Legacy programme announced for award-winning film telling astonishing North East stories from the Somme

The award-winning film Asunder, which premiered at the Sunderland Empire on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016, has been awarded funding by 14 -18 NOW for an extended run of screenings and a project with Sunderland schools.

The legacy programme will be delivered by Sunderland Culture and will include screenings of the film and the soundtrack at local and national venues, along with an educational resource project for Sunderland schools. Full details of the schools programme, delivered in partnership with Sunderland Music Hub, and screening dates will be announced in the spring.

Asunder tells the powerful story of the North East’s involvement in one of the most traumatic battles in military history through largely unknown personal experiences. 

Written and produced by respected music writer, film producer, curator and member of best-selling pop band Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley, the film was directed and co-produced by award-winning artist and filmmaker Esther Johnson and is narrated by Kate Adie OBE with Alun Armstrong as the voice of the Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette. The soundtrack to the film was scored by two renowned North East bands: Field Music and Warm Digits, performed with Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters.

Bob Stanley explains, “Asunder gave us a chance to dig into some rarely accessed film archives and tell some astonishing stories. At school, I learnt about the Somme through the eyes of the military and war poets. What I was interested in was telling the story through the people left behind, away from the front, getting on with their daily lives in straitened times. 

“There were food shortages, riots, suffragettes smashing the windows of tea rooms, and ‘conchies’ locked up in medieval conditions. Meanwhile, fish and chip shops stayed open and women’s football boomed, and people still got married. I wanted to create a film and a soundtrack that showed the humour, magic and mundanity, as well as the tragedy.”  

Artist and filmmaker, Esther Johnson, saysI wanted to focus on the stories that you don’t hear about – moments of magic during the horror, attempts at finding normality in abnormal circumstances – to find a new way of understanding the war. 

“Much of my work is concerned with uncovering hidden social histories, so I was particularly interested in making a film that gave prominence to those who may not have been given space in the history books. The narrative of Asunder is woven from actual testimonies in addition to material I found in the British Library’s 1914-18 copies of the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. In researching rarely seen archival film I was keen to find footage of WW1 that you might not expect. The abundance of research material I have delved into has been deeply moving and inspirational.” 

Themes that Esther uncovered in the film range from football to suffrage; stories of everyday life told through a combination of archive material, new footage shot in the North East, music and a poetic narrative inspired by oral history audio recordings.

Some of the characters in the film include Sgt George Thompson – a transport driver in the 7th Durham Light Infantry whose story was dubbed ‘the original War Horse’ after his diary told the tale of both him and his horse surviving the Somme; Bella Reay – a young munitions worker during World War One and also top striker in Blyth Spartans Ladies FC scoring 133 goals in one season and going on to play for England; Lizzie Holmes – the first woman in Horden to wear trousers, challenging convention and inspiring other women factory workers; and Norman Gaudie –  a Sunderland AFC player who was jailed in Richmond Castle in May 1916 for being conscientious objector on the grounds of his religion. 

Field Music’s David Brewis says the Mercury Prize nominated band were keen to get involved, “The chance to write something completely new and play it with an orchestra doesn’t come around very often. And as we heard about the plans for the film, the idea of telling a more complete story about our hometown and how the war affected it was something we wanted to be part of.” 

Councillor John Kelly, Sunderland City Council’s portfolio Holder for Communities and Culture, said: “Asunder was a huge success when it premiered in 2016, and 14-18 NOW’s award is testimony to the quality of the work, and of course, to the enduring personal stories of the people within it. We are pleased that we can continue the legacy of the Centenary Commemorations and ensure schools and wider audiences can share this remarkable film and music. 

Asunder was the first North East co-commission in the national 14-18 NOW programme – extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War, as part of the UK’s official centenary commemorations. 

The film premiered with a live performance by Field Music, Warm Digits, Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters on 10 July at Sunderland Empire. It was also performed live at Barbican in London, and screened at Home in Manchester, as well as multiple local and national venues during 2016-17.  It won a Journal Culture Award in 2017.