It’s been over 35 years since the start of the peace camp at Greenham Common, which suggests that memories of the event in popular culture have faded somewhat, but at the time it was a pretty big deal. At its height around 1982-83, there were up to 50-70,000 women at the site protesting the presence of nuclear cruise missile weaponry in the UK, and the camp itself was maintained for well over a decade. Feminist activism arguably hasn’t really had quite the same reach since, but it’s worthwhile to reconsider the legacy of the protest and the ways it can inform current activities, hence this event organised by London-based collective Club des Femmes, which included an afternoon the next day involving practical discussion and zine-making (I didn’t attend the latter). Current protest activity may focus more on social justice issues and anti-capitalist struggle, but even now nuclear armament is still widely discussed (most notably the Trident programme), so there’s plenty still relevant in the documentaries presented, quite aside from the interest generated by contemporary documentation of important historical events.
The key work screened was the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, the first film by director Beeban Kidron, who went on to make a Bridget Jones film, no less, and is now a Baroness, though still involved with activist causes. Rather than focusing on the big media-grabbing events, it documents day-to-day reality at the camp — discussions amongst organisers about strategy and finances, frequent breaks through the chain-link fence surrounding the military base, the appearances of heavy-handed law enforcement and the scenes outside courtroom hearings for the protestors. The film is also, surprisingly, almost a musical, given the frequency with which the participants break into song, whether a snatched chorus from a contemporary protest song like Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written about the 17th century Diggers, forerunners of every anarchist socialist anti-capitalist dissenter since), to chants like “Which side are you on?” which take on musical quality when thrown into the faces of the police. Indeed the film’s title is taken from a song by Peggy Seeger written upon her visit to the site. Another quality that comes through well is the humour with which many confronted the inevitable political and bureaucratic obstacles, including staging protests like a ‘teddy bears’ picnic’ inside the fence. The film turns bleakly amusing, too, in scenes of the police (their faces uncovered, unlike their counterparts at modern protests), who are seen squirming awkwardly when confronted with the women’s protest or incompetently trying to break a bike lock placed on the base’s gates.
Accompanying this was a screening of a medium-length documentary about Nell Logan, the most elderly of 36 protesters arrested in 1982 for climbing the fence of the military base and dancing on top of the nuclear silos, and who was jailed for a time as a result. The director focuses on Nell for her long history of dissent, which stretches back to a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and shows her daily life in the small English town where she lived. It’s a gentle introduction to a turbulent period of protest, focusing on a single participant in a way that I suppose you could call heart-warming and certainly would have made for canny TV counter-programming at the time.
The screening ended with a discussion chaired by So Mayer, a Club des Femmes member and published author (whose Political Animals I can recommend). Her guest was academic Anna Reading, who led the audience in a singalong, though there were plenty of other testimonies from the audience as to their experiences of the camp and of modern protest actions.
Carry Greenham Home (1983)
Directors Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson; Cinematographer Richardson; Length 69 minutes.
Greenham Granny (1986)
Director Caroline Goldie; Length 46 minutes.