Dark Side Port Side: Pompey’s New Poetic-Historical Walking App

Inspired by the darker side of our maritime history, Dark Side Port Side is a self-guided poetry film trail through an imagined 19th century Portsmouth. William Sutton tells of the genesis of this ground-breaking project, created by the Front Room, with two-minute films created by the region’s poets and filmmakers, inspired by the University of Portsmouth’s ‘Sailortown’ project.

‘A creative Portsmouth historical walk!’ I exclaimed when I returned from The Darks, an eye-opening audio-historical tour at Tate Britain. ‘Why can’t we have that here? Think of the colourful characters. It would burst with facts and stories, places and history-‘

‘Yes, but who’s going to make this tour?’ said my wife. She often reminds me that every writer’s downfall lies in overstretching, getting so excited about ideas that you never get anything written. ‘You’re not going to do it.’

‘I shouldn’t need to,’ I said, eyes shining. ‘Think: there are a dozen experts on local history. We know a dozen brilliant writers. Twenty. Thirty! Portsmouth Museums should sponsor it. Or Libraries. Or the Council -‘

‘Will you get paid?’

‘If someone puts in a funding bid, why not?’

‘Who’s putting in this funding bid?’

I looked at her. ‘Not me,’ I admitted. ‘But someone should.’ I went back to writing my second novel. The Darks kept gnawing at my unconscious. Ruth Ewan and Astrid Johnston’s walking tour is still available at Tate Britain, and it’s free. This 50-minute audio guide takes you around the site of the Tate, which used to house the fearful Millbank Prison, intermingling letters, historical facts and architectural detail to bring a dark corner of London’s history to life. I wrote a short story based on it, about a prisoner who manages to collect all the prison’s keys. And the idea of a Portsmouth walking tour went out of my head.

Five years later, my forgotten dream has come true – but much, much better than I’d envisaged. You don’t need to borrow headsets from any museum; you can do the trail any time you want. All you need is headphones, a phone connected to the internet, and enough data to watch a few short films.

Dark Side Port Side has brought together poets, writers, filmmakers and artists to create 14 mini-films, each illustrating or reflecting a location on a trail around Old Portsmouth, in the streets back from the Hard and the Dockyard. There is humour and pathos, colour and atmosphere, blood and death – and a delicious array of local and Victorian slang. Together these form an imagined account of Portsmouth’s maritime history, steeped in histories and legends.

Launched on Monday 21st October as part of Portsmouth Darkfest, the Front Room proudly presents Dark Side Port Side. Punters followed our self-guided poetry film trail on their own phones on Monday’s launch night. Others can continue to do so throughout DarkFest and for the coming year. Check it out here.

It’s a great way to tell the story: the vision of many artists, not just one; visual as well as auditory. From a bar-room brawl to a tattoo parlour, from chopping a marrow for the pigs to a drowning woman, these miniature stories, created especially for the app, conjure a familiar yet dislocating world in places all locals know, but with the shadows of past eras brought to life.

The project was initially inspired by the ‘Sailortown’ histories uncovered by Professor Brad Beaven’s Port Towns & Urban Cultures project, in the University of Portsmouth. The original app can be viewed here. It is rich with detail, anecdotes and illustrations garnered from local researches and histories.

Following Sailortown’s example, Dark Side Port Side has also used the Nautoguide platform to create their web-based app. Enabling location services makes the app locative: that is, as you near a new location, the next film pops up ready to view.

John Sackett and Roy Hanney put out the call last year for creatives to come forward. In a rollicking event in the King’s Loft, they showed a couple of example films, made by Matt Parsons, with Maggie Sawkins’ poetry, and by Ricky Tart, using narrators from St John’s College. Poets and film-makers were invited to meet up and collaborate.

I sat down to write a simple story of a mudlark, the children who used to mess around in the mud at the Hard, looking for lost treasures and entertaining the folk walking down to the station and the ferry. This tale was told to me by an old Portsmouth resident who’d met his wife there, when she was a young lady and he a grubby mudlark. I tried to keep it simple – we only had two minutes, after all – but I failed. I recorded my epic song, cut and squished it into shape, and then director-producer Tanisha Ali set about filming. We gathered costumes for our gallant actors, Mike Bailey and Katie Watson, from Head Case Curios, Titchfield Festival Theatre and local writer/historian Matt Wingett. We brought our characters ‘Johnny’ and ‘Euphemia’ in full regalia at the Hard, at the tattoo parlour (thanks to King’s Ship Tattoo for the interior shots), and on to South Parade Pier. Tanisha edited it into shape, and there it is, first stop on the walking tour: A Mudlark’s Tale (The Sixpence Tattoo). If you want to know more, look up the app, available now. 

I’d be intrigued to know which films work best for people walking the route. I loved Jackson Davies’ verbal joust in The Hard Days. In Christine Lawrence’s The Hallmark of Poverty, artist Winniemay creates paintings adding multi-layered overtones to the story. Lauren Jones and Jane Glennie’s Deadlock mixes current and ancient, myth and reality, art and film, voice and sound in a way that makes the most of this most modern art form.

Artist Janet Cardiff’s renowned Whitechapel audio walk The Missing Voice: Case Study B is still available 20 years after it was commissioned. The Darks can still be heard at Tate Britain five years after it was made. Let’s hope that someone – Portsmouth Museums? Libraries? Council – takes over the hosting of Dark Side Port Side when this year’s funding runs out. Such an outpouring of creative energy, commemorating the city’s maritime histories, should be not just welcome but celebrated.

More about DarkFest events, running till 10th November here.