Film

Are we doomed to repeat the cost of living crisis? This archive film shows how little has changed in the UK

As we face a cost of living crisis, this archive film shows decades of deprivation in Yorkshire and the north east. The bleak truth is that little has changed

cost of living archive film

The film captures archive footage from the 1950s to 1980s - featuring clips of rising prices and high poverty rates. Image: Yorkshire and North East Film Archives

Housing that is barely fit for animals let alone people. Electricity meters out of credit and no way to pay tomorrow’s bills. Empty petrol pumps, queues of people outside food banks and a homeless pensioner stealing food to pay for the cost of living. Mothers marching through the streets in anger. People desperately calling for change which never comes. 

This is not 2023 – although the resonance is striking. The archive film Cost of Living [which you can watch by scrolling to the bottom on this page] captures harrowing footage from across Yorkshire and the north east between the 1950s and 1980s. It evokes a past which feels uncomfortably contemporary. 

“The way I see it, things are bad now but they’re going to be worse in the future,” a young Black man says two minutes into the film, his voice echoing as though he is in an empty metal room. We are not told why the man is shirtless, where he is or his name. But he was eerily right, as Britain now faces its worst cost of living crisis since the 1950s. 

“It’s a feeling of powerlessness,” says Martin Hall, a senior lecturer in film and media and the co-founder of the cinema and social justice project at York St John University. “How have we seen this so many times before but we’re still not managing to do anything about it?”

The 15-minute film was commissioned by Hall and his colleagues and made by the team at the Yorkshire and North East Film Archives. It was initially meant as a resource for students, but it was so powerful it is now being shown at festivals and released for free online. 

Graham Relton, the archive manager who sourced the footage, says: “It feels so visceral in its similarities to what so many of us are experiencing in the UK at the moment. It is shocking.”

“With the prices going up, you just can’t cope,” a mother says in the film. “I make do without during the week in order to make three meals at the weekend. I can’t budget any more than I’m doing. We’ve cut so much already.”

Food inflation is at its highest rate in decades – but prices were rising even faster in the 1970s. Inflation soared to a record 25 per cent in 1975. 

An elderly, homeless veteran says: “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got no time for the country, the way we are being treated. If I didn’t steal, I’d go into malnutrition and I’m not dying of malnutrition. You can bet on that.”

Mothers marching through the streets calling for better recreation grounds. Image: Yorkshire and North East Film Archives

This sense of disgruntlement and, beyond that, rage is clear. There are protests and posters evoking the power of the people throughout the film. In recent months, pensioners have taken to the streets, mothers have pushed prams through London demanding help with childcare costs, and thousands of people are calling for change in Enough is Enough rallies. 

There is hope in this, yes, but is Cost of Living making a point that even when people rise together changes still don’t come? 

“I don’t think the film is going to answer those questions,” Hall says. “There are talks about revolution and the notion that people have power and people can make change. It would be lovely to think we do have that. But really it’s quite a holistic message where we want people to learn from the past.”

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Cost of Living begins with a comic clip of a woman, in black and white, telling a representative for the Conservatives: “I’m fed up with the lot of them. None of the parties seem to do anything for people like me,” and slamming the door in her face. 

But Hall says it’s important to remember this is decades of footage, with both Labour and Conservative governments in charge. “There’s a difficulty in the revelation that this has always been a problem. It’s quite hard to hear.” 

Subsidise our heating costs! Sound familiar? Image: Yorkshire and North East Film Archives

There are strong local roots, exposing the horrors of housing conditions in the north east. “When you look at the conditions and the way they are here, they’re not fit for animals, never mind human beings,” one woman says. 

Her neighbour adds: “There’s been mice, rats, dampness. We can’t go on like this for much longer and I think there will be quite a few who won’t survive it.” Cost of Living cuts to a clip of a toddler, covered in dirt. 

Has anything changed? Two-year-old Awaab Ishak died in a mouldy council flat in Rochdale just over two years ago. More than one in three children (34 per cent) in the North of England are living in poverty, according to recent research

“The divide back then in terms of the richest in society and the poorest was probably a lot less than what it is today,” Hall says. The gap between rich and poor in the UK is among the worst in Europe. 

Billionaires in the UK already have more than £653 billion of wealth between them. Between 2020 and 2022 alone, their wealth ballooned by almost £150bn. Meanwhile, millions of people are going hungry because they can’t afford food. 

Hall asks: “So how do we bridge that gap and narrow that gap and look after the most vulnerable and poorest in our society?”

Cost of Living might not have the answers but it does raise questions about the tragedies of our society which we seem doomed to repeat. “It might be a vault full of films,” Relton says, “but what it really is is a vault full of stories. We can help reveal those stories.”

Watch the Cost of Living film below.

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