old black British man in nearby Stoke Newington police station on 12 January 1983. Other images show demonstrations against council spending cuts, deportations and evictions; or collections of money or food for the miners.
There are also happier or more everyday images, taken on the street, on buses, in community groups or at festivals, some showing people looking happy, industrious or cool, others focusing on cars, shop fronts, markets and housing estates. Some show shady scenes, such as a police stop-and-search that escalated into a major incident – images that MP Brian Sedgemore used to make a case against dogs in local policing. Other images testify to the very real poverty experienced in Hackney at the time, as well as the amazing mix of residents.
That mix was reflected in The Rio Tape/Slide Newsreel Group. Run for two hours every Thursday afternoon in term time, its participants were often out of work or only casually employed, and in their teens to early 30s; other than that, they came from a wide variety of communities and backgrounds, be that black, white, gay, straight, working or middle class. Their differences didn’t impede their work. “It was great!” says Dee Phillips, who grew up in the area and took part. “Everyone had a great sense that everybody, young or old, would have their say, and that their contribution was just as important. Everybody had a voice.”
“It felt very open,” says Hooper. “We always met at the beginning of the allocated two-hour class, and we would spend the time talking about what we wanted to cover and how to do it. I don’t think there was any sort of difficult, conflicting opinions – that was one of the things that made it work. The nature of the project interested people who were open to thinking about things.”
And that open-mindedness was key, because it was also in the project’s nature to be alternative. Run by locals for locals, in a very multicultural community facing severe deprivation, it included topics that didn’t make it into the national or even local press, and a perspective from outside the establishment. The group presented the views of squatters at a time when Hackney Council was sealing up empty properties (though the Labour council was also considered so radical that some newspapers tagged it “loony left”). Kath Hornak, for example, squatted in Hackney for over three years, and was photographed protesting at the town hall about access to housing. “I saw many evictions,” she says, “and I was shocked to see the council then go in and smash up the toilets and sinks to make the place uninhabitable.”
The newsreels also reported why the family of Colin Roach – who died after two gunshots to the head – wanted an inquest into his death, at a time when, according to those involved, other newspapers simply regurgitated the official line. “The press in the main took the perspective that the guy had walked into a police station and killed himself,” says Ngoma Bishop, who was part of the Roach Family Support Committee. “How did they know this? The police had told them. The police, from the night of Colin’s death, started to put out their narrative, so people would think he was some guy from Hackney with mental illness. We had to counter that, so we organised a press conference at a community centre. The press listened, and wrote things we hadn’t said at all.”
That sense of polyphony, of alternative perspectives, underpins The Rio Tape/Slide Archive, a forthcoming book put together by Woodyatt with three others – Alan Denney, a local photographer and historian who took on the monumental task of cleaning and scanning the slides; Tamara Stoll, a photographer and artist who specialises in community projects; and Max Leonard, a writer and publisher. All four live in Hackney – Leonard grew up there, and Denney moved there in the 1980s – and the book includes an essay by Woodyatt on the history of the Rio, and another by Denney on the context of 1970s and 80s community photography. There are also introductions by Michael Rosen and Zawe Ashton, both of whom lived in Hackney. But other than that, it’s the people who were involved with Hackney and the Rio Tape/Slide Newsreel Group who tell their stories, via a series of oral histories.
“It seemed fitting,” says Leonard. “I write books, but I didn’t want to write this one – I didn’t want to put my own voice in there. We wanted to let different people put different points of view, especially as the book is about lots of different communities and protests and politics.”
These interviews also put the images into context, helping ensure the social and political era in which they were made is clear, and the issues and perspectives they presented aren’t written out of history. These issues and perspectives feel relevant again now, against a backdrop of movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and for Phillips, that’s bittersweet. “Nurses fighting for fair pay, representation of race and class – all those issues are part of the here and now,” she says. “These problems are still here. It doesn’t feel we have moved on, and that makes me sad.
“But I’m happy people will know that we, as a group, were concerned, and did try to let people know what was going on. I look back with fond memories. It was a brave time.”