Film Jam at the MadLab Penny Theatre

‘When the workers in Manchester finished their day at the cotton mills, Penny Gaff was probably the most popular and yet affordable entertainment for the vast working class, besides drinking. Last week on the 5th April, MadLab put up a set of red curtains and brought us a night of nostalgia, with a contemporary look.

Both parts of the screening started with footage from the North West Film Archive, accompanied seamlessly by the flowing of live music performed by the magical Sam. Although the films about the work routine in the cotton mills and shipping docks served as lense to look back in time, the piano transformed the images bringing them to the present.


The live music added a personal touch to the viewing and overall it was a fun and educational evening,’ was a comment from one of the attendees, who happened to be travelling in Manchester at the moment. ‘It was really interesting as a tourist to learn about the “Port of Manchester” and the fact that it was actually Salford Quays!’

Besides screening the archives, there were also screenings of short film made by local filmmakers as a response to the original films. From mysterious and conceptual tales to documentaries with anecdotal narrative, they all had their own takes on how these films reflected on their personal feelings. After the screening, we had a brief interview with filmmaker Maria Ruban and her guest Steve Balshaw from Grimm Up North, who did the voiceover for Maria’s mini documentary on the Salford Quays.

Maria: In the Midlands it’s often told that cities like Birmingham were the origins of the Industrial Revolution, with the invention of the Watt and Boulton condenser in the 1750’s

Steve: It’s more accurate to say that the Industrial Revolution was started by many different things happening in many different places. The environment in the Midlands made it ideal for the technical developments that took place there. In Manchester it was more a social revolution brought on by the cotton mills. That’s what led to the radical politics of the area.

The conditions for the mill workers were so terrible that in the 1900s, the average life span of a cotton mill worker was around 32. From family history, I can tell you that as late as the 1930s you had people dying at age 18 due to cotton in the lungs.

The ‘Port of Manchester’ wasn’t just a port for goods but also for people. My grandmother remembers going down to the docks around 1910 to see the foreign workers who had emigrated from their home country to the UK. Initially she and her friends had gone down there to tease them, but later they would go to the docks not to hurl insults but to greet them to Manchester.

In that sense, Manchester was the birth of the social revolution where people of different cultures and races mingled and met and worked alongside each other.

To give the evening a traditional twist, there were some specially selected refreshments on the side: Meat pies (popular snack back then for the mass), veg pies and `tinned` fruit (Yes! One of the major breakthroughs of the time, making fruits more affordable for the poor). Along with wine, Marble Mancunian beer and `Penny Gin`, the pies were still the most popular catch – definitely prepare more next time.

Kudos to the film makers Jenny Spellman and Squirrel Nation, and a big special thanks to North West Film Archive for providing us with the precious footage.

For more pictures of the night, please visit this link of our Flickr set.

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