Television History at the Social Supermarket: Feeding Coventry its archival past

We’re always on the lookout for unusual projects, and this one – where Coventrians gathered, socially distanced in a social supermarket, to watch images of their city from the television archives – really caught our attention. We were struck by the unique combination of food, culture and community history that the Foleshill Screenings offered, inviting local residents in to enjoy a packed lunch and an equally packed screening programme of television clips from deep in the archives that showcased Coventry’s past.

The event came about as a collaboration between several different organisations, spearheaded by Kat Pearson, a PhD researcher with the Centre for Television Histories at the University of Warwick, along with colleagues from the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), Coventry University and staff and volunteers at Foleshill Community Centre. Foleshill Community Centre is an especially significant setting for the screenings because the ownership of the centre was recently transferred from the Council to the community via the organisation Feeding Coventry – and it’s now home to the city’s first social supermarket.

When I first heard about the project, I was intrigued by the apparent incongruity of television history in the social supermarket. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. In many ways, television and food are a natural pairing. Both are a part of the dailiness of our routines, helping us structure our lives, bringing pleasure and nourishment. Both are strongly connected to memory through their activation of multiple senses. Both can transport us through time and space, bringing us closer to other people and to our own past.

The social supermarket

Foleshill is an ethnically-diverse suburb to the north of Coventry city centre in the West Midlands, UK. Feeding Coventry’s steerage has allowed the community centre to transform from an abandoned space into a thriving food and community hub, supporting their mission for a “food-resilient city where nobody goes hungry”. A social supermarket is a community-led enterprise, where for the membership fee of £4 per week, families can get a bag of food that would cost around £20 if purchased in the shops. Unlike a food bank, the social supermarket model is one where customers can come in and fill the bag themselves, selecting the items that they need and like. Where COVID restrictions allow, the supermarket is trying to operate in this way, offering a balanced selection of food, including options from local community producers such as rhubarb from the allotments of Team Springboard and freshly baked loaves from the Pod.

Unlike food banks, you don’t need a voucher to access a social supermarket. The scheme aims to be a sustainable way to feed and support a household, but it’s also about more than just food – it’s about community and wellbeing too. As well as programmes to tackle holiday hunger and a community growing project, the centre is already running relaxation classes and free bike lessons. When restrictions are lifted, the plan is for the venue to host a community cafe, run cooking programmes and provide advice and mentoring services. By the end of the project, Feeding Coventry wants the community to take full ownership of the venture as a community asset.

The screenings

Organiser Kat saw the screenings, which took place in October 2020, as a way to celebrate the opening of the social supermarket. The community centre staff and volunteers also felt that it would be a good opportunity to attract and engage people that hadn’t visited before. The material for the screenings came from the MACE archive, with the help of senior curator Philip Leach. MACE is based at the University of Lincoln, and was set up in 2000 by Central Television, with a mission to collect, preserve and make accessible moving images that relate to the Midlands. Philip would ordinarily have attended the screening event and introduced the films in person, but because of coronavirus he did a video intro, where he was able to give the audience a peek into the physical archive.

Selecting the material

MACE is a huge archive of over 100,000 items, so selecting the right material was always going to be the team’s biggest challenge. Kat and Philip came up with two themes, inspired by the location of the screenings and Coventry’s City of Culture 2021 status: Coventry on Screen and Coventry Food and Drink. The Coventry on Screen films mostly dated from the 1980s, and looked at work, leisure and community in Foleshill at this time, including a visit to the community centre itself. The food and drink theme seemed to present itself naturally given the setting of the screenings, and included a visit to an award-winning Indian restaurant on the Foleshill Road from eighties Sunday morning show Here and Now.

Audience and community input

People were invited to the screenings by open invitation, and the age of audience members ranged from 17 up to 65+. Most came along because they had some connection to the community centre, which Kat thinks made the event special because “most people knew the area well, which made the discussion afterwards really interesting”. Having the discussion was a really important aspect of the screening both for the organisers and the attendees. “We were interested in hearing about people’s memories of the area and their reaction to seeing the archive films,” Kat says. Listening to the thoughts of residents also helped Kat in her work as a researcher. She tells me that seeing the films she and Philip had selected being enjoyed and chatted about by an audience really renewed her enthusiasm for her work in the archives.

In the discussion, people made connections between the films, the history of the area and the building, and thought about what this might mean for the community: “It was interesting to watch archives in a hall that has itself a lot of history but has not been used in years. It felt like a revival,” said one attendee. This shows the potential of the television archive to unlock those links between history and place, acting to build and strengthen community relationships.

Kat thinks people enjoyed all the films, but one in particular stood out to some attendees – a film which showed Ryton Organic Gardens in 1987. A number of those present were involved in or had worked at Ryton, so they felt a personal connection to this particular screening. Kat points out that this film had previously only been able to view in MACE’s archive in Lincolnshire and that this screening project allowed it to be digitised so it’s now available on their website. Her observation highlights one of the key successes of the project – putting the MACE television archive back in front of the eyes of the Midlands community that it belongs to.

What’s next for the project?

Kat promises that there is much more left to be uncovered in MACE’s vaults – but the difficulty will be how to showcase it. “There’s such a wealth of archive material about Coventry in MACE’s collection,” she enthuses. The original plan was for further screenings as Coventry heads into its City of Culture year, but coronavirus means that in-person events are looking less likely, so the project team are exploring online options. The social supermarket screenings were uploaded onto video-streaming platform Vimeo and have since received over 100 views. Digitising the material and making it available has clearly worked to make the films more accessible, but Kat has found that it’s much harder to get a discussion about them going online versus in person. She and Philip are currently trying to get creative with ways to make sure that they can get that conversation going during online screenings.

For now though, the legacy of the event is that the videos are out and being seen, and the archive is able to speak to the people it is there for – the residents of the Midlands. It’s able to connect them with their heritage – both geographical and televisual. And it’s been part of the ongoing metamorphosis of Foleshill Community Centre, built up from abandonment to community hub once again.

You can find out more about Kat’s research project here, and the screening video from the event is available to watch online thanks to the MACE archive. For more information about the social supermarket and Foleshill Community Centre you can contact Feeding Coventry or take a look at their Facebook page.

Banner Photo by Jeremy Yap

Article photo of the social supermarket shelves provided by Kat Pearson, PhD Researcher, Department of Film and Television Studies, University of Warwick

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