UK 2023, 90 mins
Director: Paul Sng

Paul Sng, the BIFA-winning director of Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché and Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, crafts an intimate portrait of Tish Murtha, a working-class photographer from the North East, whose work demands to be rediscovered and rightly recognised. Tish Murtha used documentary photography to capture and embrace her surroundings, and the people who occupied them. It ranged from the Newcastle working class community she grew up in to Soho sex workers in 1980s London. Despite receiving early acclaim for her work, she struggled to make a living from her talent. In Paul Sng’s documentary, Tish’s daughter Ella opens up her mother’s archive and traces her life through previously unseen images, artefacts, letters and diaries, along with conversations with those who knew her. Narration from Maxine Peake brings Tish’s own words to life, while Tish’s photographs look magnificent on the big screen. The film is a fitting tribute an artist whose photography feels more vital than ever – a rallying cry against austerity Britain.
Kimberley Sheehan, Film and Events Programmer

Paul Sng’s portrait of the late Tyneside documentary photographer Tish Murtha – who earned brief acclaim for her insider depictions of deindustrial edge-of-town deprivation in the early 1980s – mourns three layers of loss. There is Murtha herself, who died of a brain aneurysm a day short of 57 in 2013, having succumbed to the same poverty and hopelessness she had made her subject. There are all the photos she never took – the spurned promise of a talent that never quite soared. And there is the waste of the countless other scrap lives depicted in and denoted by her photos of northern Britain’s sacrificial working class, the family and neighbours around her Elswick community for whom she felt both easy empathy and fired passion.

Like Sng’s previous resurrection of a fleeting art radical, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021), Tish reclaims its heroine’s story through the eyes of her grown daughter; indeed, Ella Murtha’s broader project of curating her mother’s legacy provides the film’s form, with Ella gathering memories from a series of Tish’s old family, friends, tutors and peers, often at an outdoor table or with a pint. This ad hoc listening tour initially feels a little lumpen, but Tish’s younger sister Eileen, and three of her brothers – frequent subjects of her photos, now etched with a lifetime’s toil – bring character and intimacy.

Murtha herself remains an elusive presence, freeze-framed in the past – there’s no movie footage of her. But insert enactments of domestic downtime with a model against beige backdrops, face unseen, evoke a sense of inner life and the trappings of the time. And Murtha’s diaries, read by Maxine Peake, capture her lucid, determined voice almost as powerfully as her photos.

‘I want to photograph a policeman kicking kids,’ she told her prospective university tutor David Horn – the shortest winning interview pitch ever, he chuckles. She conceptualised her work with similar incision. Murtha’s conviction ‘that the fundamental value of the medium is its capacity to provide direct, accurate and vital records of the conditions, events and experience that shape our lives’ is an indelible credo. When, midway through, the film quotes Murtha at length castigating the ‘spectre of enforced idleness’ and ‘squandering of a whole generation of human potential’, ‘vandalism on a grand scale’ from which ‘barbaric and reactionary forces in our society will not be slow to make political capital’, her perception clearly stretches beyond the early-1980s moment.

Years later, Murtha was similarly eloquent in a funding pitch for a project on Middlesbrough’s maligned multicultural community, which she hoped would ‘validate lives [and] empower them to challenge decision-making processes that all too often reject their views’, as well as regenerate interest in her own career. Her application, the film tersely notes, was rejected by the Arts Council of England.
Nick Bradshaw, Sight and Sound, December 2023

Documenting Your Community
Photography project, ‘Documenting Your Community,’ invites you to be inspired by Tish Murtha and take your own photos of your community, capturing life in contemporary Britain. You don’t need to be a professional photographer – we’d love to see photos that capture your local shopkeeper or people in the park or pub.

The British Culture Archive, in association with Modern Films and supported by the BFI, will showcase a range of work on its website that shows the breadth of modern life today. If you’d like to be part of this photography project, then all you have to do is post your photo on Instagram and tag it #tishmurthafilm with a line or story about what your photo is about. You can also submit your photo via

The photo copyright remains with you, and by tagging the photo, you will be permitting us to post the photo online on The British Culture Archive website. The photo must be original and taken by you, or you have sought permission to use it. The photo must also be appropriate and not contain any offensive content. We will not sell or distribute the content. At the end of the project, we may produce a printed programme of a selection of photos submitted and will contact you for permission to use.

If you have any questions, contact us at

Modern Films

This film’s release is supported in part by the British Film Institute’s National Lottery-funded Audience Award. As part of this, we ask that you take a few minutes to fill out this survey and help us understand the film’s audience better, as well as improve future screenings.

Director: Paul Sng
©: Demon Snapper Productions Ltd
Production Company: Freya Films
In association with: Hopscotch Films, Velvet Joy Productions
Supported by: the National Lottery through Screen Scotland
Made with the support of: the BFI Doc Society Fund
In association with: BBC Arts, BBC England
Executive Producers: John Archer, Ella Murtha, Shanida Scotland, Hannah Bush Bailey, Mark Thomas, Dani Carlaw, Aisling O’Connor, Emma Cahusac
Producer: Jen Corcoran
Co-producer: Paul Sng
Associate Producers: Ariel Baska, Harley Hessel, Elton Murphy
Archive Producer: Kalbir Dhillon
Director of Photography: Hollie Galloway
Editors: Lindsay Watson, Angela Slaven
Production Designers: Siam Colvine, Richard Drew
Costume Designer: Siam Colvine
Composer: Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres
In loving memory of: Chris Killip, Glenn MurthaMik Critchlow

Maxine Peake (voice of Tish)
Shin-Fei Chen (Tish)
Ella Murtha
Gordon MacDonald
Eileen Murtha-Brown
Glenn Murtha
Jos Mahon
Bob Mahon
Dennis Birkwood
Ethel Cass
Chris Killip
Mark Murtha
David Hurn
David Swidenbank
Daisy Hayes
Carl Murtha
Mik Critchlow
Philip Herbert

UK 2023©
90 mins

A Modern Films release

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email