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Nightcleaners at Bertha DocHouse

Saturday 2 November 2019, by Benjamin Hollis

Nightcleaners – An oddity of its time that captures the British working class struggle of the early 1970s

« Nightcleaners » is an early 70s observational account of London’s female office cleaners embroiled in an arduous struggle for fair pay and fair treatment by their male and middle-class bosses. The film has an admirable grip on the public conscience, garnering sustained attention from activists and doc-lovers alike over the years and prompting a well-received screening at Bertha Dochouse on Thursday. Sally Alexander, a leading figure in the Cleaners Action Group during the campaign, was alongside Humphry Trevelyan, a member of the film’s production team, to introduce it.

Starting life as a leafleting campaign to unionise the cleaners, the film snowballed into a four-year project, resulting in a 90 minute piece that in 1975 at its time of release, baffled its subjects.

As she described on Wednesday, this was not the punchy campaign film Sally had hoped to unveil to her fellow activists as a recruitment tool. What Humphrey and the rest of the Berwick Street Collective had produced was an experimental, patient and deeply artistic piece. Although that seemed to stymie its purpose at the time, its qualities have granted it the longevity and admiration that it enjoys to this day.

What the film does particularly well is demonstrate the tedium, monotony and physicality of the women’s work. With painstaking precision and repetition, the women are shown scouring the offices of London’s high-rises, floor by floor, desk by desk, toilet by toilet. In the early stages of the film, the audience is only spared from the experience to be given excerpts of infuriating conversations with the bosses, who show a bewildering lack of understanding for their employees. It’s revealed that one boss has never been seen by any of his cleaners in over five years of work.

With despair, the women describe the helplessness of their situations. Too poor to clothe their children and too busy with childcare to take regular work, they are forced to work unthinkable hours on little pay, most of them surviving on just two hours of sleep a day. Worst of all, they don’t have the time, energy or courage to stand up to their employers. Frequent close-ups of the women’s faces show a fatigue that is etched deep into their features.

We then discover former cleaner May Hobbs who, assisted by members of the Women’s Liberation Movement, gradually persuades the women to consider mounting a resistance against their bosses and increasingly against the patriarchal system in which they find themselves.

As the women continue to encounter obstacles, chairing desperate meeting after desperate meeting, the picture widens to capture a snapshot of working class British society at a fascinating time. Hope of a better future is spreading amongst workers who, like the nightcleaners, had once abandoned themselves to their fate. The words « socialism », « equality » and even « communism » are cautiously being spread amongst co-workers as protests increase out on the streets and trade unions grow in power and influence.

« Nightcleaners » is a beautiful and artistic interpretation of class struggle in its clearest form. It shows an admirable sensitivity for its subjects and successfully translates the acute pain they and other working people’s situation brings them.

The sequel, « ’36 to ’77 », will be showing at Bertha Dochouse on Wednesday the 6th of November, followed by a Q&A with the audience.

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