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17 Apr

For decades I, like so many in the north-east, largely took Amber for granted; or worse, unthinkingly patronised them as middle-class do-gooders, outsiders from ‘down south’.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, it wasn’t so unusual to see the north-east and our culture represented on the small screen – When the Boat Comes In, The Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Byker Grove, multiple late-night showings of Mike Hodges’s lurid 1971 Tyneside-noir Get Carter – and then in 1986 Hollywood stars Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones came to town (Newcastle) to make Mike Figgis’s Stormy Monday alongside Geordieland hero Sting.

At their best the Amber pit ponies can, with little apparent effort, make even thoroughbred Frederick Wiseman’s Racetrack look as flat-footed as Garry Ross’s Seabiscuit.

It’s regrettable to realise, then, that the most recent feature from Amber – the DV-shot Shooting Magpies, which obtained little exposure and which, shall we charitably say, doesn’t match up to the intermittent excellence of what went before – was made a full decade ago.

politically sharp Loachian realism”), praised the picture as “intelligent and sensitive.

But be warned: the dialect and accents are sometimes impenetrable.” Could the extreme and unapologetic ‘north-easternness’ of Amber’s films perhaps also partly explain their relative obscurity?

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“Initially,” said Ellin (‘Ellie’) Hare, “when Billy Elliot first came out people thought, ‘Oh, great, this is a film about us – it’s about a kid who’s successful and that reflects well on our community because this kid did so well.’ But then when people actually thought about what it was actually saying about the community, what the message was underneath that feel-good factor, it’s saying ‘Get out of here as fast as you possibly can.’” I asked her husband Murray Martin if he knew of similar collectives elsewhere in the country. There’s never been one in Manchester – why, I don’t know.Their totemic ‘star’ was former barmaid Betty Hepple – the Ariane Ascaride to Hare/Martin’s Robert Guédiguian, perhaps – who became literally synonymous with the collective when adopting the Amber Styles.Styles is invariably caught at least once during each feature carefully applying make-up in a mirror and scrutinising her emotion-tautened features in the process, usually alongside a similarly long-suffering female friend.While all of the collective’s works since Seacoal (“Channel 4 wanted a feature film”) are officially credited to ‘Amber Production Team’, Martin and Hare made no bones to me about who’d done what.“If you loved In Fading Light you would also love Eden Valley (1994) and Seacoal, because that’s one strand, and Murray directed all three,” said Hare.