Oi Polloi

Interview: Paul Wright of the British Culture Archive

Published: Fri Aug 16 2019

Amongst the modern-day visual jumble-sale known as Instagram, only a few things are worth looking at. One such ‘thing’ is the British Culture Archive.

As the name suggests, this is an archive dedicated to highlighting true British culture – and thanks to the contributions of both esteemed documentary photographers and the general public – it’s full of amazing images of what Britain really looked like over the last 50 years.

With a new crowdfunding campaign set up to help create a full online archive and a permanent gallery in Manchester, now seemed like a good time to talk to Paul Wright, the man behind it all…

Header photo - kick-ups outside Carrington power station, Irlam, 1994. Photo by Andrew Smith.   

First things first, what is the British Culture Archive? How did the archive come about?

The British Culture Archive is a non-profit resource that documents and highlights British culture and society through documentary and social photography. 

As well as sourcing our own archive we work with established and upcoming photographers, showcasing their work via our blog and online galleries.  

Our online exhibitions and archive include images ranging from the 1960’s Mod Scene, Northern Soul and Punk, through to Thatcher’s Britain, social housing, industrial decline, regeneration, acid house, protests and more. 

Our ongoing project The People’s Archive documents and preserves images of everyday life between 1950-2000 which have been submitted to us by the public since 2017.

Since I was a kid I’ve always been a bit obsessed with old archive footage and especially photography, mainly social and documentary stuff. Before the internet I used to keep clippings from magazines like ID and The Face. There’s something powerful about an image that can tell a story. 

I started to post a few of my favourite images on my personal Instagram feed a few years ago, but mixed in with the usual photos of days out with the kids nobody really knew where I was coming from. That’s when I thought of the idea to start a dedicated resource featuring some of my favourite photographers. 

It blew up fairly quickly with some high profile people sharing the posts which led to me being sent hundreds of images and being approached by photographers to feature their work. 

Maybe a tough question, but what is ‘British culture’ to you? How do you define it?  

Britain is essentially a cultural melting pot built on immigration and influence by other nations - and the same goes for the many scenes and fashions that have taken hold. Mod, skinhead, ska, acid house — all influenced by other countries and adopted and taken on by the British youth.  

It’s not just the subcultures and fashions, it’s everything really, from industry, housing, regeneration, growing up in tight knit communities and how our lives have been shaped by society. 

The Joy Rave in Rochdale, 1989 - photo by Peter J Walsh

Are there certain rules as to what you feature? Are there things you avoid? 

We try to feature images that tell a story and capture a generation, images that highlight social issues and how society in Britain has changed. Featured photographers include Rob Bremner and Tish Murtha, who both documented people and communities blighted by industrial decline and during the Thatcher years, and Richard Davis who captured Manchester’s now demolished Hulme Crescents in late 1980s and early 90s, as well as the city’s thriving music scene during those days. 

Obviously we wouldn’t feature anything that would discriminate or cause conflict in anyway, and though we highlight the past we’re not a nostalgia site. You know ‘here’s a photo of a packet of Salt n Shake crisps from 1982 - we’re not about that. 

Kids in Liverpool. Photos by Rob Bremner.

Do you think people can sometimes be too nostalgic? Are there bits from the 70s and 80s that should be forgotten? 

Nostalgia means different things to many people. I mean there are definitely things that belong in the past, especially attitudes. People can romanticise about certain era that were special to them, and a special time in their lives, but to others it was a terrible time. It’s all relative I suppose.

I would say that Hi-Tec trainers belong in the past. Haven’t they made a comeback? Maybe I’m getting old… I think I was forced to wear a pair from Stretford Arndale circa 1986.

Hulme Crescents, 1991. Photo by Rich Davis. 

What are your memories from growing up in Manchester?  

I was born at the tail end of the seventies. I lived in Baguley and went to school in Wythenshawe until my family moved to Sale around 1985. I started secondary school in 1989 and I got really into music and the whole Manchester scene. 

I was more into the dance stuff early on - my first gig was 808 State’s ‘In Yer Face Turbo Rave’ at G-mex in 1991. Me and my mate were big fans and used to religiously tune into their show on Sunset Radio back in the day. I remember being outside before the gig, everyone a bit off it, dancing about and blowing whistles — certainly an eye opener to my thirteen year old self. Good though! My mates dad picked us up in his Saab afterwards, oblivious to what was going on around. 

I also remember going into town around the same time on the 263 and passing through Old Trafford and Hulme when the crescents were still standing. Seeing Alsatians on pub roofs, and punks sat out drinking bottles of cider... it was a bit intimidating to a kid from the suburbs, but it was an adventure to us. 

There was still an edge about the city back then, shopping in the underground market and visiting record shops like Spin Inn and Eastern Bloc, it was a great vibe and great time to come of age in Manchester. 

An Alsatian on an Edinburgh pub roof, 1985. Photo by Graham Macindoe.

Going back to the archive, is it hard not to let personal taste dictate some of the output? If I was running something like this, I’d just be boring people with endless photos of old shop-fronts - but you manage to cover a wide-spectrum. 

I love a good shop front myself, who doesn’t? My personal taste obviously has an influence on the site and growing up in Manchester I have included many images of the North, but I do try and keep things as diverse as possible. I want to include images and stories from all over the UK. 

Britain has always had strong pedigree for documentary photographers – why do you think this is? What is it about the streets of Britain that inspires people to pick up cameras and document them?  

