[?] - the use of [?] at the end of a particular word indicates that the word is pronounced with hesitance by the speaker

[!] - the use of [!] at the end of a particular word indicates that the word is pro- nounced with emphasis by the speaker


Text in green indicates extract from the conversations, voice overs or vocals taken directly from the film Handsworth Songs.


[heavy machinery cogs strenuously turn and clank]

[Elaine, speaking with a flattened out Brummie accent with the occasional West In- dian inflection by way of St Kitts on father's side and Jamaica on mother’s side] [calmly] In a museum, a Black attendant in uniform and peaked hat, watches the mighty rise and fall of a Victorian piston.

[Doomy synth music; a wind-like hiss swooshes in]

[Elaine continues]

Grainy, black and white, 16 mm. [metallic clanks reverberate, like a pulled string]

Yellow letters appear, divided by a white line. Handsworth. Songs.

[disjointed clanks punctuate over doomy, hissing synth]

His eyes follow the mechanism. Round. Up. Down. Left. Right. An arm churns, a wheel spins, cogs turn. His head tilts in time to the rotations.


[distant emergency siren wails in the background]

[Sarah, speaking with mixed-up Irish accent, partially anglicised, its edges blunted. Soft sound, even tone]

[informatively] Handsworth Songs is a major film by the Black Audio Film Collective. Produced in 1986, this experimental documentary processes archival footage and media reporting on the uprisings in 1980s London and Birmingham. It's an aesthetically complex and politically powerful work.

Slow Emergency Siren, Ongoing is a project that aims to make this still resonant film more and differently accessible. We commissioned an augmented audio description track and creative captions and consulted with caption and audio description users about how best to create new modes of accessing the film.

I'm Sarah Hayden, co-convener with LUX of the project. This audio documentary records a year-long collaborative process as we work together to develop and document creative forms of cross-modal translation. We were hoping to find forms that would be appropriate for Handsworth Songs.

[film reel begins to spin in the background]

[Sarah continues]

You'll hear the voice of audio-describer Elaine Lillian Joseph, speaking over the film's soundtrack, deliberating about word choices and phrasing in her script.

But first, Dr Clive Nwonka, a London-based academic specialising in Black British and African-American film, offers an introduction to Handsworth Songs. Clive explains why it's still so important today.

[film reel slowly stops spinning]


[Dr Clive Nwonka; a low range, deep voice tone with a slight grain]

[firmly with deliberation] The Black Audio Film Collective's Handsworth Songs is a landmark film from 1986 that explores Britain's narratives of racism and socio-economic laceration. [distant, disjointed industrial clanks bellow and reverberate as if in an echo chamber]

Directed by John Akomfrah, the film is a central text within the works of the Black Film Workshop Movement, a group of film collectives who had emerged in the early ‘80s with a shared set of stylistic and political sensibilities.

The political context of the 1980s is crucial to understanding the motivation and the nature of the text. The film performs a radical visual and narrational intervention into the dominant media narratives that distorted the realities of the Black conditions. This was a period of Black uprisings and rebellions against police violence and the social and eco- nomic oppressions of Thatcherism in Bristol in 1980 and in Brixton, Liverpool, Man- chester, Leeds and beyond in 1981. [distant, disjointed industrial clanks continue]

It is in the aftermath of the riots in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1985 that Handsworth Songs takes its lens towards producing a counter-hegemonic account of the racial har- assment existing within the Afro-Caribbean locale. But the film is also interested in situat- ing its analysis within the context of Britain's colonial history that continue to inform the Black presence within the nation.

Handsworth Songs exhibits a concerted rejection of the documentary realism that had become the dominant framing device for narrating the Black British conditioning, exchan- ging the othering and particularising of our existence and identities for a more expression- istic, poetic, and formal approach that could be understood as a political stance in itself. Handsworth Songs not only remains a high point in Black British film but occupies an es- sential position within British visual culture.

[disjointed, industrial clanks subside]


[heavy machinery cogs turn slowly with tension]

[Elaine, firmly] Watches the mighty rise and fall of a Victorian piston.

