Tish Murtha Portrait (1983) | by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha,

Tish Review: Memorable Photos, Tragic Life

Documenting daily life in Thatcher's England

6 mins read

(England, 2023)
Dir: Paul Sng


A documentary made out of love and respect for the film’s subject, Tish is not only a portrait of a brilliant photographer but also a moving evocation of the disaster that was visited upon Northeast England during the time of Margaret Thatcher. Director Paul Sng (Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché) has worked closely with Ella Murtha to reveal the life of her mother Patricia Anne “Tish” Murtha, who used photography as a tool to focus on the harsh inequities of the country’s class system, which went from bad to worse during the Thatcher era, when the social net constructed in post-World War Two England was torn asunder by her right wing Tory regime. Young, beautiful, and fierce, Tish had a poet’s eyes and a humanist’s heart, and she used her talents in service of her people, the proud impoverished lot who lived in Tyneside, the industrial region dominated by Newcastle, where the miners and factory workers had their unions devastated by Thatcher’s military and police.

The film uses the extraordinary photos made by Tish, then in her early 20s, to recapture the lives of youths in Newcastle, particularly in the tough, working class Elswick district. The Murtha family—Tish was one of ten children—lived there, so it was a natural focus for her work. Noteworthy in the photos is their concentration on the fun that the kids were having, jumping out of windows in abandoned buildings onto old mattresses, playing cards and sports on abandoned streets: finding joy in the simplest of things. Tish clearly loved unguarded expressions on faces, using them to express the quiet grace and charm that young people so often possess. It makes for a sharp contrast with her images of older boys—often punks—and adults, who show their anger and fear to her compassionate eye.

Tish studied photography with David Hurn, a legendary Magnum social documentarian and teacher, who still recalled her precocity and extraordinary eye decades later for Sng’s film. Inspired by Hurn, she spent the late 1970s documenting marginalised communities in Tyneside, creating two exhibitions, one on Youth Unemployment and the other on the local Juvenile Jazz Band, which stirred up so many questions about the treatment of the area’s poor undereducated kids that it was even a subject of debate in the House of Commons. With unprecedented access to the district’s children due to her being “one of them,” Tish was able to employ her photography to attempt to make proper changes in the district. Unfortunately, nothing meaningful could take place in Tyneside during that conservative era.

Sng’s film follows Tish to London, where she spent years hanging out with, and making photos of the prostitutes, addicts, and assorted characters living there in the mid Eighties. Her major exhibition from that time, London By Night, documented the denizens of Soho, to critical acclaim. But by the late Eighties, Tish returned to her family in the Northeast accompanied by her baby, Ella. There, she attempted to make a go of it as a photographer with little success. Stubborn and uncompromising, Tish couldn’t find consistent work in photography, and she wasn’t the type to end up as a teacher. Though she tried to continue working in her field, the life of a documentary photographer didn’t work out for Tish. She died too young, a day before her 57th birthday, in 2013.

Tish left her greatest ally to fight for her reputation—her daughter Ella. Uncannily resembling her mother, Ella Murtha conducts the interviews that invigorate the film with accounts of Tish and Tyneside back in the Seventies. Along with the photos, which she has meticulously preserved, Ella’s contemporary discussions impart a dramatic texture to Sng’s documentary. They also give a feeling of tragedy and raw emotion to the film since it’s so clear that many held Tish in the highest regard and miss her to this day.

Thanks to Ella, some of Tish’s finest photographs have been published in three books and she has been included in recent exhibitions in England, including one presented by Grayson Perry. Her work is now in the collections of the Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. And she is the subject of this entirely worthy film by Paul Sng, which captures the brilliance of Tish as a photographer and the tragedy of someone with an even greater promise that remained unfulfilled.

Tish opens in theatres beginning May 17.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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