Again I would say the cultural diversity of our cities and communities, and the rich industrial heritage many of these places were built on. We’re surrounded by important history, everywhere you go there are great characters with individual personalities and tastes. 

Ellesmere Port, 1982. Photo by Alan Morgan.

As well as the raves and the protests and the big cultural events, there are also some everyday slices of life in there – children playing in the street and couples drinking in pubs. How important is it to show these more commonplace parts of British culture?  

I think this is very important, especially as the way we socialise and communicate is changing. Most of us live hyper-connected lives these days. The pub or the playground is no longer the important social hub it once was, younger generations have turned to technology for entertainment.  

There’s a great deal of authenticity and a romantic quality of these images. They’re a snapshot and an important document of our past and ever-changing lives that need to be preserved.

Where are people finding these old snaps? Just old shoe-boxes and stuff?  

Pretty much so, I think they often get rediscovered when moving house or clearing out parents or grandparents lofts. 

Kids in Elswick, Newcastle, 1979. Photo by Tish Murtha.

How do you think the photos would differ today? Is there anything you think we’ve lost since these photos were taken? 

Photography will always be important. In regards to the everyday images I think with camera phones and today's throwaway selfie culture we may have lost that bit of authenticity in an image, the apprehension or excitement of having your picture taken.  

Especially kids who’ve grown up with iPhones in their faces, having their picture taken is just everyday normality to them, so in that sense I think a certain quality and innocence has been lost. 

Location also plays a big part in the photos – and there’s definite regional style in them. Do you think that regional style thing still exists today? Do different cities and towns still differ much? 

Probably not as much as it used to, but it’s definitely still there. Manchester and Liverpool are only thirty miles apart, demographically they’re similar in many ways and share a fondness for jackets and rare adidas, though both cities still carry their own vibe and unique identities. 

The same goes for music, there’s still bands that can sell out venues in Nottingham or Glasgow, but no-one else gets them elsewhere. 

Liverpool fans at Anfield, 1991, and Manchester United fans outside Old Trafford, 1993. Photos by Richard Davis.  

Why do you think Britain had so many subcultures over the years?  

Again most of it is down to influences from other countries. In the sixties you had merchant sailors bringing back blues, R&B and jazz 45s into our major ports from the States. Once that started to flood in, the bands and musicians just repackaged it and threw it back at them in the shape of the Beatles and Stones.

Perhaps a bit of a naff question, but do you have a favourite photo? Is there a single image from the archive that sums it all up? 

Not really, I mean they’re all great images that tell a story. Though our most popular images usually feature kids jumping off buildings or riding on Raleigh Choppers. 

Lion Farm estate, 1991. Photo by Robert Clayton.

People still love those bikes. What is British culture in 2019? What do you think will be remembered about the present day, thirty years from now? 

On a music and fashion front most things seem to be embraced these days, anything goes. Because of the internet you don’t get many new or underground movements anymore, all the trends and fashions from the last 50 years or so are celebrated or recycled in some way.  

In regards to society I think we’ll be remembered as the guinea pigs for the smart phone and social media revolution, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t really know where we’ll be in thirty years from now but I sometimes fear we’re entering an episode of Black Mirror. 

You’ve recently launched a crowdfunder to help fund an archive website and a permanent exhibition in Manchester. What’s the plan with this? Why is something like this important? 

The resource and archive is currently run voluntarily in our spare time. It’s come to the point that it is impossible to maintain and grow effectively without any funding or support. 

Once we’ve upgraded our website and online archive our long term goal is to secure our first permanent gallery space in Manchester.  

This will be a community hub where we can showcase the People’s Archive alongside exhibitions/events and book launches from our featured photographers and artists. 

We believe this will be an important project that will engage people and communities of all generations - as well as an important platform for photography within the UK. 

"The pub or the playground is no longer the important social hub it once was, younger generations have turned to technology for entertainment."  

The Haçienda, 1989. Photo by Peter J Walsh.

Definitely. What do you get up to outside the archive?  

I don’t get out socialising as much as I used to and rarely drink these days (can’t handle it if I’m honest!) I occasionally DJ at a night I put on with my mate Rick called Club Boogaloo and I still try and get to a few gigs each year.  

Most of my spare time is taken up with my family and two young daughters, eating ice cream and causing havoc around the parks of South Manchester. 

Sounds good. Bit of a question barrage here, but what sort of music are you into? What films do you like? And perhaps more importantly, have you got a favourite chocolate bar? 

Music’s a big part of my life, obviously I grew up with all the local bands in Manchester, which I still have in my record collection. When I’m DJing I tend to play 60s/70s soul and funk. I like it all though… soul, jazz, punk, reggae, rock and roll. 

It’s hard with films, though off the top of my head here’s ten of my favourites in no particular order… Kes, Cool Hand Luke, Cinema Paradiso, True Romance, The Warriors, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, Dead Man’s Shoes, Stand By Me, Quadrophenia, and Alan Bleasdale’s Blood On The Dole from 1994. 

As for the chocolate bar, it’s a tie between a Boost and a Double Decker.

Some ace films there. Good left-field chocolate choices too - the Boost isn't for everyone. One more question before I wrap this up, why did old estate pubs have Alsatians wandering about on their roofs? 

It was basically for security reasons. An old school alarm I suppose!

It all makes sense now.

Support the British Culture Archive here.