[hesitantly] Is this a piston?

[doomy synth music creeps in, hissing and clanking] [wonderingly] What is this? Also what's the scale?


[Elaine voice fades into the background, as she continues deliberating]

[Sarah, warmly]

This is Elaine drafting her audio description. Elaine Lillian Joseph is a freelance audio-de- scriber from Birmingham with Caribbean heritage. [strenuous, disjointed clanks punc- tuate over doomy synth music] She describes for TV, cinema and live shows.

[with attentiveness, Elaine continues drafting words faintly in the background]

[Sarah continues]

Elaine specialises in experimental films, gallery exhibitions and dance, but also loves to provide live description of cabaret nights. Elaine and I meet in a busy café to check in.


[in a busy cafe, people chitchat and dishes clatter in a background]

[Sarah’s and Elaine’s lively voices rise above the noise in an engaging conversation]

[Sarah, excitedly]

How is it all?

How is it going? How is the actual scripting going?

[Elaine, brightly with enthusiasm]

I just like, okay… Take for example the first - the first description, I rewrote that — I don’t even know how many times. I'd like pick a word that I'd be like: ‘No, not that word this word’, and then eventually return to the first word. [chuckles]

I have done a looot of research. [laughs]

[Sarah with a smile]

I know, I could really feel that. Yes, so much!


I found a lot of the original clips from like British Pathé and other archives.

[loud background bangs, as if emptying a coffee pod]

[Sarah with interest]

Do you have any idea what this like museum is?

[Elaine with a hint of a smile and disappointment]

Nooo. [laughs]


Isn't it funny?

[Elaine with a smile]

I am still researching.


Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[Elaine, enthusiastically]

So I know the film that… that it’s from - -

is this amazing film from the 60s, but I have no clue [!] what that machine is--

[Sarah, curiously]

[Elaine, friendly with a smile]

Yes, Brummies call it Pigeon Park.

Yeah. So it's just the park that surrounds the Cathedral. I can't even tell you the name of the official square. --


- - Yeah, yeah, yeah…


- - Yeah, I've literally never known it as anything else.


But then much better that it’s Pigeon Park.


Yeah… [with consideration] Like trying to add that extra touch of making it feel more local, but explaining.


[Conversation fades, Elaine's calm voice surfaces] [Elaine, speaking slowly, emphasising each word]

Find the rhythm.

[curiously] So what is the rhythm of that bit?

[background hustle and bustle; birds squawk in havoc] [Elaine makes sounds, counting rhythm]

Ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba. Da-da, da-da-da

[Elaine speaking softly, slightly above whisper, in deep thought]

Birds ascend and descend …

[higher than whisper, with more emphasis] The birds ascend and descend to treetops in the colloquially known, Pigeon Park. Birmingham Cathedral stands in silhouette amid the trees.

[background hustle and bustle continues; birds squawk, people shout]

[Elaine's slightly lower-tone voice gains strength, speaking with impact]

In Handsworth, onlookers and police have congregated outside boarded up shops. [haunting, angsty synth music lurks in] Suddenly everyone flees and the camera cap- tures their running legs.

[background distorted voice repeats as the angsty music continues; Elaine speaks over it]

’There're still remains’ ’There're still remains’ ’There're still remains’ ’There're still remains’

[Elaine] More footage shows rioters lobbing brick missiles.

'There're still remains' 'There're still remains' 'There're still remains' 'There're still remains'

[Elaine's voice becomes more distinct and firm, speaking in higher pitch]

In Handsworth onlookers and police have congregated outside boarded up shops. [people chatter in the background] Suddenly everyone flees and the camera captures their running legs.

[Faint voice surfaces; Elaine speaks over]

It must have been a scary experience

More footage shows rioters lobbing brick missiles. [unsettled crowd boos and shouts in disapproval] [sharp whistle blows]


[faint music plays in the background of a busy cafe]

[Sarah, curiously]

What about the description of the protesters? [inquiringly] Have you kind of come down on a certain set of terms that you're happy to use or...

