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14 | Movies

14 | Do it yourself New Town

Ruben Baiocco

Charley in New Town is a full-color animated film produced by the Central Office of Information for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in 1948. It's a movie file, partly propaganda and partly information, aimed at the promotion and advertising of the so-called New Town Programme, launched for just two years with a special law (New Towns Act of 1946).

In 1948, When the film was released, the plans of new towns od Stevenage and Harlow were already approved. However their implementation start up didn’t seem easy to be realized. The urban policy programme, as dominant in Britain, Becomes extended from, even if the construction of the last new cities designated under the New Towns Act of 1965 will keep the British Government busy throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The first Labour Government of Clement Atlee, inaugurates it. Winner of the elections of 1945, which puts it in a package of reforms, known as progressive reforms, matured, however, already during the years of war, during the national unity Government, extended to all political forces, led by Winston Churchill.


Charley in New Town, 1948

Colour Animation

Director | John Halas & Joy Batchelor
Duration | 8min 15sec
Release date | 1948
Sponsor | Central Office of Information for Ministry of Town and Country Planning

London, Great Britain

Review by Ruben Baiocco


In few years,
between end of World War II and 1950, the British Government becomes the protagonist of a series of institutional reforms that will change the political, economic and social destiny of the United Kingdom, and will influence, for the innovations proposed, social policies of all European contries. The Beveridge Report of 1941, will provide the theoretical and instrumental basis of the modern welfare state from which, at the end of the conflict, with Labour Party in power, the "law on social security", will be constituted. The white paper on the National Health Service, that also became law on the public health system and the Education Act of 1944 – law for public education open to all and extended to secondary schools, complete the framework,. Pursuing certain forms of urban development in which the State governs centrally all stages of promotion, financing, planning and construction, the New Towns Act can be also understood as a measure of provision of law, organic to other political innovations of the welfare state - relating to full employment, social security, health care and school.

Evidence of this is the fact that the duo Halas & Batchelor, along with Charley in "New Town", will be commissioned between 1948 and 1949 the construction of three other animations with the same protagonist: Charley 's March of Time, dedicated to national law on social security, as a pivot of universalistic policies of the welfare state and as a shield against the ravages of poverty and the adversities of life of men, women and children, sponsored by the Ministry of National Insurance; "Your Very Good Health," to greet the birth of the National Health Service, to which the protagonist Charley caters for all the needs of prevention and care of his entire family, sponsored by the Ministry of Health; and finally, Charley Junior's School Days, in which Charlie’s children and family experience all the benefits produced by the public education Act that provides, in addition to the extension of the course of study at secondary schools, and free access for all, a new way of understanding the school: increasingly numerous staff and improved spaces and equipment, even more hub of the community and integral part of the districts where it is located.

In Charley in New Town, the protagonist is a British industrial city dweller (although the explicit reference is in London). In the first scene he appears cycling along a cycle track on a wide avenue with more lanes for different types of mobility, surrounded by greenery and trees on the sides, where it crosses, a mother with a baby carriage, another cyclist and one car to symbolize a small motorized traffic. It is assumed that it is his first day in a new town: it is a great day because now he feels distanced from his previous life and from the place where he spent time in it.

With a flash back Charley back to relive his typical day in its old city, and all the series of overwhelming hardships in which he was submitted: crossing dangerous roads congested from motorized traffic, using public transport services overly crowded, and breathing unhealthy air, encountering mostly urban areas unsuitable for children and difficult for mothers and devoid of greenery. The city, chaotic and unplanned, it tests its inhabitants, reducing their well-being inside and outside of the buildings in work and domestic life. Charley isn't the only one to think so! There are many people, men and women, that becoming aware of their situation, seek an alternative solution – a great idea! And there are also engineers, planners and politicians, who now feel the same way and attempt to provide a solution on the basis of a scientific reconstruction of the facts and of the causes that led to such a situation, synthesized in the symbolic image of uncontrolled expansion of the city “like wild fire": the city has become an indomitable monster! This is the scene where Charlie sits down at a table together with the other inhabitants and in the presence of an Authority – chairman-identifiable with an experienced and knowledgeable expert, a planner may be constructed in such a way as to also return a sort of horizontal interaction, where the will and preferences of the inhabitants become the occasion to define a project for another-new-city that can respond to their needs and alleviate the evils of the existing, overpopulated.

Now, this is the message, there are technical instruments for this to occur: you can put absolute limits to the expansion of the city defined by a "non-building green belt"; choose a new site not too far from the mother-city, in the country untouched and crossed by rapid railway communications; define
a priori the dimensional limits of the new town. If you are constructing a new city it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past, says the chairman but the inhabitants seating at the table seem to have clear ideas.

The chairman uses a map on which to display the suggestions of the inhabitants, which corresponds to the plan of Frederick Gibberd for Harlow New Town: first of all separate the industries from the houses, situated against the wind in respect of the first ones and easily accessible on foot or by bicycle, then open space in abundance of large parks, gardens and open spaces for the game and an attractive urban center where you can place both civic functions that those related to culture and entertainment, shops, but "above all places where people can meet and talk", proposes Charley. And finally the residential areas: the chairman proposed to consider them arranged as a series of neighbourhood agglomerations – neighborhood unit – which can be designed individually, turning the table for the specific suggestions and keeping in mind that most important of all is to consider the children. So each core must have at least one kindergarten and one primary school, so that they can be reached on foot easily and safely from each home; then, there must be a church, a community center and a district of shops and services, but, above all, more of a-next door – pub, asks an entry from the table, winking to the English folk tradition. The homes that compose the residential area will be healthy, rational and well exposed (under typological innovation experienced by modernism), but, most importantly, can be of different types, in order to be functional to the family needs and to offer a variety of choices to future inhabitants, who include-from the table-group proposals for youth – hostels – and for seniors-bungalows.

The animation can be considered as a relevant technical description of urban components of a first generation new town –
the reference as already said is Harlow, which provides a faithful reconstruction – and the operation of the device of the neighborhood unit, adopted in the overall scheme of planning for all the new towns, from the North to the South of Great Britain; but above all it wants to be a representative description of a change of perspective in relation to the role of the inhabitants in relation with the Government institutions of the city and with planners and architects.

From the point of view of a narrative film, Charley in New Town, offers a traditional plot, similar to that of the urban literature of that time – and perhaps of all time – where you first reported a critical situation, the so-called evils of cities in relation to the hardships of the people, and then you announce the technical solutions proposed by the planning to improve the conditions of the environment and of the people within the broader framework of a political project – social and economic – so apparently neutral.

It is an argumentative artifice that is common to this movie to other documents not too distant over the years, such as that adopted by Die Stadt von Morgen in 1930, written by planner Maximilian von Golbeck, promoted by the Ministry of Social Health dedicated to the city of Berlin. In this case, the idea of satellite development, for unit districts, of the city that becomes a metropolis assumes a social class prepared to accept that proposal as improvement by itself, giving rise to implicit urban communities.

In the case of
Charley in New Town, it is the active and individual membership to the project to be the fulcrum around which the initiatives for the construction of a new urban environment gather, with useful and functional spaces to weave together the threads of international relations based on "community of interest". The hand of the town planner, which in Die Stadt von Morgen, step by step drew the general schema and the details of the new and great metropolitan district, disappears into the background, to leave room for the "creativity" of a citizen that you want him/her enabled on its ability to choice, to tell colorful stories, and "illuminated" by a "great idea" that that makes him/her even before they perceive it as a "paternalistic" technical suggestion.

Ruben Baiocco 
IUAV University, Venice, Italy