Jon Woods on filming the Toxteth riots in 1981

One of the big shocks of my life was having to work on the Toxteth riots for ITN. Shooting on film, spending nearly a week in Toxteth, not getting home for nearly a week, and being close to very serious danger, and being almost injured quite badly a few ties, with petrol bombs and flagstones dropped from flats onto Upper Parliament Street – that was quite an eye-opener, how social disorder and rioting, if you are right on the front line of it – literally only a foot behind the policeman when petrol bombs are landing at their feet and on their shields – and that was quite interesting. Also, and something not many people will realise, is as the press you were probably hated as much as the police, and people in Toxteth really didn’t like us at all. Our cars were smashed regularly, windows bricked in, and it was in film, so it was quite a complicated process, not like electronic cameras where you just switched them on. So we were shooting film and having to get the film on a bike, on a motorcycle, back to the lab. So it was quite a complex period. The riots went on for several weeks and John Toker was one of the main reporters for Granada in those days, and was filing reports for ITN, although ITN were there as well. We spent a lot of time trying to get into the mindsets of the leaders of the riot – why it had happened, what was the reason for it. I think it all started from, I believe, a very simple act of police stopping a motorcyclist, and it just escalated from there.

Did you have to get people’s trust?

You never got their trust. I remember going to a funeral to somebody who had died in the riots, and was physically ejected. The camera was thrown out, before we even got to the church. They saw a film crew and we just weren’t wanted. They ripped the camera from us and threw it over the wall and threw us out, physically. So yes, there was quite a lot of hatred. And interestingly, it’s not generally that you work in an environment where hate becomes quite as apparent.

Did you feel threatened or in danger?

In danger, yes. Threatened by both the police and the rioters at times because you wanted to get to places that the police didn’t want you to go and see… so you were the filling in the sandwich – you were pushed between both cases. And a lot of it was very serious. At one point Upper Parliament Street was on fire – someone had got hold of a petrol tanker and emptied it down the street and set fire to it. So these things were happening – not necessarily the bricks, the stones and the petrol bombs and the threat of violence if you didn’t go away from both the police and the rioters – it’s not a happy medium to have to walk along the middle of.


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