[Elaine, tentatively]

I-I think so. Still a work in progress.

[in reflective voice tone] But, I think that largely, I’ve made a distinction between West Indian migrants. Umm… I think, I might have even decided to not use ‘Caribbean’. Any of the archival footage that's like from the ‘50s onwards [?] then I'd say ‘West Indian mi- grant’, umm… and then when it's from the ‘80s, so it's like contemporary to the film then it's ‘Black protesters’, - -

[rapt cross-talk]




- - or ‘South Asian’. [ruminatively] But that's really difficult [!]. And also just even saying the word ‘protesters’--


I know --


--rather than like ‘rioters’, or ...

-- or ‘demonstrator’ [chuckles gently] Yeah.


Even like relative to the kind of, you know, when you're...

[voices slowly become submerged under bellowing metallic clanks and con- sequently fade]


[hostile, metallic clanks bellow and reverberate; cold wind gusts beneath] [Sarah]

Trevor Mathison is a founding member of Black Audio Film Collective and is the artist re- sponsible for Handsworth Songs’ distinctive soundscape.

[hostile, metallic clanks continue to bellow and reverberate; cold wind gusts be- neath]

[Trevor; a low range, grainy voice tone, speaking in quite melodic and casual man- ner]

So, I was doing a lot of the recording of interviews and some location stuff.

Then, later on, I started to experiment with some of the pieces that I recorded, some of the outtakes and atmos and seeing if I could make those into sonic templates that could be fitted underneath certain sections. [disjointed, metallic clanks gain strength, punc- tuating one after another]

My job was not to try and compete with music that's in the film.

It's finding a way of actually enhancing the dialogue, [clanks reverberate with impact, as if in an echo chamber] and the mood, and the set pieces, getting energy into the film [!]. So that's the magic of it… I think is a layering.

There's other things underneath it or on either side of it. So it's made up of different sorts of atmospheres. [gradual, airy hiss swooshes in. Left to right. Up and down, and fades]

It’s growing out of or growing into a different sonic landscape.


[high notes, as if a hampered weeping vocalisation, drag and wail in a sorrowful lament]

[muddy distortion ripples beneath mournful notes and distant clanking]

[Elaine, voice tone becomes lower with distinct grain]

A young white man pulls a milk float down the street. He passes policemen who are guarding an adjacent road. Smoke smoulders behind them. -

A chase. A lone Black teen hurtles down a road.

[Lamentful notes turn into synth music, dragging and heaving beneath metallic clanks, ongoing]

[now speaking in higher pitch with gravity, Elaine’s voice gains velocity]

A Black teen bolts down a road, outruns four policemen, misses the slash of a baton, is brought down by a shield. They kettle him in, officer after officer after officer, piling on as he struggles to rise.

They, now eight against one, shove him against a wall, where children are sitting and watching.

[Elaine, slowly with strong emphasis] Dodging. - - Four policemen.

[Elaine’s voice drops in pitch and volume, as if inner speech]

Narrowly misses the slash of another copper's baton.


[Lamentful synth music continues to drag and heave beneath metallic clanks, ongo- ing]

[Trevor, firmly]

When the guy is running down the road, and the milk cart goes past, and the police are chasing the guy, he is being hunted [!].

And it was the sound of humpback whales that we've been playing around with. That was the through-line, the lament [!].


[Lamentful synth music continues to drag and wail beneath metallic clanks] [Elaine, firmly with velocity and weight]

In eerie slow motion the Black teen bolts down a road, outruns four policemen, misses the slash of a baton is brought down by a shield. They kettle him in, officer after officer after officer, piling on. One officer has his arm clamped around his neck.

[synth music subsides with reverberation]


[Busy cafe noise; people chat in the background] [Sarah, pensively]

What about like this appalling, I mean, the fact that you have capitalised this in the note about the horror of that scene, and, it is just so appalling [!]. And it is like the most striking

… moment of violence in a film that is largely about these aggressions but doesn’t visual- ise them in that way.

