A photograph of Elswick Road.

“History is so posh”: Tish (2023) at the Ultimate Picture Palace – review

Tish Murtha (1956–2013) documented life in Tyneside during the era of deindustrialization in the 1970s and 80s, a period that has somewhat haunted my cultural consciousness. Having grown up in North Shields in the 2000s, I feel that I’ve developed a vicarious memory of Thatcher, one built upon a mood of generational discontent that permeates through stories from family members; boarded-up high streets; the rusty escalator of the pedestrian Tyne Tunnel that was once walked upon by thousands of shipyard workers each day. Paul Sng’s documentary, Tish, brings a fresh emphasis upon personal history to the documentation of this transitionary period, one so often lost in the national scale of politics. Not only is Tish Murtha’s life story told, but this documentary speaks to the value of the stories told by a lost generation of disenfranchised people in the North-East, who all too often go undocumented in a history written by, and for, the elite. 

We begin where Tish herself began her photography career—Elswick Road. Located in what was considered to be the worst square mile in England, this street was her home ground. In spite of the social deprivation, however, Tish’s photography series Elswick Kids (1978) captures the powerful way in which the joy of childhood still finds a way to exist in extreme poverty. Nothing is posed. Children stand defiantly on the shells of abandoned housing and climb around broken furniture or cars with an almost anarchic freedom. Tish’s photographs hold the gaze of someone intertwined with the community, and intent on building a relationship with those whose lives she captured. By refusing to sell out to galleries that didn’t resonate with the empathy of her work, Tish was not deemed necessarily ‘successful’ by the photography industry during her lifetime. Yet, the documentary adds context to how this artistic integrity was crucial to her politics. This is the lens of an active participant in working-class culture, not a passive bystander.

Sng, likewise, does not foreground the political elite. Instead, we witness the impact of Thatcherism through the grey-scale camera lens of the silver Olympus held by Tish, with video footage of Thatcher herself only appearing for a fleeting moment. Positioned in a cropped frame to the left, the tonal dissonance of her warbling political maxims—such as, “where there is despair, may we bring hope”is only emphasized. Such use of newsreel and film footage highlights what Tish’s work was competing against and responding to. In combination with the inclusion of new archival material, interviews conducted by her daughter with family members and friends, and a dramatized narration of Tish’s essays by Maxine Peake, Sng fully utilizes the affordances of film. The auditory depth of the documentary, however, resonated most with me. We hear a group of striking factory workers sing “Blaydon Races” in a pub, and Tish’s photography is also complimented at points by the draw of cello strings, the crash of the sea, and the soaring of operatic aria. Jazz marks her move to London during the 80s, where she photographed sex workers in the Soho circuit as part of her London By Night (1983) series, another work that underlines her ambition to tell unfiltered stories and document the marginalised. 

As the film moves on to document Tish’s return up North in her later life, Sng confronts his viewers with another politician: Tony Blair. As he spouts about his New Deal, he is positioned by Sng in the same decentered position as Thatcher, cropped in a small frame that speaks to the limited worldview of the political elite. This distance contrasts the intimacy of the personal interviews that drive this documentary.  In a similar way to how Tish captured reality from inside her community, Sng tells the story of Tish’s life from the perspective of the people who knew her best. Though she lived her life in poverty, the abundance of her impact upon those around her is clear. For the individuals photographed by her (as you gather from interviews throughout the film), being part of her work represented the first, and potentially only time, that someone had been interested in their story and views. This is as equally moving and tender, as it is a biting critique of austerity politics.

We open, and conclude with, the same landscape shot of the sea. Landlocked in Oxford, I come away from the cinema reminded of why I love the place I call home. The question that Ella asks her uncle – “Did Thatcher break you?” – echoes in my mind. I know that the answer is no, as the North-East, and all of the people who make it the place that it is, still thrive in spite of adversity. Tish is a must-see, not only for what it has to say about disenfranchisement and regional inequality, but also for the insight it offers into the life of someone who lived for their art. Tish Murtha dedicated her life to one of the most powerful political acts: the act of bearing witness. In 2024, with a government still operating on broken funding systems, cutting public services, and doing little to fix the entrenched sense of class inequality in Britain, this message resonates as loudly as ever.

Tish (2023) was first screened at Sheffield Docfest, and is available to watch here. To explore Tish’s work, you can visit her website.

Image Credit: Newcastle Libraries, licensed under PDM 1.0 DEED, via Flickr. Cropped from original.