Illustration by Harry Tennant

Camera man: the everyday eye of Sam Hanna

A new book sheds light on this great, unheralded civic filmmaker, who himself shed light on 20th-century England
June 5, 2024

Sam Hanna was one of the most prolific English filmmakers of the 20th century. His work spanned six decades. He made 270 documentary films. Have you heard of him? 

Born in Burnley in 1903, Hanna left school at the age of 12 to work in a cotton mill, turned to furniture design and cabinetmaking, and then became a woodwork teacher. His colleagues looked down on the subject—too manual, too vocational—and didn’t let him share the staff room. But he was a hit with his pupils after he brought his Pathé 9.5mm camera into class. He filmed joining and filing techniques, which he played back to them, sometimes in slow motion. “This medium was far better than talk and chalk,” he later recalled. The working-class boys knew that it was unusual for kids of their ilk to be able to see themselves on a screen.

Hanna thought his experiences might inspire other teachers. He wanted to show his films to those bigwigs at the local educational authority who assumed most pupils were factory fodder and destined to spend their working lives doing grunt labour. He himself was seen as an upstart. After all, he’d turned up in a car on his first day at the technical school. He had his own camera. (The classroom in which he taught didn’t have electricity.) Looked at as more of an entertainer than a pedagogue, he was barred from showcasing his innovations in his home town.

Hanna was blessed with an outsider’s persistence and passion. He spent his weekends and spare time, his sometimes reluctant family alongside him, travelling across northwest England and beyond—as far as Scotland, Holland, Switzerland—documenting the lives and traditions of the people he met. He chronicled carnival parades and agricultural shows, made time-lapse films about pond life, portrayed well-known sculptors, artists and communist priest Hewlett Johnson (whose support of Stalin won him the nickname “The Red Dean of Canterbury”). He recorded home movies, vignettes of daytrippers taking donkey rides by the seafront, and, at the invitation of Burnley Football Club, covered a fixture at Turf Moor against Manchester United that featured the pre-Munich air disaster Busby Babes.

Perhaps this all sounds rather minor, just everyday rites and rituals that do not merit much attention. Look closer, though—and you can see, in a scene that would delight the makers of Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams, city-dwelling children play cricket in car-free streets. In the silent short Knocker-Up (1946–49) a suit-and-tie-wearing older gent paces Burnley’s cobbled streets, tapping the windows of terraced homes with a stick to wake up their inhabitants so they get to work on time. (The arrival of cheap alarm clocks rendered this job obsolete.) 

A slightly later film records the opening of a self-service Co-op shop, a development that, in its way, anticipates the advent of self-checkouts. Hanna was attentive to the grain of ordinary life, to subtle shifts in how we engage with our surroundings, to the social glue that makes us more than atomised consumers. He was a civic journalist capturing a stratum of England that the collapse of local journalism has rendered invisible.

Hanna was attentive to the grain of ordinary life, to the social glue that makes us more than atomised consumers

Hanna was especially drawn to craftspeople. His films are a window onto a mostly disappeared world of skills that had been handed down from generation to generation. They show coopers, saddlers, clog block makers, oak spelk basket makers, Welsh broth spoon carvers, dry stone wallers, clay pipe makers, haff net fishers (who, for the best part of a millennium, caught salmon and trout by standing in the sea and scooping them up with framed nets). Here they are, just. Proud but embattled. Like members of a dying tribe in a black-and-white print in an ethnographic study. Today, when so many of us do what David Graeber has called “bullshit” jobs, jabbing at digital devices, shunting around globs of information in soulless environments, such hands-on creativity is poignant to see. 

Heather Norris Nicholson, author of the newly published Round Our Way, a study of Hanna’s legacy, tells me that she was drawn to the steadiness of his gaze, his passion for “documenting rural industries and traditional crafts, lamenting the demise of products made from plastic rather than natural resources, capturing things for posterity that you now only find in museums”. While he wasn’t a party man, his sympathies were towards the left, his films imbued with some of the same spirit as EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), a book that the historian hoped might “rescue the poor stockinger… the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan… from the enormous condescension of posterity”. (After the Second World War, Thompson taught adult students in West Riding.)

Hanna was an enterprising self-starter. He invented devices to help with film editing and screening, and set up a small company that sold slide projectors and film-strip projectors. Yet he was also an English amateur, an enthusiast, in thrall to the lower case. Other countries, particularly those in eastern Europe, prized their amateur filmmakers as model cine-workers and for their contributions to the political project. They were even paid by the state. 

Not so in England. Still, there’s a too-little-known history of English cinema to be told through—literally—the lens of amateurism. In the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of clubs sprang up (often in the north), the British Association of Amateur Cinematographers was formed, and journals such as Amateur Cine World flourished. This was indie film before indie film existed. A thriving regional network, mostly ignored by London, drew audiences at screenings held in libraries, factories and municipal halls. By the 1970s it had waned, as film gave way to video, and viewing increasingly took place in living rooms rather than community centres. 

One club that has held out is the Bradford Movie Makers, founded in 1932 and meeting almost every Monday since then. (Kim Hopkins’s delightful 2022 film A Bunch of Amateurs follows its members as they struggle on, through Covid and the deaths of loved ones, bickering over biscuits and tea, still passionate about making and watching films together.)

Dorothea Lang, the photojournalist best known for documenting the social impact of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, claimed, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” That’s true for Sherif Dhaimish, whose independent Pendle Press, in partnership with Manchester University Press, has brought out Nicholson’s book about Hanna. The son of Hasan “Alsatoor” Dhaimish, a Libyan artist who spent much of his life satirising the Gaddafi regime, he grew up in Burnley in the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when the city seemed long past its prime. “The landscape was post-industrial. I’m mixed race and the racism was heavy. It’s still very heavy in the air,” he says. “I knew when I was 15 that if I stayed, the place would get a grip of me. I had to get away from the close-mindedness.”

Hanna’s films, their peopling and decency, their liveliness and optimism, have soaked into him. “Sam’s work made me more empathetic towards Burnley. It’s had a huge impact: the way he celebrates and preserves part of its culture, how he highlights social issues and allows us to explore them.” Now, online and for free, they can be seen at the North West Film Archive. They’re a treasure trove of England well worth exploring.