‘In the Shadow of the Beast’: Esther Johnson discusses working with Dennis Skinner

In the Shadow of the Beast

by Esther Johnson

“1970. I got elected, and six o’clock the day after I went [back] to work down the pit. I didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together. I hadn’t got a bank account. I hadn’t got a car. We hadn’t any money. I went to work because I didn’t know when I was going to get paid in Parliament.” — Dennis Skinner

© Esther Johnson 2019

I first met Dennis Skinner at Bolsover Library a few years back, during one of the Friday ‘surgery’ slots he held as an MP for the town from 1970 to 2019. I’d witnessed him deliver captivating speeches at both the Durham Miners’ Gala, and ‘With Banners Held High’ in Wakefield, rousing audience members to tears.

An adept storyteller, he told me about his life growing up in Bolsover, his parents, knitting and making ‘peggy’ rugs, working in the pits and later in Parliament, and finished by singing me his favourite songs from musicals.

I filmed Dennis as part of my contribution to WORK, a collaborative artist film commission between five arts organizations (Animate Projects, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, Junction Arts, Quad, and Vivid Projects) and four artists (Dryden Goodwin, Jenny Holt, Adam Lewis Jacob, and myself). The four commissioned films explore ideas of what work means for the way we live today, and engage directly with the experiences of contemporary working lives. The completed film premiered online on 1 May 2020 to mark International Workers’ Day.

© Esther Johnson 2019

My contribution to WORK is a ROLE to PLAY. In researching for this film I looked at contemporary working lives in post-industrial Bolsover, a town where coal is no longer king. Made in direct response to the increasing numbers of unemployment and zero-hours contracts, the film explores the realities and struggles that some residents of Bolsover have encountered in getting and keeping work. It also integrates the unique topography and layered history of the area, and looks at the aftermath of the destruction of Bolsover’s rich mining heritage. Themes include positive/negative work experiences, volunteering, lack of work, zero-hours contracts, unemployment, and the barrier that low reading and writing skills can have on work. Throughout the making, I thought about the effect of national politics on the local, and about what political and economic strategies mean for the people on the ground. The inclusion of Dennis helped to connect these two aspects.

Over two years, and with support of partner Junction Arts, I was able to make multiple visits to community members in Bolsover. Lasting connections were fostered through a meeting with Mark North, founder of the Bolsover Freedom Community Project. Set up in 2008, Freedom is driven by a need to combat poverty and support and enable local people to make changes in their own lives. Dennis had sung the praises of this local charity and its small team of staff and volunteers, who run support centres across the North East Midlands and Yorkshire. I gradually got to know volunteers, staff members, and users connected to Freedom, and saw the wealth of support they offered through job searches and employment advice, skills training, food banks, clothing and furniture, household provision, counselling for mental health and addiction, activities to build self-esteem, financial support, and money management. After spending many Friday mornings at the centre café, helping with the food bank and talking with people about their experiences in work, I became involved in one of the centre’s support groups: Bolsover Reading Group, and adult literacy class. I’ve now been volunteering with the group for 15 months.

© Esther Johnson 2019

In addition to the voice of ex-miner and trade unionist Dennis Skinner, a ROLE to PLAY features the lived experiences and dreams of five Bolsover residents. After Dennis, the first strong connection made was with Stephen Cotton. Originally a Freedom project user, he later became a volunteer and now an employee of the centre. Stephen is also a class member at the reading group. In late 2018 Stephen and I went to London, where Dennis gave us a tour of the Houses of Parliament. Stephen discussed issues he felt were important in his local community, and the struggles he and his family had experienced: “Jobs have come and gone. I’ve just got on with it. One job, I had to sort trays out of millions of screws. All day just doing that. That was the most boring job. But the hardest thing is getting the job in the first place.” Going on to talk about volunteering, “We literally lost everything. No money. No gas. No electric. Somebody helped us when we needed help most, out of their own pocket and they didn’t want anything in return. I thought if somebody could do that I could do it.”

© Esther Johnson 2019

After retiring from primary school teaching, Jeanette Haigh started to volunteer at the Freedom Centre. “I did coffee mornings, chatted to folk, made cakes … [Freedom] give advice, and support and help anybody. Nobody’s turned away. Nobody is judged. It’s all about looking after each other.” She went on to tell me the origins of the reading group that was formed seven years ago. “A lovely young man called Stephen was so upset, and I said, “Whatever’s the matter?” He sounded very distressed and he said, “They stopped my reading class at college.” The next week we started an adult literacy class. Stephen couldn’t write his name at first, but now he’s like the reading group’s father of the house.” Many members of the reading group have struggled with gaining employment due to their literacy level, whilst others had been extremely skilful in hiding their minimal reading and writing in order to hold jobs down.

© Esther Johnson 2019

Another volunteer and user at Freedom is Adrian Drury. He told me about his varied working life and experience of zero-hours contracts, “I’ve been a spray painter, [worked] on building sites, a slaughterhouse man, a warehouse assistant, and now I’m wanting to get into tattooing. Any job that you get will make you feel a worthy person anyway, you’re not there doing nothing. It also does make you feel wanted by society. There are jobs but conditions are poor, – twelve-hour shifts, four on, four off, then nothing.” A guitarist and artist, Adrian is now training to be a tattoo artist, “I got a really good grade at art. I got good grades through school, to be honest, so I don’t know why I couldn’t really get a proper job, you know, a good job. I’ve got something more now. I’ve got an apprenticeship in tattooing. I’ve got something to shoot for.”

© Esther Johnson 2019

Finally I met Serena Hammond through her mum Linda, also a reading group member. Serena has been a carer for her mum since she was 14. Work comes in many forms and Serena’s teenage care responsibilities have contributed to her resilience and determination to follow her dream of acting. “I was fed up of being in the shadows, but had no idea where to begin. My grades weren’t good but I made the decision to try and get into the college.” Serena is now completing her second year at performing arts college.

In the film the participants’ storytelling is privileged over the question–answer scenario of traditional documentary. Inspired by methods from radical and documentary theatre, the film script developed through a series of recorded and transcribed conversations that were then edited and returned to the respective contributors to refine for inclusion in the film. This iterative approach condensed experience and emotion into the key issues important to each contributor. The film title was chosen to reflect this participatory process, and also the roles everyone takes in their working and non-working lives.

© Esther Johnson 2019

Strong relationships have been forged during the making of the film, from discussions fuelled by tea and cake, to walks around Bolsover, including the sites of former pits, and reading group visits to Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Bolsover Castle. I continue to volunteer with the reading group, and weekly group video call classes take place during the current lockdown. I have produced a newspaper, ‘Class Work Tribune’, which features work by the reading group, material from the film, and a newly commissioned poem by Ian McMillan, Here are the Words  in the Reading Bank.

a ROLE to PLAY premiered on 1 May 2020 http://workprojects.co.uk accompanied by a live artist Q&A. Further information on the film can be found on Esther’s website here: http://blanchepictures.com/a-role-to-play

This text originally appeared in Tribune on International Workers Day, 01 May 2020: https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/05/in-the-shadow-of-the-beast

Esther Johnson is Professor of Film & Media Arts at Sheffield Hallam University. Follow Esther on Twitter and Instagram.