Welcome to the North East, Mr President!

Over time, United States presidents come and go … and 40 years ago one came to Tyne & Wear. In the year of one of the most unpredictable US presidential election in living memory, we look back to a memorable day in the 1970s when a brand new US President, Jimmy Carter, spent a day in the North East on his first overseas trip. The occasion was captured on film by television crews and amateurs alike, and is now preserved in the vaults of North East Film Archive.  

On Friday 6th May 1977, security was tight and snipers positioned themselves around the top of Newcastle’s Civic Centre for his visit. They needn’t have worried. President Jimmy Carter’s cheerfulness and good humour charmed the crowds as he greeted them with the traditional Geordie rallying cry “Howay the lads! “ He received the ‘Freedom of the City’ from the Mayor, became an honorary Geordie, and joked that amongst the privileges of being a freeman of the city, he hoped he wouldn’t have to pay the taxes. The President was then whisked away in his 5-ton bulletproof limousine for visits to the Cornings Glass factory in Sunderland - and to Washington Old Town, ancestral home of the first American President, George Washington.

This TV news special of Carter’s tour was part of the biggest outside broadcast and film operation Tyne Tees Television had ever mounted, with cameras situated at key sites along the route. Due to the impromptu, informal nature of British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s invitation to Carter, Tyne Tees TV only had about 3 weeks to prepare. Months of planning would be the norm. And the world was watching, courtesy of Tyne Tees and their live feeds into American TV networks.

The Wearside crowds and glassblowers at Cornings of Sunderland warmed to the personable Georgian President. The Washington Post recorded that four pensioners kissed Carter outside Corning Glass and sang ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ as he entered the factory. In the din and 100-degree heat of the furnace room, the extraordinary skill and ballet of the craftsman glassmakers impressed both the President and Callaghan. 

An amateur film covers the hoopla of Carter’s walkabout in Washington that day, the Democratic President plunging into the crowds to shake hands, nervously watched by rather conspicuous American Secret Service agents.  Welcome to Washington was shot on Super 8 film stock, and was, remarkably, the work of a lone amateur cameraman, Michael Gough, Head of Education Services for the Hearing-Impaired in Sunderland and a member of the Newcastle and District Amateur Cinematographers Association (ACA), who bought his first camera in 1968. Welcome to Washington won a coveted Movie Maker Ten Best trophy (the ‘amateur Oscar’) for its slick editing and was screened at the National Film Theatre in London.

In the days before social media, and presidential campaigns on Twitter, it took more than 140 characters and a GIF for Turners of Newcastle to spell out the ‘special’ relationship between Britain and the United States in this promotional film.  Follow The Washington Trail with President Jimmy Carter and see why English Washingtonians still celebrate Independence Day every year.