As the sublime new biopic Tish proves beyond all doubt, Tish Murtha is one of the forgotten heroes of late-twentieth-century photography. Murtha herself was a prodigal talent from the ruins of post-industrial Tyneside, whose pictures discovered the fun and pathos in an otherwise gloomy setting – her black-and-white photos lit-up by the sense of mischief, moodiness and defiance evident in the poses of her mostly youthful subjects.
Now, with the release of Tish, Murtha’s posthumous reputation should begin to rise somewhere near to its rightful level. But this alternately lively and tragic film – a collaboration between director Paul Sng, producer Jen Corcoran and cinematographer Hollie Galloway – does more than merely act as a showcase for Murtha’s extraordinary, underappreciated talent. Underneath the biographical narrative is a story about what has happened to British culture and society over the last half century – a time when radical working-class art has become increasingly marginalised, and the legacy of deindustrialisation in places like Newcastle is still largely one of abandonment, anger and uncertainty about the future.
As Tish amply demonstrates, Murtha was a figure who challenged orthodoxies every turn. Born in South Shields in 1956, and brought up in Elswick in the West End of Newcastle, she came from a large family which survived in one of the toughest corners of the post-war North East: a scorched-earth of demolished houses and shut-down factories hardly mitigated by the welfare-state safety-nets of the day.
A useful corrective to the lately fashionable Blue Geordie tendency, which imagines the North-East working class to be a phalanx of macho patriots who love the military and monarchy, Murtha’s childhood was lived in a kind of semi-anarchy. This backdrop would instil in her a deep hatred of the authorities, and eventually give rise to her creative idiosyncrasy. Her brothers foraged for scrap amid the ruins of a post-industrial landscape growing ever bleaker as the Seventies progressed, or were humiliated on workfare schemes which dismissed them as hopeless scroungers from the wrong side of town. Meanwhile, Murtha found a way of responding to her surroundings in more structured artistic terms.
Enrolling on a photography night course at Bath Lane College on the edge of Elswick’s urban wasteland, Murtha’s talent was quickly recognised by her tutor Mick Henry, who helped her to secure a funded place in 1976 on a seminal course at Newport College of Art and Design led by documentary photographer David Hurn. In Hurn’s telling – an exquisite highlight of Tish – Murtha’s admission to the course was flagged through after she told him in the interview that she wanted to “take pictures of policemen kicking children”.
After a college project in Newport documenting the characters in a local pub, Murtha returned to Elswick to make good on this ambition (one of her most famous works features three teenage lads reclining on a brick wall decorated with the graffito “COPS PISS OFF”). In a dazzling series of exhibitions mainly sponsored by Newcastle’s Side Gallery, Murtha recorded the life of the West End at the exact moment the ambiguous efforts of post-war governments to check deindustrialisation were giving way to a more brutal Thatcherite strategy of “managed decline”.
Her masterpieces – especially Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) and Youth Unemployment (1980) – depicted the listlessness, vitality and sense of fun at the heart of this burgeoning social catastrophe. Kids jump down from a ruined house onto a precariously arranged pile of mattresses. A teenage boy examines a hand of cards with a half-smoked tab sticking out of the side of his mouth. A young woman sits on an upturned armchair while idly poking the detritus of what looks like a bombsite but is in fact just Elswick in the early Eighties. This was the unmaking of the English working class rendered from the inside.
Though the makers of Tish are not able to show footage of Murtha herself (because none exists), they do justice both to her perspective – by way of letters and other fragments deftly narrated by Maxine Peake – and those of her subjects. A sense of clannish intimacy characterises many of the dialogues, which is partly due to Tish’s contemporary protagonist, Murtha’s daughter Ella, who has crowdfunded the preservation of her mother’s work, and who acts as a sparky main interviewer here.
But the real emotional crux of the film occurs in its last stages. After moving to London in 1983 – where she compiled the electric London By Night exhibition and gave birth to Ella – Murtha’s career faltered, and from this point on she was never financially stable, in spite of her singular talent. Tish is subtle in its exploration of the reasons behind this professional collapse, hinting at the misogyny of the photography industry, regional marginalisation (Murtha returned to the North East once again after her London sojourn, this time for good) and various embedded forms of class snobbery.
In the end, all of the above collided in a tragic finale to Murtha’s narrative. Unfailingly brave and righteous in highlighting political specifics rather than going for a vague “struggle against adversity” frame, the makers of Tish combine footage of Tony Blair demanding that single mothers “visit a job centre, not just stay at home waiting for the benefit cheque every week” in 1997 with a harrowing account of Murtha’s struggle with Britain’s harsh welfare culture in the run-up to her death from a brain haemorrhage in 2013. The final sequence, in which Peake reads out extracts from Murtha’s job-centre paperwork, is one of the most upsetting pieces of film I have ever seen.
Energetic in ways that resemble its extraordinary subject, humane and funny through its series of remarkable interviews and uncompromising in its political implications, Tish is an essential piece of filmmaking which deserves the widest possible audience. Aside from being a long-overdue celebration of one of the greatest photographers in British history, its underlying message and moral is that a society which does not support working-class creativity in practical ways will be undermined by ever-deepening and more numerous human tragedies.
Alex Niven is the author of Newcastle, Endless and The North Will Rise Again.
This is a revised article that originally appeared in Tribune magazine.
Screenings of Tish are now on sale here: