Martin Parry will receive the British Empire Medal for his community media work. He tells SARAH SINGLETON about a life in film, the creation of an archive, and his love of Swindon

FILM-maker and community media champion Martin Parry has received the British Empire Medal, one of the country’s top awards in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list, in recognition of his work in Swindon.

Martin, from Old Town, has been a keen exponent of community film since moving to Swindon in 1980, and has dedicated himself to giving a voice to local people.

“The award was a complete surprise,” he said. “I was not expecting, or thinking about it – it hadn’t crossed my mind. I thought a lot of what I had been doing was under the radar – I think it’s valuable but I did not think that perspective was widely shared.”

He said he had received a special letter from the Special Chancery of Knighthoods in November – but had been instructed to keep the news under wraps until the official announcement.

“I was pleased, because the value of local media is not recognised widely enough. If it helps with that, well that’s the most important thing.”

Martin grew up in Herefordshire, and enjoyed a rural childhood.

“It is one of only two English counties with mountains,” he said. “It was a great playground, but when I grew up, the outside world beckoned – though my family still lives there.”

He trained as a communications engineer after leaving school, then attended Hereford School of Art. He studied sociology and psychology at the University of Southampton, lectured in communications, and then trained teachers in media studies for the Inner London Education Authority.

An MA scholarship took him to Canada, where he worked as a community channel producer for a regional Canadian television station. He also won an international award for history documentary, for his work with the National Film Board of Canada.

Martin returned to Britain in 1979 to raise a family, and came to Swindon when the British Film Institute funded a position for him as film-maker in residence. Within weeks he got involved with Swindon Viewpoint – then the only surviving community cable television channel of the original five licensed by the Government in 1973.

Martin said he liked the town from the start.

“I took to Swindon, and I liked Swindon people a great deal. They have a directness you don’t always find,” he said.

Martin is also enchanted by Swindon’s history, and its place in the industrial revolution.

“Originally Swindon’s reputation was very high, and it was known internationally as a centre of engineering excellence and social innovation,” he described. “The people who built the town at the beginning of the 19th century were inspired – they were well educated people from all over the place, skilled people looking for work in the new industry.

“They were at the cutting edge of the industrial revolution. They were committed and built a sense of community that lasted till after World War II.”

He believed it was the push for growth after the war that caused problems.

“The pace of change was too fast – and Swindon became a somewhat confused place,” he said.

He also set up Media Arts (now called Create) as a hub for community and arts-based media, which gained a national reputation in the 1980s, and when Swindon Viewpoint came under threat, Martin, with the help of his family and some of the original staff, voluntarily keep it up and running as a public access television service for Swindon, right up to the present day.

“We set up the media centre on the top floor of the old town hall. It was full of pigeon mess to start with, but we cleaned, converted and decorated it, turned it into Media Arts and it became very well known,” he said. “Lots of interesting films happened there – it offered a ladder of opportunity. You could get involved in making videos and if you wanted to take is further, you could.”

He said that David Yates, director of four Harry Potter films, made his first film with Media Arts – a short called When I Was A Girl, on 16mm film, which he later used to get into film school.

Even those who have not gone on to such heights in the film industry often had their lives changed through making a film, Martin said.

“You watch them through the process become more confident, become better communicators as they learn to interview people, and negotiate and learn. By the end, their lives have really stepped forward, at every level,” he explained. “That is what has motivated me.”

As well as working on his own films, and running Swindon Viewpoint, Martin has preserved and digitised hundreds of hours of Viewpoint’s video archives, making them accessible by putting them on a website that receives thousands of hits each week. They have become a resource for media students and researchers, as well as an archive of local history for the town.

“I was at the civic offices one day, and they were clearing out the basement and had old cans of film. It was the history of the town – all sorts of films, like an industrial promotion from 1945 and film of the town in the 30s – all going in a skip! I put them in a van – but it shows how staggeringly easy it can be to lose this material, and it still happens now.”

Martin set up the Western Film Archive in 1987, with the support of David Puttnam, as a project to collect and preserve such regional films and it now has around 500 hours of film and tape from almost 120 years of film-making.

Over the years he has trained hundreds of local people and community groups in the art of media production. Martin and his volunteers have enabled the making of hundreds of arts and music videos, as well as films for all sorts of community groups.

His own films include a two-year project to create a history of Swindon, called Railway Town, using archive film and interviews.

Martin regrets so much of Swindon’s Victorian past was wiped away and demolished.

“Swindon was an almost uniquely Victorian town, just as Bath is uniquely Georgian. It was beautiful – with all these Victorian buildings. We still have some – like the Health Hydro and the Mechanics’ Institute, and we need to protect this heritage. It could be a missed opportunity, when instead it could bring people into the town.”

New projects beckon for Martin – and this year he is working on a number of projects to enable broader access to community media, as well as working on the collection of archive films still to be digitised.