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Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Film maker Angie Mason is more used to making documentaries that expose wrong-doing and scandal in high places but her latest project has captured the memories of local people who lived through one of the UK’s worst-ever natural disasters. Sheena Grant reports
THERE’S a biting wind outside, but inside film maker Angie Mason’s cottage it’s warm. She’s got two log-burners going and she’s recounting tales of some of her most memorable documentaries.
Many are inspired by her personal experiences. None more so than when she took a camera into hospital and filmed her dying father in order to expose the scandal of hospital-acquired superbugs, such as C. difficile and MRSA, and inaccurate death certificates.
“Dad had only gone in for a routine hip operation,” she says, “and yet he never came out. While in hospital he got C. difficile. I just watched him fading away.”
Then there was the time she herself became the story after she went into schools as a supply teacher and captured on film the bad behaviour and disruption endemic in some secondary schools.
Many of her films are commissioned by heavy-weights such as the BBC’s Panorama or Channel 4’s Dispatches, but the one she’s currently working on will receive its first screening locally, at Aldeburgh Cinema on February 2.
The film is one of a series of events being promoted by the Alde & Ore Association to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1953 floods. Filming started at the end of November, when people were invited to share their memories of the disaster at a meeting at The Jolly Sailor in Orford, and continued for the next few weeks.
Angie has already started editing her footage the morning I visit her cottage in Orford and will do some more work later with the help of fellow volunteers Adrian Birtwell and Joe Joyce, who, like her, are lending their professional expertise to the project.
“Film making is an intense business,” she says. “Going out and filming is great fun but when you’ve done that you’ve got a huge amount of footage and you’ve got to make sense of it all and interweave it with archive and music.”
The good thing about this project is that it doesn’t have to be a definite length, as most of her work does. And that’s not the only difference. “Most of the stuff I do is current affairs investigations,” she says. “There are usually bad boys and victims – it could be a big pharmaceutical company or those in authority not looking after our elderly. Here, there are victims and people who have suffered, but the bad boy is the weather. It’s less edgy than I would normally do but there have been interesting issues coming out of it. It’s been a real learning curve for me.”
The 30 or so people who attended that initial meeting in Orford all remembered the shock of the flooding, how little warning there was, the cold and the awful smell in the days to come. Thankfully, no lives were lost around Orford and Aldeburgh but the events of January 31 and February 1, 1953, left an indelible mark on those who experienced them.
“We’ve spoken to some people who were only four or five years old at the time and who have quite vivid memories,” says Angie. “I interviewed one woman, now in her 90s, who was rescued by boat with a baby in arms.
“We thought we would just get half a dozen people at the pub but we were overwhelmed by the response. They came from Aldeburgh, Orford and Shingle Street. Some of them were talking for a few minutes or related accounts they had written down. We allowed those people to have their voices.”
The film also features some more in-depth interviews. Angie took one man back to Iken, where as a young man he had helped repair defences after the flood.
“It was bleak down there,” she says. “These people didn’t have excavators and modern machinery. They just had their physical labour in horrible conditions.”
The project has also turned up some pieces of what Angie calls “TV gold”, including previously unseen cine footage of the flood taken in Orford.
“Someone just knocked on my door and told me his mother had done this filming at the time and that it may have something of use on it,” she says. “He came back with a reel of 8mm film and I had it transferred in London. It was TV gold – like something out of an Enid Blyton book in the 1950s. His mother had had the wisdom to go to the top of Orford Castle the day after the flood and she got a big panoramic sweep of the whole area. It’s in colour, too, and has never been seen before.
“We’ve got accounts of kids being holed up in upstairs bedrooms with hardly any food because they couldn’t get out, and people taking chickens upstairs with them. There was one lady who I don’t think had spoken about what happened to her very much, so to tell it finally was like a relief for her. Memories had come back to her that she didn’t know were so painful, and how close to death she was. She was in Aldeburgh and had woken up and went to look out the window and saw boats outside in the street. She tried to rationalise it and tried to get downstairs, and couldn’t because of the water. She was told to stay upstairs. She remembers being hungry and cold for days.
“People had seen floods before, but not like that one: this was the big one – the equivalent to a tsunami. Some places got away with it. It just depended where the weak link in the chain was.”
Angie has found the level of community involvement in the project remarkable and quite unlike anything she’s used to encountering when making a film.
“People have brought up their old black and white photos. It’s been quite amazing,” she says. “People have taken us out on fishing boats for three hours so we can get shots of the coast. Everybody has been really good.
“I interviewed one woman who worked in a posh dress shop in Aldeburgh. People staying in the upmarket holiday village of Thorpeness would send down to her shop for their ballgowns and cocktail dresses. She remembered a lamp-post with a boat tethered to it because the sea was up over the high street and waves rolling over the Brudenell Hotel. She was talking to another man and he had some pictures of it.”
After the flood, humanitarian aid was sent from around the world.
“I’ve been told most houses in Aldeburgh had Persian carpets,” says Angie.
Perhaps because of her eye for a story and her well-developed sense of justice, Angie has been struck by something else while making the floods film: just how little known the catastrophe is outside the areas it affected, despite the fact that it killed more than 500 people on land and at sea in the UK.
