5 films showing what life in a commune was really like
Around the corner from my home in north London, a battle is going on between the 18 residents of Islington Park Street and the landlords of their housing association, One Housing Group (OHG). The building has operated as a commune housing a diverse group of people since 1976, and the current protest, which has won huge local support, is in response to an eviction notice served on residents by their landlord, who has other plans for the £12m site. No prizes for guessing the outcome – residents were forced out of their homes. Other town center townships – including the sister township of Islington Park Street, the Crescent Road community in Kingston upon Thames, also owned by OHG – face a similar fate.
As remnants of the communal movement of the 1960s/70s erode, the concept of co-living is finding new expression in the current climate of soaring property prices, soaring rents and shrinking building land . From the lowest-paid workers posting flatshares on websites like SpareRoom.co.uk, to well-heeled city dwellers scrambling to buy a jewel cushion at one of The Collective’s cohousing complexes sprouting up across London, to the environmentally conscious who flee the city to create off-grid eco-friendly havens.
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With this in mind, I have selected a few films from the Britain on Film Collection (several of these have been brought to my attention by the East Anglian Film Archive, the Yorkshire Film Archive and the South West Film and Television Archive), which depict the Commons in their heyday, the 1960s and 1970s. What if , for you, it evokes lazy people with long hair, grass and ties, you will only be partly right.
A Beautiful Way to Live (1971)
East Anglian Film Archive footage
A communal movement was created in the east of England in 1965, with its headquarters at Arjuna’s vegetarian restaurant in Cambridge and, at the time this film was made, nearby Norfolk, with its relatively cheap property prices and remote rural landscape, had become something of a communal hotspot.
The film offers a rare glimpse into life inside two artists’ communes in Norfolk: The Old Rectory Farm, Scoulton, near Watton, and the Crow Hall Commune in Downham Market, both flourishing in 1971. TV crew give voice to free-thinking, creative locals that include artist and novelist Cressida Lindsay, a Watton township resident at a time when much of the media poked fun at the hippie type.
Look for Sarah Eno, the first secretary of the communal movement, who was married to ambient music pioneer Brian Eno at the time of filming. They are a creative mix of individuals who “share a derision for what they call bungalow society and the blatant commercialism that feeds on it,” as the reporter observes. The Ravi Shankar-inspired sitar soundtrack enriches these priceless vignettes of 1970s counterculture.
The Pop Group Settles for Commune in the Country (1973)
East Anglian Film Archive footage
What is James Lascelles, once distant first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II; Sir Simon Stewart-Richardson, a baronet; and Mike Medora, a world authority on holograms, have in common?
Answer: They were co-founders of the psychedelic rock band Global Village Trucking Company (known to their fans as “The Globs” in the early 1970s), along with vocalist Jon Owen and bassist Nicky Prater.
In this 1973 film, the band, road crew, managers, families, friends and pets live in a run-down thatched cottage in Suffolk, near the Norfolk border. In the same year that this film was shot, the commune also attracted the attention of a BBC the documentary film crew, who produced a portrait of the group, By Way of a Change (1973), which was later updated for the BBCThe first edition of What Happened Next? 2008 series.
Pop Group Settle for Commune in the Country is a wonderful prism through which to experience a slice of 1970s alternative culture, so sit back, light up, and drift into a kaleidoscopic world of flower power and trippy melodies.
Tribe of the Sun (1972)
Images from the Yorkshire Film Archive
Far “On a lost island in Clew Bay, off Mayo, the word hippie takes on new meaning”. Tribe of the Sun was directed by Alan Sidi, a talented and prolific amateur filmmaker – he made over 100 films – who was a key figure in the amateur film company, Leeds Mercury Movie Makers.
The film depicts the quiet lifestyle of the Tribe of the Sun, who set up a communal camp on Dorninish, an island off the west coast of Ireland that was then owned by John Lennon. The carefree young guys seize the opportunity to refute the impression that mainlanders have of them as “dirty, unwashed beatniks” on camera.
They are certainly very industrious. When they’re not working on the housing estate or building their first permanent living space, they’re shown jamming Jethro Tull’s style, carving totem poles, practicing phrenology (read bumps on the head) or making flatbreads – not a spliff in sight. But has this utopian idyll stood the test of time? Watch and find out.
Shout Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear (1974)
Images from the London Screen Archive
Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear depicts a different kind of community, sadly born out of necessity rather than a lifestyle choice. The film takes us inside Britain’s first refuge for ‘battered wives’ (as survivors of domestic violence were commonly referred to at the time) and their children, the Chiswick Women’s Support Center in West London, which was founded by feminist activist Erin Pizzey, who appears in the film.
It’s a testament to Michael Whyte’s sensitive directing style that the film’s vulnerable subjects felt comfortable enough to recount their harrowing experiences on camera. In lesser hands, the film could easily have descended into sensationalism. The film was shot in eight weeks and for the 18 women and 46 children living in the shelter, life is difficult, chaotic but safe and sometimes fun – intuitively captured by Nic Knowland’s low-key camerawork. His talents have most recently been put to good use in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2011) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014).
At the time of filming, domestic abuse prosecutions were very rare in Britain. But thanks to an ardent campaign by Pizzey (who also wrote a book on the issue of domestic violence with the same title as this film) and his peers, legislation in the form of the Domestic Violence Act 1976 and marital proceedings was adopted two years after this film. has been diffused.
Honeymoon Hotel (1962)
Footage from the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA)
While many of us wouldn’t choose to live in a commune, we may well opt for a vacation that involves communal elements, such as shared restaurants and recreational facilities. The characters in this film take the idea of a joint holiday one step further and embark on a joint honeymoon, hosted by Mrs Barnard, the owner of the Honeymoon Hotel in Torquay. She offers “beat the budget” honeymoon stays, filled with “shared champagne dinner, small banquets” and an omnipresence of cupids to help induce a romantic mood.
This short magazine article made for Westward TVThe Westward Diary slot machine is something of a curiosity and highlights a little-known aspect of working-class life in the 1960s. norm, in that people stayed with their parents long after they married, until they could afford a home of their own. The pithy vox-pops style encapsulates the different couples’ views on joint honeymoons and was a relatively new conceit in broadcasting.