This Working Life: Steel – an introduction

Visual memories of a vanished way of life, This Working Life: Steel celebrates a rich seam of Britain’s industrial heritage. Curator Ros Cranston introduces our major new archive project.

Ros Cranston
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River of Steel (1951)

River of Steel (1951)

An adventure into the awe-inspiring guts of steelmaking… 
– Men of Consett (1959)

The visual drama of steelmaking has long provided spectacular subject matter for filmmakers. I’ve been working on the BFI’s long-running project celebrating Britain’s industrial heritage, This Working Life, for several years, and the final strand, Steel, has offered up as many exciting discoveries as its two predecessors, King Coal and Tales from the Shipyard. Like them, Steel showcases newly restored non-fiction and feature films, and television material on varied facets of the steel industry.

We’ve drawn on a range of actuality, fiction, documentary and political films captured by filmmakers across a century to bring alive the stories of the communities around the UK shaped by the steelworks. They offer a richly fascinating and often surprising view of a largely vanished way of life. For millions of people this isn’t just Britain’s industrial heritage, it’s their family history.

One of the thrills of the project has been the opportunity to restore the stunning cinematography of Jack Cardiff and Cyril Knowles in the deceptively plainly-titled Steel (directed by Ronald Riley in 1945). Shot in several locations including Sheffield, Glasgow and Ebbw Vale, Steel is a dazzling Technicolor spotlight on some of the highly skilled craftsmen who devoted their working lives to the metal.

The film has been restored using pioneering digital techniques (to be explained in a forthcoming blog) and will be the centrepiece of the project’s launch event A Century of Steelmaking on Screen on 5 February. The film is also showing in Sheffield, Cardiff, Glasgow and Newcastle.

Wings of Mystery (1963)

Wings of Mystery (1963)

The range of steely delights featured in the project is quite something. Naturally, Sheffield features prominently – in films as diverse as the eye-opening documentary Women of Steel, a rare insight into women’s role in the steel industry in wartime Sheffield, and the top-flight Children’s Film Foundation escapade Wings of Mystery (1963) starring a precocious young Judy Geeson and several homing pigeons.

Penny Woolcock, director of the acclaimed From the Sea to the Land Beyond, will be at BFI Southbank to introduce the first two films she made (both in Consett, County Durham): a short piece for the leftwing video magazine Northern Newsreel (1987) and When the Dog Bites (1988). Both films explore the wide-ranging consequences of the closure of the steelworks, while the second film shows with a sympathetic eye some of the imaginative, enterprising and implausible attempts on the part of the locals to make a living.

There are further daring activities in the northeast to marvel at in the intrepid, visually splendid The Building of the New Tyne Bridge (1928), which documents the perilous construction of the Tyne Bridge.

Men of Consett (1959), meanwhile, is a wonderfully odd film directed by explorer, cameramen and food writer Tom Stobart, who, having shot The Conquest of Everest (1953), ventured into the steelmaking community in Consett at a time when steel ruled the town.

Striking a very different note, comic actor Charles Hawtrey extols the utilitarian wonder of the steel-built ‘prefab’ in Lewis Gilbert’s (later of Bond film fame) The Ten Year Plan (1945). There’s further inventive wit in the animation River of Steel (1951), directed by Peter Sachs with art direction by the surrealist painter Oscar Dominguez (soon to be the subject of another blog).

There’s controversy too: the season provides a rare opportunity to see one of Ken Loach’s periodic brushes with the powers that be. He gave voice to steelworkers who felt betrayed by their trade union leaders in the strike of 1980 in A Question of Leadership – a programme which was pulled before its national transmission.

As well as screenings around the UK as part of This Working Life: Steel, a DVD box-set will be released and a selection of the films will be available to see in BFI Mediatheques and on BFI Screenonline.

The films in This Working Life: Steel don’t just celebrate this mighty industry – ”the brace and girder and strut and stay of every industrial economy on earth” – and those who worked in it. They also offer vivid insights into the development of the moving image across a century. And the film industry itself is as dependant on steel as any other: it’s a rare cinema or studio that isn’t built with steel.

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