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T Dan Smith (1987)

Courtesy of Amber Films

Main image of T Dan Smith (1987)
Production CompanyAmber Films
Written, CrewedAmber Production
and Produced byTeam
Financial assistanceBritish Film Institute
 Channel Four
 Northern Arts

Cast: Jack Johnston (himself); Ken Sketheway (himself); Dennis Skinner (himself); George Vickers (himself); T. Dan Smith (himself)

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Two journalists interview the disgraced former Newcastle councillor T Dan Smith about his past and his role in the 1960s' Poulson scandal. Meanwhile, a building magnate and two corrupt politicians struggle to prevent a similar scandal erupting.

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T. Dan Smith (1987) stands out as one of Amber's most ambitious and experimental projects. Filmed over two years, and with close collaboration from Smith himself, the film incorporates documentary footage and contemporary interviews with Smith within a framework of the filmmakers discussing the sort of film they should be making and what sort of stance it should take on Smith. This is itself interwoven with a fictional drama of political corruption that mirrors the 'Poulson Scandal' (concerning political corruption in awarding building contracts in the late 1960s/early 1970s) that brought about Smith's own downfall.

This complex, triple-layered structure was singled out for criticism by most reviewers, who argued that it was more likely to confuse than illuminate, and that a more traditional or conventional documentary approach would have a given a clearer account to audiences. However, this is rather to miss the whole point of Amber's approach. By exposing the process of documentary making, the filmmakers' own uncertainties regarding Smith, and by setting 'fact' alongside 'fiction', the audience is both reminded of the editorialising that a conventional documentary treatment seeks to hide, and invited to form its own judgement. By rejecting the conventional 'authoritative account' model for a more discursive (and some might say Brechtian) account, Amber characteristically allows its subject, Smith, his own voice, and its audience their own judgement.

A fascinating film that repays repeated viewing, it is a sad testimony to the continued dominance of the conventional documentary approach that T. Dan Smith remains one of the most innovative and challenging documentaries to have been broadcast in Britain.

Martin Hunt

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