“You can’t stop progress. That’s one thing you’ll never stop.” So says Jim Prescott, a retired newsagent from Leigh in Greater Manchester. Having previously been employed by the formerly ubiquitous Lancashire cotton industry and later by one of Leigh’s largest employers, the erstwhile British Insulated Callender’s Cables (BICC) Ltd, he should know.
It is curious, however, the way in which the vast upheavals, witnessed over a lifetime of interaction with the urban and economic landscape, can be attributed simply to this opaque, almost utopian, notion of “progress.” Rather than surrendering to the hopeful futility of “progress,” surely there must be a way to, if not arrest the fluidity of urban change, at least develop a better understanding of it?
Jim is one of seven interviewees to feature in a film about Leigh that attempts to do just this. With excerpts brought together from a wider oral history project, the film is an impressionistic take on the experience of living and working in Leigh during a period which has seen the local economy shift from a dependence on industry to now being primarily based on retail. The majority of the interviews, therefore, were conducted deliberately through the prism of employment. This was necessary in order to correlate the visual aspects of the changing surroundings depicted in ‘The Town’ - representing the dwindling of Leigh’s industrial heritage - with the recollections of the area’s inhabitants on film.
The film takes as its starting point the year 1974. More specifically, it begins with archive footage taken from a documentary made in that year about Leigh and the local boundary changes about to take place, entitled ‘Leigh 1974: Year of Local Government Reorganization.’ The 1974 film neatly encapsulates the anxieties felt by the town, as its geographic and economic contours come tangibly under threat. The emphasis upon the potential loss of the town’s regional identity (one that is undoubtedly centred around industry and economic autonomy) provides the main theme, as various aspects of Leigh life are examined. A main thrust of the film, therefore, was to attempt to chart the ways in which, forty years on, those changes have impinged on Leigh’s fortunes and, importantly, to collate the reflections of local people on the loss of Leigh’s status as a borough and its “takeover” by Wigan.
‘The Town’ contains few answers. Rather, as a film, it represents an attempt to ask questions of the notion of “progress.” In other words, how has a generation of people understood, interpreted, and come to terms with, the changes they have witnessed? How have those changes affected their relationship with a town that, in most cases, they have called home all of their lives? Finally, can Leigh be considered the same place that it was in the mid-1970s?
It must be admitted that this project has a deeply personal aspect to it. Growing up in my hometown of Leigh, there was always a distinct feeling of disappointment with the area; that my generation had somehow missed out on the town’s best years. Nevertheless, there existed within my own consciousness, and among my peers, an acute sense of pride in being from, and living in, Leigh. I was also profoundly aware that this pride was largely a product of inter-generational relationships, as parents and grandparents reflected upon and bequeathed memories of Leigh’s halcyon days. Doubtless, this discrepancy between regional pride and the reality of one’s surroundings is an experience common to many people from many towns, especially those from areas affected by the process of deindustrialization.
Above all, I hope that ‘The Town’ provokes questions from its viewers about their own urban surroundings and their own history. After all, as James Rhodes argues, “In the ‘post-industrial present’ the past is never completely rejected, but rather aspects deemed recoverable are synthesised into contemporary constructions of place-based identities.” I hope that it causes the people of Leigh and other towns to contemplate their own “place-based identities,” and the changes they have witnessed, and continue to witness, to the places where they live and work. Most importantly, it is hoped that this film prompts people to contemplate their shifting urban and economic landscapes and to ask whether or not we are truly making "progress."
Aerial footage c/o AirReal.co.uk
Made in conjunction with the North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University.
If you'd like to discuss this project further I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org