DEN Project

HMS Excellence

Miles Travelled = 851
Museums Visited = 16
Mood = appreciation

They’re making a movie today at the Museum of Nottingham Life. When I say ‘they’ I don’t mean the museum staff. MuBu is all about interpreting collections in new ways. And that means sometimes bringing in new people.

The John Player Collection has already had that treatment once. Ex-employees of the company came back to see material from the collection and talk about their experiences of life, work, play and even love among the cigarettes and bales of tobacco. From their words a film emerged, which I had the pleasure of watching a couple of months ago at its premier in Nottingham Castle Museum.

It presented a rosy view.

I’m curious to discover what approach the next group of film makers will take. The group I’m going to meet today are young people from a variety of backgrounds in Nottingham. Some of them are old enough to drink in pubs, but not old enough to remember how pubs used to be before the smoking ban.

Perhaps this group will be distant enough to see cigarette advertising through the softening mist of antiquity. Things that are distasteful memories to me might for them be as comfortably remote as a history lesson.

Ah – but there’s me being prejudiced again. Memories of my own physical discomfort trying to breathe when the air was so full of second-hand smoke that I could barely read the health warning on a fag advert on the pub’s opposite wall. I’m the wrong person to write about this subject. But if I’m prejudiced against, surely the ex-employees are just as prejudiced in the opposite direction.

What of the young volunteers? Over the last few weeks they have been working with the writer Andy Barrett to produce a film script. And tonight the cameras begin to roll.

I meet them in a room with a table covered in props and mugs of tea. False beards. A hat from a naval uniform. Lettering spelling out ‘HMS Excellent’. Everyone is busy. I take a script from the top of the pile and start leafing through it.

John Player HMS Excellence

A montage of phrases and advertising images jump from the page. Positive, negative and neutral all mixed together. The John Player sailor gazes out to sea. A voice says: “Oh yes, it’s a good day when men come home from victory.” A romantic couple light cigarettes on a beach of golden sand. A voice says: “Doesn’t she look lovely in the sea air?”

John Player Glamourous Advert

I’m trying to understand the flow of the script when Andy arrives, together with film maker Adrian Towell. Andy explains the scenes we’re about to shoot. He sets people to work on different tasks and we’re off to the library where cameras and lights are already set up.

I tag along, trying not to get in the way.

One by one the volunteers step in front of the camera to deliver their lines. They’re not used to acting, but each of them gets it in the end and speech by speech we move though the scene.

There is little more enjoyable then witnessing someone doing a job really well. I get that feeling now, watching Andy as he helps the volunteers, organizing them, directing them, bringing out a performance from each. He was also the one who brought the script together. But the words being spoken came from the young people themselves.

The more I listen and read, the more impressed I become. There is a freedom in the writing that I could not have brought to this subject. Nor, it seems to me, could the ex-employees. The script does not tell its audience what to think. It is not worried about enjoying the glamour and the political incorrectness of the 1970s adverts. Nor does it hold back from speaking of lung cancer.

As a result it is fresh, alive and engaging.

All the way through this journey I have learned about projects where groups of volunteers are helping to re-interpret old collections. But today – seeing it happen – I am more convinced than ever of the value of this approach.




    Sam June 20th, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks for the interesting read . It sounds like a great day :)


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