[faint pop music plays in a background]

[Elaine, tentatively in reflective voice tone]

Yeah, it's just like such a weighty scene. And that, umm... note that I wrote to myself in capitals, I do that. That wasn't like, I guess, like special to this. I often write warnings to myself --

[rapt cross-talk]


- - Okay.


-- or something…so I have to watch the same thing over and over again.

[Sarah with understanding]

Yeah, yeah.

[Elaine, in reflective voice tone]

So, just a warning to myself like —


Yeah —


-- this is like a --




[indicatively] But then, I thought maybe, I just need to describe the materiality [?].

So like, for example, that this is grainier than previous footage or this is in colour, or it's not in colour. [sudden loud background bangs, like emptying a coffee pod] [wonder- ingly] I just don't know what's useful sometimes? Like what's the most useful thing.


Yeah. No, absolutely. I suppose it’ll depend on like what people's experience… or... knowledge of site is in watching it, and knowledge of just like cinematography, and all of that vocabulary. [conversation fades into the background]



We asked artist and performer Mickel Smithen to be our consultant on the audio descrip- tion. Mickel tells us about the experience of accessing Handsworth Songs via Elaine's audio description.

[Mickel; a low range, warm voice tone, speaking in a fond manner]

I mean, it’s a really moving film to listen to, and to experience, like audibly experience [!]. I didn't need to look at the screen. I could just listen and hear the music and hear the little interviews and take in the descriptions of people, and the streets.

[Sarah, inquiringly]

When you're saying that, Mickel, it makes me want to ask you, as an audio description user, what do you expect or what do you want from audio description more broadly?

What are you hoping the audio description will do or what are you hoping it won't do?

[Mickel, indicatively]

I'm hoping it's clear. I'm hoping it's expressive, so it makes me want to listen [!]. I’m hop- ing that overall it's well balanced and there isn't any interference [?] with the… with the performers. [?]

[firmly] The audio-describer is not trying to shout over the performers or the film.


[film camera rolls faintly]

[Elaine, serenely]

A montage of luggage laden West Indians arriving, travelling, waiting, gives way to ‘80s Birmingham. In slow motion, a Black woman fades down a rundown backstreet past overgrown railway arches.

[camera rolling subsides]


[background noise of a busy cafe]

[Elaine, in reflective voice tone]

I guess, I always find endings the most difficult. [chuckles]

[conclusively] I re-wrote that the most times for sure, trying to... think about what was the most important thing in that image [?] Trying to make it feel kind of, it’s quite ghost- like, I guess. [?]

[sudden slam; ghostly antique clock counts the hour]


[Sarah, curiously with a smile]

I'm just looking back Anita, your penultimate caption 'Distorted crackling bubbles over engine like chugging.’ That's got so much of like the combination, I think across all Tre- vor's work, combining these kinds of industrial sounds that are made very abstracted and distorted, and become kind of unfamiliar. And these natural sounds that also get pro- cessed into seeming also like, unclose to us or something, and how those are brought together into one sound.

[inquiringly] Do you want to say anything about the ending of the film, or like trying to capture those sounds beyond the end of the voiceover?

[shaking rhythm under gently blowing panpipes, like an engine chugging]


The last I would say 5 minutes, it was like climaxing, right? There was a lot of stories and offscreen voices, and then, especially the last voiceover was so powerful as well.

You had this kind of like, chugging rhythm present throughout the voiceover, and then suddenly, when the voiceover ended, this additional sound came in.


[a calm, higher-pitched voice tone, speaking deliberately with gravity, as if in predic- tion]

In time, let them bear witness to the process by which the living transforms the dead into partners in struggle.

[distant blasts join and go off one-by-one]

[Distorted bubbling boils and surfaces over engine-like chugging] [Anita]

The person on screen was walking away from the camera view, and then going towards something.

But then, at the same time, you’re introduced with this nuanced sound, which is kind of like rippling and bubbling, as if something was still boiling [?].