“This was one of the biggest natural disasters the country had ever known and yet it is as if the story has been airbrushed out of history,” she says. “That was because it wasn’t a Home Counties or a metropolitan thing. If it had have been, it would have been in the national consciousness and memory. For me, that’s an interesting insight into why there’s little national commemoration.”
Another thing that has resonated with her has been the fact that those affected knew nothing of the flood until it actually swept over their homes.
“Nowadays we have got warning systems and we’d all know about it from the internet. We’d see it live on TV. There was none of that then, and that is what the tragedy is all about. There was no integrated warning system. People went to bed at night not knowing they were going to wake up with water lapping up around their houses.”
Making the film has also allowed Angie to strengthen her ties in the area where she has a home.
“I’ve learned a lot about a major event that happened up here and got to know a lot of people socially from it,” she says.
The film came about after she got voted onto the Alde & Ore Association, which aims to preserve the Alde, Ore and Butley Creek rivers and adjoining land.
“I’m just there as a local resident,” she says. “Once I was voted on, they said they wanted to do something to commemorate the 60th anniversary. The only thing I know anything about is films. This is what I have worked in for 30 years, so it was second nature to want to do something along those lines.”
Like everyone else involved in the project, all her time has been given voluntarily.
“For the past two or three weeks I’ve done nothing apart from this,” she says. “I have had to shelve other work but, hopefully, I’ll be able to pick it up at the end of this.”
She may have been making films for the last three decades but Angie actually started out as a teacher when she left university. It was a fairly short career, lasting only two years, and from there she joined the BBC, where she stayed for the next 22 years.
“I did mainly arts and educational documentaries, not really investigations,” she says. “But then a few years ago I left to go freelance so I could work on other things. That’s how I got into current affairs. It’s the best thing I ever did. Now I can explore more of my own ideas and topics. I’ve got a good nose for stories and will spend a lot of time researching things and then hopefully get them commissioned.”
Working with Roger Graef, chief executive of high-end documentary maker Films of Record, who she met after leaving the BBC, she’s covered education, medical stories, the pharmaceutical industry, care homes and elderly care.
Among her many scoops has been a programme for Dispatches in 2011 (and a subsequent report for Newsnight) about the health dangers of “metal-on-metal” hip replacements and her 2005 programme for Channel 5, called Classroom Chaos.
“That one got me into the news where I was the news,” she says. “Just after I left the BBC staff I was doing some research for a project about the dumbing down of English and history teaching in schools, which is what I used to teach.”
But after going into 16 schools across London and the south east as a supply teacher, the focus of her research and subsequent film soon changed. “I couldn’t believe what I found,” she says. “I was going into classrooms where I couldn’t teach and kids couldn’t learn because of constant low-level disruption. Phones were going off and there was constant disregard for the authority of the teacher.
“Since then the balance of power in schools has changed,” she says. “At that time the pupils’ word was taken in preference to the teachers’. That has stopped.”
But perhaps her most personal project has been one broadcast on BBC1 in 2006. In it, she filmed her father dying after contracting a hospital-aquired superbug, C. difficile, or to give it its full name, Clostridium difficile, which particularly affects elderly people. It came just a few years after her mother went into hospital with a minor stroke but got a hospital-acquired infection and died. Angie decided to act when she realised the same thing was happening with her father.
“Dad went in for a hip operation and got C. difficile,” she says. “I went undercover and recorded him dying of his infection. When I got my father’s death certificate it listed bronchopneumonia as the cause of death but there was no mention of the infection. I wanted it put on the certificate.”
She soon discovered that her father’s death certificate wasn’t the only one that wasn’t strictly correct – a Government report in 2003 showed only 55% were accurate.
“I brought it to public prominence with this film,” she says. “My father walked into hospital for a hip operation. He was a war veteran, as tough as old boots. He should have been in and out of hospital in five days.”
She wouldn’t flinch from highlighting an issue that needs exposing if it involved her personal life again.
“Someone said to me your whole life is in video,” she says. “We can explore stuff. We have a platform. If something affects me, I always think ‘If this is what I am going through, then others must be as well’.”
In fact, she is actually working on another film she describes as “personal”, but won’t be drawn further.
But she is heartened that her willingness to go undercover, as she did to investigate her father’s illness and death, has inspired others.
“A few women have taken the courage to do the same,” she says. “Someone came to me with her footage. I looked at it and thought there is a really good story here. It became Christmas Day at the workhouse, showing a care home with no sense of any Christmas spirit at all.
“I am in the business of change; holding things up to scrutiny. It’s a joke in the family. People will say to me: ‘There’s a programme in this, Angie’.
“There’s a lot of stuff I could sink my teeth into, but you’ve got to get a broadcaster to agree with what you are saying. I can feel passionate about a subject but they need to be interested too. But I never give up on a good idea.”
Angie Mason’s film will be shown at Aldeburgh Cinema on Saturday, February 2 at 3pm, and at Orford Town Hall on Monday, February 4 at 6pm. Admission is free. For a full programme of events and exhibitions to mark the 60th anniversary of the flood, visit www.aldeandore.org