Profile of Jenny Barraclough: Won’t put her camera down—or shift from her Thames view
Jenny Barraclough says she’s semi-retired. But this creative film-maker just can’t seem to put the camera down or hang up the microphone.
She has a comfortable riverside home with perhaps one of the best views in London, set it its own grounds, where she teaches her grand-daughter the piano. They play classical and Abba together.
It seems a world away from what was once the shabby end of a desolate Thames waterfront on the Isle of Dogs just a few years ago.
But this idyllic spot facing Greenwich wasn’t so quiet in the Blitz when the Luftwaffe pounded the Millwall Docks and turned this loop in the river into the “District of the Dead” as the former World In Action producer discovered.
Elderly neighbours in the district who had survived the nightly air-raids 70 years ago had first-hand memories of what it was like.
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So Jenny recorded their memories for a 16-minute documentary which is now doing the rounds. The footage was screened at last week’s History Day at Cubitt Town library and at a ‘Forties’ night the week before.
The next part of her ‘project’ now is restoring an ack-ack gunsite at Mudchute city farm nearby, where four anti-aircraft batteries were placed in 1940 to protect the docks.
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She’s found a genuine eight-tonne acka-ack which she’s had transported from Shropshire that is currently being restored.
“I thought it would be nice for young people to learn about the Blitz,” Jenny explains.
“I was appalled when I researched and realised so many suffered—70 per cent of the homes on the Isle of Dogs became uninhabitable. It was known as the ‘District of the Dead.’
“I was intrigued by the wartime gun placements at Mudchute and hit on the idea of restoring them. A couple in Shropshire kept some ack-acks in a field and sold us a 3.7 gun for �2,500.”
But then came the hard bit—transporting it.
“I had to hire long loader,” she added. “But we couldn’t get it through and had to ask people to move their cars.
“Then we realised we needed a crane—fortunately Riney’s Haulage have one and hoisted the gun into the farm and even unbolted the rusty wheels for us.”
Jenny’s husband Michael, a consultant physician, designed and even built the nine-bedroom house, with its unique, panoramic view of the Thames and the Royal Naval College opposite.
They found the site in 1980 after the docks closed and advertised for people to come in with them to buy it.
“Developers tried to bribe us, but we wouldn’t sell,” she recalls. “My kitchen window has best view in London,” pointing across the river.
“But it was desolate at the time. Police used to drop by regularly to make sure we were alright.”
They now have the DLR, just 15 minutes to Tower Gate, two minutes to the Cutty Sark.
But back in the early 1980s, there was “just one bus every 30 minutes, the 56 to Mile End—that was it.”
The couple married in 1967 when Jenny was an up-and-coming film-maker and lived in Limehouse, next to David Owen’s house in Narrow Street.
But with no garden, they looked for a bigger place when the first of their four children arrived. They found an old, run-down paint factory at Cubitt Town and fell in love with the river view. Mike started self-build home group with 89 families.
It was not long before the Barracloughs were drawn into community politics, when the GLC’s abolition in 1986 meant the Mudchute farm losing its �86,000 Urban Aid funding and had developers snapping at its heels.
A public meeting voted to hold onto the lease. That’s when Michael says he “got catapulted in as chairman.” Today, it is Europe’s biggest and most successful urban farm project, largely thanks to volunteers like the Barracloughs.
Now they are adding heritage with a genuine ack-ack gun. Jenny is ready to film its restoration, perhaps for another documentary.
It is a far cry from the early days when she joined ITN as the only woman reporter in 1963.
“They thought women reporters should only cover fashion and flower shows—never real news like strikes and revolutions, international politics that I wanted to cover.”
She got her break joining Granada TV’s World in Action in 1964 as a producer, then went on to Rediffusion’s This Week and later joined BBC’s Man Alive where the first of many awards started rolling in.
Jenny made the ground-breaking ‘Gale is Dead’ in 1971, the tragic story of a girl from a children’s home who ended up a drug addict on the streets who died at 19. It won her a BAFTA, International Critics and Catholic Church’s Jury awards. Another 12 awards have followed in the years since.
“I have more or less stopped making films,” she says. “But there are always more things like Mudchute—so it never really stops.”
The Islanders have an accomplished international film-maker in their midst. They’ve got used to it. They know they could be on camera any moment.