And then, I think the last caption says that... 'Distant blasts go off one by one' and it's on- going.

[in reflective voice tone] What we wanted to communicate is those feelings and that this tension still stays. And then within the last scene … because then you go to credits, and then the sound changes, like it switches the mode slightly, right? And because that scene is also not that long, I think it's like six seconds, so I think what we were trying to do is kind of give justice to this sound to stay with people, you know, for a little bit longer.

And then the - - how to also capture those nuances of the sound and this rippling and bubbling.

[distorted bubbling boils over engine-like chugging; distant blasts go off one-by- one, and slowly begin to fade]


[people chatter excitedly in the background of a larger room]


We're at the launch of Slow Emergency Siren, Ongoing at LUX, the UK agency for the support and promotion of artists working with moving image.

It's the first public screening of Handsworth Songs with audio description and captions.

[faint voices chatter in the background with excitement]

Elaine and I are on stage with Benjamin Cook, the Founding Director of LUX. I asked Ben about access work in the specific context of artists’ film.

[Audience voices surface through faintly]

- I really like that.

[in a quiet room]

[Ben, speaking with Southern English/Home Counties accent; the voice is mid range, quite diffuse with grain and texture, and relaxed-sounding pace]

[calmly with passion] You know, one of the kind of critical things that we wanted to do was to really think through the creativity and labour that is involved in making a work ac- cessible.

What's interesting, I think, about artists’ works and the works like Handsworth Songs is they are very layered works. It's not just a kind of clear indexical relationship between what it's showing or what it's describing.

[Sarah, at speed and with energy]

And I suppose that there's a tendency when audiences that are unfamiliar think about captioning or audio description to think of description as a flattening, as a kind of neces- sarily something linear, necessarily something kind of simple that can only ever kind of make… make straight and flat and sort of and obvious.

[with appreciation] And that to me, I think, like constantly fascinating majesty of what you do Elaine, and what Care-Fuffle have done is to never flatten in the description, but instead to amplify and activate the kind of the poetics of the work of what Black Audio Film Collective did with the archive.

[with passion and emphasis] You know, it is it’s a poetic treatment of the archive. It's not in any way a straight documentary.


Being able to have the time over the year meant that I could think of the different kind of layers of the film, so I could think about…

[in reflective voice tone] How do I want to respond to the narration in the film? How do I want to respond to the dub remixes as well, and how do I want to respond to the images themselves and a lot of the text that we see [?].

So, I really played around [!], [with a smile] which I'm sure you saw in all of my edits.

But I really tried to play around with different registers, trying to kind of mimic the voices that have just come before where I insert myself, trying to give space to some of the echoes as well, letting those echoes kind of speak for themselves.

[Sarah with force and emphasis]

What you're saying just there really relates to the sense that I really want to bring out about giving due time to some things. You know, there!s a real social purpose to this work. There's a real need for this to be kind of factored in at the beginning of how artists are conceiving of what they're making. The beginning of how the organisations that are fund- ing that work, that are supporting that work, go about planning for how it's made and how it's to be presented. And there's no other real way, I think, that we can think about making work anymore, once we realise that these are capacities that are there, that these are pro- fessionals that we can work with, artists that we can work with.

Umm… It feels kind of impossible to turn your back on that and go back to kind of presum- ing to make work that already demarcates a very specific audience and an audience that presumes that audience to process information in the same way. To receive it via the same sensory channels that, you know, basically expects one body, one mind and one way of being in an art work, of being in culture [!]

[Ben, informatively with emphasis]

You know, a lot of artists that working with moving image, they are intentionally working with different kinds of register, with different kinds of information release, with different kind of tonalities and affect [!].

And often, I meet this kind of resistance where people will see this as, 'Oh, this is almost like a pulling back the curtain on the work and, and like revealing everything in a way that I didn't intend it to be revealed.’

So I think, you know, the work that we have to do in this particular area is much more sophisticated. Again, it has to be about thinking really creatively about how this isn’t like an addition to a work, but it becomes kind of an intrinsic part of the act of creation.

