RUDDY-cheeked and snugly buttoned-up in coat, hat and gloves, little Tony Winslow can hardly contain his joy as he toddles excitedly after his dog and dips into a bag of boiled sweets during an outing to the Wiltshire countryside.
At the family home in Downs View Road, Swindon, he wheels his tiny wooden barrow around the back garden before climbing purposefully into his green push-car, complete with impressive toy Esso oil can. His parents Denis and Kathleen, meanwhile, smile lovingly at each other but an air of sadness prevails. They don’t know what the future holds. Denis is wearing his smart blue-grey RAF uniform and, with storm clouds gathering, he will soon be off to do his bit.
Three minutes and 36 seconds long, A Family On The Eve Of War is a poignant and touching 1939 clip of film capturing fleeting moments from a lost era. And in all probability it would have remained lost had it not been for Martin Parry.
It is one of many films, dating to the dawn of cinematography and charting numerous aspects of life in Swindon through the decades that father-of-four Martin has restored, digitised and made available on the internet.
This particular film, which he has just put online, was donated by a member of the Winslow family. Also featured are Kathleen’s brother Ken Wilmer and wife Ivy (of well-known Swindon coal merchants Wilmer’s) playing with Tony, who was nearly two at the time.
Says Martin: “Mr Winslow survived the war but sadly everyone in the film, including little Tony, is now dead. The film is in colour, which is very rare for this period. “It was untouched, gathering dust and hadn’t been seen for decades. I was asked if I wanted it. Of course I did.”
Seventy four years old, it is the latest footage to emerge from the Western Film Archive (WFA), Martin’s enduring labour of love which he runs from his terraced town centre home.
Since the Eighties he has painstakingly built up a priceless archive of film ranging from 100-year-old footage of a steam engine being erected at the Swindon Works to current scenes of Swindon life and culture.
It is an ongoing, not-for-profit initiative which has seen Martin, a film and video director, cameraman, scriptwriter and producer, spend endless hours patiently cleaning, editing and digitising old reels and video footage.
He says: “It’s great when you see the results of putting so much work into a piece of film. I remember restoring some footage of Regent Street from the Fifties… I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
“Regent Street has been pedestrianised since I’ve been in Swindon but here it was with Ford Prefects and Morris Minors driving past the old Savoy cinema; teddy boys wandering along with girls in beehive hair-dos and floral skirts. “It’s a real pleasure to see something like that emerge. It’s like a piece of archaeology; you are revealing, uncovering and resurrecting something that has been lost or forgotten.”
Martin, who grew up in Hereford and is now in his 60s, says: “I’d always been interested in film, right from when I was a kid. I would have loved to have had a cine camera – but it’s expensive stuff.”
He quit his job as a trainee telephone technician and, after spells at art school and Southampton University, taught media – the use of film, tapes and slides – in London.
He then upped to Halifax, Nova Scotia to acquire an MA in psychology and sociology before landing a job as a researcher and then producer with the National Film Board of Canada.
Swindon beckoned in 1980 when, funded by Southern Arts, he was appointed to run a film workshop at the Arts Centre.
“I’d already known about Swindon. Film students from as far as America and Japan are aware of Swindon because of Viewpoint.”
Swindon Viewpoint was a unique community TV channel which, during the Seventies and Eighties, broadcast numerous aspects of local life into homes around town.
He quickly became involved in Viewpoint while teaching film and media to hundreds of students.
Martin conceived and launched Swindon Media Arts – which morphed into Create Studios – at the town hall.
Students included David Yates, director of the final four Harry Potter films.
“I helped David make his first drama When I was A Girl. He was always interested in drama rather than documentaries.”
During this period Martin gained unprecedented access to the once proud but now declining Swindon railway works, filming precious footage of its final years before closure in 1986.
He was also amassing an impressive collection of film from many sources, ranging from material he had recorded himself to reams of unwanted footage otherwise destined for the scrapheap.
Word of mouth saw much of these neglected, unloved, decaying spools deposited with him. He even rescued a few from skips.
In 1988 Martin launched WFA to “collect, preserve and make available audio-visual material” from Swindon, Wiltshire and the West. Chariots of Fire producer Sir David Puttnam (now Lord Puttnam) became honorary patron.
The archive is a mixture of his own footage, a growing cache of archaic reels he has restored and a generous treasure trove of video-taped material from the vaults of Swindon Viewpoint.
When Viewpoint stopped making programmes in the early Nineties Martin took care of its vast tape archive which he later began to digitise, usually on expensive borrowed equipment.
He says: “The Viewpoint archive is unparalleled anywhere else in Britain for its local focus and depiction of normal everyday life and culture.”
Launched in 2009, www.swindonviewpoint today serves as an outlet for Martin’s WFA material, making a huge array of footage – more than 1,000 films and counting – available to the public for free.
None are more riveting than A Triumph of British Engineering (1913), an historic six-minute clip showing the Star Class loco Prince of Wales being built at the GWR Works.
Says Martin: “Swindon was at the cutting edge of technology at the time. It was also filmed just a few years after the birth of cinematography.”
A gift from a collector of antique films around 20 years ago, Martin has no idea who made the clip – only that the letters “W.E.B.” were on the box.
“I’d love to credit the person who made it – but I’ll probably never know,” he says.
Contemporary material – such as Swindon’s recent attempt to master the Harlem Shake – sits comfortably with the older stuff, creating interesting juxtapositions of contrasting eras.
Over the years Martin has spent endless hours in his children’s bedrooms – they’ve grown up and moved out – restoring reels of film.
“Sometimes you look at the film and groan. The biggest problems are mould, dirt and damp – or a combination of them,” he says.
He uses various techniques to carefully, laboriously, painstakingly revive ageing, fading, grime caked film, including hand cleaning it frame by frame; at up to 25 frames-a-second it can take a while.
The results, however, are usually worth the effort. He is creating nothing less than a unique and invaluable archive of film for future generations.
A few little gems on film
Martin has just put the final touches to the first in a series of hour-long “gems from the vaults”.
He says each DVD will feature Swindon scenes from the past century, “much of it never seen before”, with every decade represented.
The proceeds will go towards the cost of restoring further newly-discovered material.
Swindon – A Century on Film, Volume One is available for £12.99 including postage. Cheques or postal orders should be payable to Western Film Archive at WFA, 10 Dixon Street, Swindon SN1 3PL, or by email to email@example.com - Barry Leighton