By Lucy Robinson
Department of History, University of Sussex
Anarchist Studies Journal 18.1, 2010
One of Britain’s few home-grown terrorist groups, the Angry Brigade, found innovative ways of embarrassing the Heath government for the year following August 1970. The Brigade were the impetus behind the establishment of the Bomb squad, and the centre of a conspiracy trial that was of record length; and the case fuelled a public belief in police corruption, and the role of personal vendetta in prosecution and investigation. Always diverse in its engagement, the Brigade’s claimed successes included attacks on the boutique Biba and the BBC outside-broadcast van at London’s Miss World competition. This DVD of a documentary from 1973 was therefore broadcast on a channel that had earlier been targeted by the Brigade.
The release of the documentary on DVD is timely. In a post-9/11 world, Europe and America are re-evaluating their own past flirtations with terror. The Angry Brigade documentary, made in 1973, makes explicit the links between past state violence and contemporary acts of terrorism. It also fits well with the current growing interest in the 1970s. Historians are currently turning towards the 1970s as a period in its own right rather than as an addendum to ‘the sixties’, so discussions of the Angry Brigade can act as a counterweight to previous nostalgic celebrations of popular culture, wide surveys of the ‘long sixties’1or the recent revisionist return to top-down histories of Dominic Sandbrook.
If we want to know about the impact of the Angry Brigade and the conspiracy trials, the aftermath is a useful place to start. For those involved, and those accused, the real politicisation occurred through the experiences of being identified, investigated, prosecuted and incarcerated. The conspiracy charges became self-fulfilling, as the networks around the court cases built up lines of support and defence and hardened political positions. When Angie Weir and Kate Maclean were interviewed in Time Out shortly after being found not guilty, they made it clear that their experiences of the trial had encouraged them to move towards a Marxist analysis.3John Barker was sentenced to ten years in prison, and his account of his time inside shows how his experiences in prison solidified what had previously been an abstracted class-based analysis.
Furthermore, through the inclusion on the DVD of Persons Unknown,
a short documentary about the prosecution of sections of the
anarcho-punk scene in 1980s Britain, the Angry Brigade are no longer
placed at the end zone of a long sixties, proof that the dove of peace
and peacock of counter-cultural performance are inevitably turned
towards the black hawk. Instead, the Angry Brigade, and with it the
1970s, are presented as historically significant in and of themselves,
with legacies and hangovers of their own. The legal threat represented
by conspiracy charges continued, as did the Angry Brigade’s style of
Situationist and anarchist influenced resistance. Persons Unknown shows
us how both the charges, and the resistance, were translated through
punk rock, by bringing together rare footage of Crass, cut against
interviews with the Angry Brigade’s Stuart Christie on his island
As a documentary Angry Brigade is very much a product of its time, more Blue Peter than Boy Scouts guide to Situationism. What this DVD does, however, is show us documentary norms and aesthetics within their historical context – it provides a study in producing a politically engaged documentary from within, raising a key issue from the trial. The accused, largely connected through their involvement in the underground or counter-cultural press, were confronted with press silence, or bias, during the trial. And the controversy around the trial also focused on a central issue shared by documentary theorists –what constitutes a document (or evidence)?
In parts The Angry Brigade was a re-educational project, providing accessible explanations of communal living and collectivised childcare, or the difference between communism and grassroots direct action. The section that uses the trial to summarise Debord’s Society of the Spectacleturns the critique back on the documentary producers themselves. However, much of this is not new to today’s viewer, largely because the style and content have been picked up in other forms since.
The same images are used in the existing books on the Brigade–for example The Guardian cartoon of the Stoke Newington 8–as are the same photos of protagonists (some of the photos of the defendants had reproduction royalties held by the accused –so reporting the trials unwittingly supported the defence team). There are already two sets of documents, chronology and commentary on the Brigade
available in printed form: Jean Weir’s 1978 pamphlet Angry Brigade, 1967-84: Documents and Chronology is still regularly reprinted, as is Tom Vague’s contribution to English Psychogeography, Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade. This isn’t a criticism based on repetition;actually it seems wholly appropriate. These shared images, symbols and aesthetics, in their shared cut-and-paste style, exemplified British Situationism’s ‘look at the cracks’ approach to narrative.