Out of Time: Nottingham's Cinematic History

Words: Oliver Parker
Illustrations: Ciaran Burrows
Thursday 16 February 2023
reading time: min, words

We might be miles away from Pinewood Studios and the red carpet shenanigans of Leicester Square, but Nottingham has a rich cinematic history of its own. Often shining a light on sections of society that big-budget titles ignore, we take a look at how our city has changed cinema over the past century and a bit…


Often referred to as the first real motion picture ever made, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory - made by the iconic Lumière Brothers - marked a crucial changing point for the early development of cinema. Along with others such as Georges Méliès, they shaped the early days of the moving image. Following on from the popularity of "the factory-gate film", Mitchell and Kenyon, a Lancashire-based motion picture company, aimed to recreate the acclaimed Lumière style right in the heart of industrial northern England. One of these - with the original title Workers Leaving Thomas Adams Factory - was made in 1900 and showcased hundreds of workers leaving the Nottingham-based lace factory situated on Stoney Street. Another short followed the workers onto the streets and filmed them as they made their way home; most of them peering up at the camera, awe-struck and trying to figure out what was going on. 

Representation of working class life in Nottingham continued in the early 1900s (and throughout most of the 21st Century) with more silent shorts such as 1902’s Tram Rides through Nottingham, which follows an Edwardian-era tram as it makes its way through the hustle and bustle of the centre, and Scenes on the Trent, which looks out at the River Trent as a boat full of people passes over it. Throughout the first half of the century, Nottingham’s on-screen representation was mostly limited to topics that cover daily life in Nottingham (at least in terms of what is still available to watch now). Over in Long Eaton, J.H. Poyser, along with the Co-operative Film Club, was making short films covering all aspects of life in the small town. However, one of the only lasting remnants of their work is a newsreel from 1936 featuring a children’s outing to Skegness.

In the postwar era of Britain, a new type of cinema was developing. Directors Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and more would all go on to adapt a variety of kitchen-sink novels which would form something now called British New Wave: a cinematic movement characterised by its dedication to realism and focus on politically motivated “angry young men”. Visually, it took elements from American film noir, with images often drenched in shadows, capturing the harsh reality of working class existence in postwar Britain. One of the most popular films from the movement was Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a Nottingham-based release that follows the life of an angry and rebellious factory worker who lives for nothing but the weekend. The film was most likely one of Nottingham’s first big on-screen credits, with the film winning a BAFTA for best British film and actress. 

As a city, Nottingham’s cinematic legacy seems to be rooted in capturing a realistic portrayal of working class life

Despite being made around sixty years since the images of factory workers in Nottingham were captured on celluloid, Saturday Night feels like it could’ve been taken from the same short film; with the film capturing working class existence in an incredibly realistic way, but not in a necessarily bleak way. Written by Alan Sillitoe, and adapted from his original novel, the film is an accurate encapsulation of Sillitoe’s own life; with the house that the central family reside in being his own family home. Many of the film’s locations have since been redeveloped or just downright demolished, but there are still snippets of Nottingham that look just as they do now - such as Derby Road or Nottingham Castle.

At the end of the 1960s, Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, My Beautiful Laundrette) created a documentary on St Ann’s, highlighting the gross poverty in which the inhabitants lived. The documentary talks about how crowded and dense the suburb was (around three times more than anywhere else in Nottingham) and how many of the houses were either rotting with damp or near collapse. Despite being less than sixty minutes long, Frears’ documentary is incredibly detailed and manages to capture the shameful neglect that parts of the UK suffered through in the postwar period. While the film remains a bleak viewing, allegedly the airing of the documentary did help to get the families featured in it rehomed, and eventually led to redevelopment work in St Ann’s.

Throughout the nineties and into the noughties, Nottingham’s screen presence was largely dominated by Uttoxeter-born director Shane Meadows, who moved to the city when he was twenty. Meadows is best known for the film - and subsequent television shows of - This Is England, which centres around a group of young skinheads in 1983. Although the film is not specifically set in Nottingham, many of the residential scenes were shot here, in areas such as St Ann’s, Lenton and The Meadows - and even places such as Wilsthorpe School in Long Eaton. This Is England remains Meadows’ most acclaimed and popular work so far, helping to launch the careers of actors such as Stephen Graham and Nottingham’s own Vicky McClure.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of Nottingham’s first big on-screen credits, with the film winning a BAFTA for best British film and actress

Prior to This Is England, however, Meadows had already created a myriad of features and a vast amount of short films. Most of them are low-budget, naturalistic dramas that capture the day-to-day lives of people in areas around Nottingham. His films often invoke a sense of dedicated realism, feeling like they are genuinely capturing a real life event rather than a heavily scripted one. While his films are indeed scripted, he often works with his actors and helps them to bring improvised actions and lines into scenes, and sometimes changes them on the fly to get unexpected reactions from other actors. This style of directing is very reminiscent of people like John Cassavetes or the UK’s own Mike Leigh; with the focus of the film not relying on contrived drama but something more spontaneous and humanistic. 

Recently, Nottinghamshire has found itself appearing on Landscapers, Sherwood and Without Sin. As a city, its cinematic legacy seems to be rooted in accurately capturing a realistic portrayal of working class life and living in the various suburbs. Whether it is the early silent topicals or Shane Meadows’ kitchen-sink dramas set in locations that are often forgotten in big budget filmmaking, Nottingham has remained a persistent force in British cinema - and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

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