Murray Martin: An Exemplary Amber Life

By Graeme Rigby

murray-martin.jpgMurray Martin

Murray Martin died on August 14th this year, a month short of the opening of the Side Gallery exhibition celebrating its thirty years as a catalyst and venue for documentary photography and nine months short of celebrations marking forty years of Amber film and photography collective. He’d have been first to resist individual credit for the extraordinary body of work it has generated and collected, but none of it would have happened without him: forty films and a hundred photographic narratives engaged with working class and marginalised lives and landscapes in the north of England. The legacy in both territories is of huge significance, but the separation of the critical traditions has meant that the full scale of the achievement has only rarely been recognised. For a host of reasons that don’t reflect well on either tradition, the work has usually been ignored in the histories of both British film and photography. In its sustained, interconnected coherence and focus it is simply unique.

From a family of Stoke on Trent potters and miners, Murray came to Newcastle in the early Sixties to study fine art, interested in painting working class landscapes and resentful of the way education separated you from your roots. He taught art history briefly, then, in 1966, went to London to study filmmaking at Regent Street Polytechnic, the idea of the collective already forming in his mind. The sense of the emerging Amber and its creative territory is already there in the 1968 student film Maybe (1968), a poetic portrait of the Shields ferry, which he made with Graham Denman. The group, including Graham and Finnish fellow student Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, came to Newcastle the following year.

in-fading-light-amber-films.jpgIn Fading Light, 1989

Encouraging Sirkka in her seminal documentation of Byker, the terraced Newcastle community to which she had moved, Amber began to make a series of documentaries. Mai (1973) finished off a student portrait of the eccentric doll collector who had been Murray and Sirkka’s landlady. Launch (1973) recorded the awe-inspiring slide into the river of an oil tanker at the end of a Wallsend street. The brickworks filmed in Last Shift (1976) had inconveniently closed the week before the shoot, but the men were re-employed for a week, the owners unaware or unconcerned. Over the last 39 years Amber has charted the disappearance of an industrial culture and the emergence of the post-industrial, but for Murray filmmaking was an excuse for just rooting about in it all. He loved films (for the record, his favourite was Vigo’s L'Atalante), but if he’d been able to get away with just amassing material Amber would have made far fewer of them.

Side Gallery and Cinema were opened in 1977, driven by the need to show the work the group was producing and a desire to create a forum for the international work members found inspiring. Campaigning against planned demolitions along Newcastle’s Quayside where Amber had based itself, the group developed an exhibition and the black and white film, Quayside (1979). Film titles have often gone for the obvious…

Murray’s involvement with the independent film workshop movement and the film technicians’ union ACTT was pivotal in developing the Workshop Agreement in the early eighties. The flexibility it allowed independent regional filmmakers and the access it opened up to the newly-established Channel 4 was groundbreaking and he was justly proud of having played a part in the flowering of regional, black and radical filmmaking that followed. For the first of the films Amber made under its Channel 4 franchise, it went to the territory of Sirkka’s long-term photographic project and produced Byker (1983). Murray brought in Ellin Hare as the film’s editor, having met and fallen in love with her at one of the Channel 4 meetings.

seacoal-amber-films.jpgSeacoal, 1985

The franchise enabled Amber to develop feature length, documentary rooted dramas and Ellie joined the group with the making of Seacoal (1985). Her work with Front Room and Belfast Film Workshop on Acceptable Levels (1983) brought experience in developing narrative in the community that extended the group’s ambitions and became a crucial element in Amber’s thinking. Fictionalising the documentary engagement affords protection to the people who are opening up their lives. Amber’s dramas have been an on-going experiment on the threshold between documentary and fiction.

A committed socialist, Murray was attracted to ambiguous landscapes: the raw enterprise of the Lynemouth seacoalers and the North Shields fishermen of In Fading Light (1989). T Dan Smith (1987), the man behind so much of the urban redevelopment he deplored was also someone for whom he retained an affection. With an interest in gambling kicked off by working as a bookie’s runner for his uncle at the age of 10, Murray became fascinated by the harness racing world which Seacoal opened up. He bought a horse (the work in North Shields saw Amber buying a pub, a chapel and a fishing boat) and Durham’s horsey community increasingly became the territory he chose to inhabit. It became the central focus of Eden Valley (1994). It fed again into the making of Shooting Magpies (2005) and is central to a current Amber documentary-in-progress.

The strength of Murray’s work as a filmmaker of the left is that it was never driven by worthiness, dogma or the party line. It was driven by love and a genuine desire to celebrate, even when all you have left to celebrate is survival.

More information on Amber’s history, clips of films and images from the photographic collection can be found at

Graeme Rigby is a member of Amber.