It was 1985 and as she made her way up the M1 to begin an arts degree at Bretton Hall College, Judi Alston caught her first glimpse of a working coal mine. Standing just a stone’s throw from the motorway was the pithead of Woolley Colliery, the mine where NUM leader Arthur Scargill started work in 1953, at the age of just 15.
“It was so vivid that for me,” Alston recalls. “The miner’s strike had obviously been going on in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and the coalfields but up until that point my only experience of it was that I was working in London at the time and there was a lot of miners and miners’ wives collecting money on the tubes. I would always support it. I had always been into supporting the cause but it was like a distant thing for me until getting to Yorkshire.”
Once thriving language of the pits being revived in Yorkshire coal mining exhibitionWithin four years, Alston immersed herself at the very heart of those mining communities, launching a video production partnership to document life in the coalfields. It was the start of a long, and continuing, career for Alston, whose organisation One to One Development Trust, is now 30-years-old.
Based at the Art House in Wakefield, the trust now works with communities and organisations to produce films, apps, websites and virtual reality experiences on a range of topics. Its aim? To inspire and inform - and to push boundaries in how people engage with heritage, health and wellbeing and digital storytelling.
It was not a direction that Alston saw her life taking. She grew up in Peterborough and took a job at an insurance company in London after leaving school. But when her father died when she was just 18, the grief and upset sparked a desire for change.
“I had no aspirations to even go to college but my dad died very suddenly and I needed a change of scene and just applied for colleges all over.” She didn’t have a specific course in mind, applying for everything from fashion to psychology. “The first one I got accepted to was Bretton. I didn’t even go for an interview. I just started at Bretton and will never forget going up the M1 and seeing Woolley Colliery on the right hand side.”
During her time at Bretton, Alston began experimenting with video. “I was always really interested in how society works and how people think and respond. I suppose that was my driver artistically. I never had any intention or desire to become a film maker.
“That’s not what I thought I’d do - I thought I’d be an art therapist or something. Then in the final year of college, they bought a video camera and it was really exciting. There was only me and one other student who used it. That was the start of things really.”
Judi launched One to One Video in 1989 with a friend a year after graduating. The pair attended a business and enterprise programme at Huddersfield University to help them shape the organisation and took an office at the newly refurbished Westfield Resource Centre in South Elmsall, which was also supporting ex-miners with new business start-ups. They won an award from Barclays Bank for the most innovative business idea in Yorkshire and Humberside.
“It was a two-edged thing,” Alston reflects of the organisation’s beginnings. “From a heritage perspective, I knew those stories [from the coalfields] were really important, but also, to me, it was about working in the communities in an almost healing way and promoting health and wellbeing as well. Through people talking, communicating and sharing their stores, it brought people together with a sense of unity.”
After a year, Alston’s business partner left, but she carried on. European funding helped One to One set up an edit suite and buy cameras. They ran community film-making courses, as well as producing professionally-shot films documenting the changing coalfields.
The late 1980s and early 1990s was a period of pit closures. One to One filmed at Sharlston Colliery just before it closed, as well as capturing the last shift at Frickley in South Elmsall and the demolition of South Kirkby Colliery.
Tony Macpherson: Flying the flag to remember coal mining heritage“When those pits shut down, everything fell apart in the communities,” Alston says. “The whole infrastructure went. The pit would shut down, then the pit club would close then the trips to the beach each year that families relied on for a holiday would stop and the local sports club would close down. It had a massive ricocheting knock on effect and I was really aware of that. We were filming a lot of stuff that was all changing at the same time.”
“It was a time when so many people were losing their jobs,” she adds. “There was a lot of moving around and a lot of uncertainty. But then there was also places, like where our businesses was, where money was going in to support ex-miners and there was a lot of training provision for people.
“In lots of ways, it was a very hard, difficult time, but it was also a time when we were seeing people making life-changing decisions. Some ended up going to university or college and their lives transformed unbelievably. I think that’s a fascinating legacy for Yorkshire and its coalfield communities.”
