Archive: ‘The Hills are Alive’ 1989, Channel 4 – and various works on paper, 90s –

I moved from London to Cumbria in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl accident. Living with a small child in a former water board cottage in the Pennines I was concerned about the levels of Caesium-137 in our spring water which drained from the peaty soil. Sheep were being monitored in Cumbria but there was little interest in the people living in the fells.

Heavily contaminated rain had fallen particularly in the western fells of the Lake District – which coincidentally was the area close to the notorious Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. I was not allowed to get my child monitored but was able to get monitored myself in Whitehaven. I was told I had noticeable levels of caesium-137 but not as high as some of the hill farming people. I then proposed a documentary with the hill farming community in the western fells, a community which had long suffered as a result of accidents and discharges from Sellafield, most notably from the 1951 fire which spread contamination across a wide area.

Both Channel Four and Border TV backed the project known as ‘The Hills are Alive’. I undertook extensive research, and shooting over a year, conducted extensive low key interviews with farming families who proved to be angry, well informed and incisive. One farmer had a young daughter who had survived leukaemia and he became a key and moving contributor to the film. He had also worked at Sellafield for a while and had witnessed the significant release of radioactive gas from an unreported accident.

‘The Hills are Alive’ was highly acclaimed and nominated for the Prix Italia.

Works on paper

‘Laying Cumbria to Waste’, Watercolour & ink, 1991

This cartoon was a response to a BNFL broadsheet advertisement in which they made the farcical claim that the radioactive legacy at Sellafield was insignificant.

‘Phaethon, Sellasoft’ Watercolour, ink, graphite and oil on paper, 2011
Phaethon # 5, Watercolour, ink, graphite and oil on paper, 2011

During the process of making the film I learned a great deal about the reality behind the mask of BNFL media relations. The satirical image at the top lampooned a BNFL broadsheet advertisement.

The image below used an artist’s impression of the proposed NIREX underground nuclear dump – in the context of the controversial claims of the epidemiologist Martin Gardner that children of men exposed to radiation while working at Sellafield had twice the normal risk of developing certain types of cancer.

‘Gardner’s World’ Watercolour, stainless steel, glass, 1997