The Demonstration: Editing Unrest in Grosvenor Square

By Dai Vaughan

demonstration.jpgThe Demonstration, 1969

Sunday, 17 March 1968: the US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London; packed on the sharp end of a zoom lens, a tsunami of anti-war protestors surged towards us along the length of Duke Street – or was it Brook Street? That was the image which, a few hours later, David Naden and I agreed was to be his last shot, or my first, as we split between us the job of editing the material for Granada’s World in Action.

The footage had been brought up for processing at the Manchester branch of Humphries Laboratories, and the sound tapes for transfer to magnetic film stock. Soon there were several cutting rooms hard at work synching it all up. Four or five camera crews had been covering the event, from interviews with demonstrators on the coach down to London, police preparing their horses and explaining their tactics, the crowd assembling and marching along Oxford Street, to the eventual riot and its aftermath. Nevertheless, everything was done ‘properly’. All the rushes – there must have been between six and seven hours – were viewed in the theatre with executive producer David Plowright, directors Leslie Woodhead and John Sheppard and any number of others involved the project. Editing began in earnest at around 8am, and at some time around midday there was a rough-cut viewing at which there was much debate about the correct order of events. Then somehow the whole thing was shaped, brought down to length, mixed with three laid FX tracks and live commentary from the booth, all in time for Humphries to run off a join-free dupe from the cutting copy for transmission at 7.30 that evening.

What may seem surprising from today’s perspective is that those of us involved in this enterprise – and I don’t think I’m speaking only for myself here – saw it as being part of the same thing as the demonstration itself (it is difficult now to credit that in those days a mainstream television station could maintain a long-running series known, half seriously and never less than affectionately, as the Trot slot). In one sense it is self-evident: the point of a demonstration is to make political opposition visible; and we were amplifying that visibility.

But I think there is something more fundamental than that, or than the notion of the ’60s Zeitgeist. It was a time when the radicalism stoked by the Vietnam war intersected not only with certain libertarian trends in popular culture but also with technical developments in film – notably the possibility of hand-held synch shooting on 16mm – which held their own utopian promise of a medium flexible enough to sideline the language of authority. Whether this intersection should be seen in retrospect as offering a window of hope or simply as a seductive illusion – and, if the latter, whether humanity can be assumed to function better without the illusion of hope – I leave to others to judge.

The Demonstration was awarded the Grand Prix for News Reportage at the Cannes Festival, 1969. It is available on DVD in World in Action – Volume one on the Network label. It will be shown at London’s Curzon Soho cinema on 6th May with Dai Vaughan introducing.

Dai Vaughan is a novelist, poet and essayist. His fiction is published by Seren and Quartet.