Alston’s first proper film commission, Bands and Banners, was about the creativity of brass bands and the art of union banners. The NUM went on to commission the company to cover miners’ marches whilst other bodies would pay for Alston to run projects and courses with miners.
Filming then was a hard and physical slog, running up and down the marches with bulky camera kit and a handful of tapes - quite different to the ease of iPhone film-making technology today. It was also an industry dominated by men, and there were few independent film-makers. Alston often found herself barged out of the way.
“It was very male dominated and a lot of the male journalists and TV men that were filming [the marches] had filmed the miners’ strike so they felt very connected to it all, but I also think they had a sense of entitlement that they had right of way for everything. What I’ve always found really heartwarming though is that the miners that I knew would always make space for me to get to the front.”
For a short period, Alston and her team were commissioned for TV broadcasting. For one programme, Bosnia Fading, they followed an aid convoy, run by a couple from Pontefract, into war-torn Bihać, for two weeks. The city was under siege for three years from 1992 to 1995 during the Bosnian War. A second piece followed the story of a performance artist, who was a member of the aid group.
“It was so maverick in those days,” Alston recalls. “We were film makers that had never done anything like that before, never gone to a war zone before. It was a bit of a shock.”
On the first night, one of the artists with them on the trip was arrested, suspected to be an infiltrator. “He got locked up and we had to bail him out of the jail. We had no provision of how to deal with that at the time. There was also people finding land mines everywhere - we had to be really careful where we walked. I got bitten by a dog that they thought had rabies and got rushed to hospital. It was a crazy trip really.”
She didn’t pursue TV commissions after that, instead focusing on community-based work. Over the past three decades, she has made more than 600 films, her work taking her abroad to places including China and Bhutan. But over time, One to One’s remit has broadened beyond just film, to community projects, research and multimedia commissions.
What has remained consistent is Alston’s desire to tell stories - and at times, her work has been used to influence and campaign, channelling messages to try to impact social change and challenging stereotypes.
For over ten years, One to One worked closely with Barnardo’s and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on projects with often-excluded groups including young mothers and people with drug problems.
“The films can be used to influence policy or funding or they can be used as tools for advocacy and learning,” Alston says. “We’re really good at capturing people’s stories that are real and then being a conduit, taking those stories somewhere else and affecting change.
“That wasn’t something we set out to do, that wasn’t a motivation, and we still don’t do that all of the time. But I’m really interested in how the arts, creativity and the digital technologies we work with can be used to bring people together. To me, it’s not just about big change that might happen on a policy or government level, it’s about changing people’s lives, giving opportunities and bringing people together.”
The turn of the millennium was a significant time for One to One. Alston began working with Andy Campbell, whose background as a writer and games designer brought a new set of skills. He now manages Dreaming Methods, One to One’s award-winning in-house games studios, where new technologies and ideas are explored.
“The millennium was also significant because people were taking stock on life and history and where the world was going,” says Alston. “It did feel like a really big time...How that played out for us was that there was a lot of interest in us working on archive, heritage and social history projects.”
Among One to One’s more recent work was a project earlier this year for Wakefield’s Museum of the Moon festival, to celebrate 50 years since the lunar landings.
Moon transformation for Kellingley Colliery site three years after its closure as country's last deep coal mineThe trust created an interactive, space adventure called Zero Gravity Lunar Library. Using virtual reality, it gave visitors the chance to clamber on board a space-shuttle version of a 1960s mobile library van, accessing old footage of the city and films of people talking about their relationships with the moon.
It is something she hopes to tour round the district’s libraries in the coming months as One to One continues to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
Reflecting on its three decades, and looking to the future, Alston says: “Whether it’s using film, or virtual reality, or any other digital technology and whether it’s working with groups in Wakefield or anywhere else in the world, to me it is all about valuing stories, nurturing people, celebrating culture and pushing the boundaries on how we can use technology for good.”
She has one admission though: “We’re really good at telling everyone else’s stories and we’re actually not that good at telling our own.” Well, Alston, there it is.
For more information about the trust, visit www.onetoonedevelopment.org