And one thing that we're talking about at the moment is working through a number of other historical works to create a kind of taxonomy of positions [!] that you can take, which eventually, hopefully could become a guide, like a creative guide, because again, there's no one route through things.

[wonderingly] Perhaps, at least what we can do is start to continue this kind of creative conversation, really. And get people, get artists really inspired by the possibilities of this thing, like how you can work with these things in a way that works with the work.

[Elaine, keenly]

Could I just add to that?

I was just thinking of when I've worked with artists in the past who haven’t really under- stood audio description, and I've met that resistance as well. And just how powerful col- laboration is that we can work together to find a common kind of intention [?].

[Sarah with a smile and excitement]

I’ll only just add one tiny note on that Elaine, just to say that like my first encounter with your work was from Jenny Brady, that Ben has put me in touch with.

And Jenny was like bubbling over with excitement because you had collaborated with her on this audio description for recent works of hers and how she described what that was for her as an artist, just kind of, to encounter her own work anew and in this different way, and how it had kind of, propelled her and her own practice to think about her moving image work differently, and that it was something that, again, she couldn't kind of step away from

that once she had encountered what it was to experience and to make work in that kind of collaborative way, that it had changed everything for her.

[at speed] And, I think that these kinds of discussions we've had about resistance or nervousness, about description are - - can sometimes be sort of, can be helped along by an idea that what you're trying to produce is an equivalence of access. To give an equival- ent level of access to a blind listener to Handsworth Songs, [with passion] is to also con- vey the aesthetics of the work. It's to convey the form of the work. It's to convey the confu- sion that it produces. It's to convey the kind of sense of tumult and cacophony. It's to con- vey all of what the work is. Not the story [!], the straight story that's never there in the first place.

But this equivalence of access and that doing that properly [!], doing that with real people who are collaboratively working with artists, brings about something that's never remotely simple but is instead and, as Ben says, is just really, really exciting.


[slow and doom synth music creeps in; machinery cogs turn strenuously beneath]

[disjointed clanks vibrate, like a pulled string, over doomy, uneasy synth] [Sarah, warmly]

On that theme, I asked Trevor, if experiencing Handsworth Songs with audio description and captions altered his own experience of the film.


It's like the X-ray, I guess. [industrial clanks bellow and reverberate in the back- ground] Like seeing beyond the surface and seeing into the piece, and finding a way of bringing that into play, but also in an artistic or creative sort of way as well.

[with passion and emphasis] So you don't see it as a dry, sterile relationship, but there's something that's capable of taking on board the challenge, and making the audience or people engage with it in a similar sort of way.

It's always interesting to see, like out of many years of it being made and now people are engaging wit it again, and finding different things in the pieces or just - - or even the same energy as it was when we made it. That it has currency still [!], because that's the sort of thing that I'm finding interesting is that with, we’re rerunning in a similar situation, but we just change a few characters and you see that similar things have been said. What motiv- ated us to make the film is still amongst us.

[disjointed, industrial clanks subside]


[soft, whimsical music sways in a dreamlike dance, low notes of a brass instrument gently punctuate, ongoing]


Our newly, differently accessible version of Handsworth Songs is available for hire from LUX. The creative captions and audio description scripts are published together with an essay on the film by Clive Nwonka and an essay by me on Elaine's audio description.

This publication can be accessed as a large print book designed by Daly & Lyon, or in ac- cessibly designed website form at www.slowemergencysiren.org.uk

This audio documentary was made by sound artist Hannah Kemp-Welch.

With thanks to Elaine Lillian Joseph, Trevor Mathison, Anita Wolska-Kaslow and Care- Fuffle Working Group, Dr Clive Nwonka. Sonia Hinds, Mickel Smithen, Benjamin Cook and all at LUX, and Hannah Kemp-Welch.

A text transcript of this audio documentary is available from the LUX website. Slow Emer- gency Siren: Accessing Handsworth Songs was funded by the AHRC as part of a re- search project called Voices in the Gallery.

[whimsical music slowly subsides]