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DVD: New Town Utopia | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: New Town Utopia

DVD: New Town Utopia

Off-beat celebration of post-war British town planning

'Mother and Child': high-quality public art in, er, Basildon

You come to Christopher Ian Smith’s New Town Utopia expecting a damning indictment of post-war British planning. But while there are melancholy moments, this is mostly an upbeat documentary. Smith manages, without the use of CGI, to make the much-maligned Essex new town of Basildon look uncommonly attractive. The spiritual home of Essex man, this solidly Conservative town isn’t what you’d expect.

Basildon was born in the late 1940s, planned to accommodate the thousands of East Enders living in terraced slums. As one veteran resident puts it, “I just wanted a bathroom and a toilet.” It was (and still is, up to a point), a place of trees and wide-open spaces, good-quality public art and some interesting modern architecture.

New Town UtopiaJim Broadbent reads the words of Lewis Silkin, Clem Atlee’s Minister for Town and Country Planning. “Our towns must be beautiful,” he intones, and many of Smith’s static shots (often eerily devoid of actual inhabitants) suggest that the planners got it right. Bits of Basildon are still beautiful. Notably Brooke House, an elegant, striking tower-block whose upper flats were allegedly reserved for high-status professionals. This was a town where it was assumed that no one would ever want, or need, to leave: Basildon’s railway station only opened in the 1970s, when declining local industry began to force locals to commute to London.

Smith shows us Basildon’s softer side. A thriving Arts Centre grew into the Towngate Theatre. Arnold Wesker wrote a community play celebrating the town’s 40th birthday. Depeche Mode began life here. Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy scheme radically changed Basildon’s feel, but Smith’s film is careful to show that the town’s independent spirit survives. His motley bunch of talking heads are a cheery crew: poets, musicians and artists who are still enamoured with the place.

Watch New Town Utopia and then read John Grindrod’s book Concretopia, an engrossing study of modernist architecture in the UK. Image and sound quality are decent, though no extras are provided.

Arnold Wesker wrote a community play celebrating the town’s 40th birthday

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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