If you enjoyed When Coal Was King...

For those fascinated by the BBC’s recent documentary When Coal Was King, curator Patrick Russell suggests some onward journeys into our nation’s industrial past on film.

Patrick Russell

40 Years On (1977)

40 Years On (1977)

Five days left to catch When Coal Was King on BBC iPlayer… If you haven’t done so yet, drop what you’re doing immediately and check it out.

For the BFI it was a pleasure working with the BBC team who produced this programme, centred on the National Coal Board (NCB) films, principally the mighty Mining Review series. Making better known one of the richest collections in the BFI’s vaults, When Coal Was King is a great introduction to a subject we’re frankly fanatical about.

Inevitably, only so much can be covered in 60 minutes, so here I want to pick up some key themes and point you towards further discoveries. Resources you should know about include: an extensive collection of articles on BFI Screenonline; material in the BFI’s Mediatheques; and, for total immersion in the movies themselves, a hefty DVD box-set.

Mining Review 1st Year No. 11 (1948)

Mining Review 1st Year No. 11 (1948)

When discussing these films, it’s awfully hard to avoid coalmining metaphors: one of the great things about this collection is that it’s so simple and accessible on the surface, but so complex underneath. The deeper one digs, the more layers of meaning one uncovers. So just what is it that makes Mining Review so special? Let me count the ways…

1. Astounding scale and longevity.

I mean – 455 issues! Released every month for 36 years! By far the longest running industrial newsreel in Britain and, to my knowledge, anywhere in the world.

2. A remarkably strategic, surprisingly subtle exercise in mass communication.

Mining Review was an act both of nation building (addressing itself to diverse coalfields) and national projection (‘selling’ this coalfield ‘nation’ to the taxpaying, coal-buying nation at large, and ‘rebranding’ The Miner for the social-democratic era). 

A note of caution – lest we get too sentimental, cinemas and punters, including miners, didn’t always welcome Mining Review. How effective its distribution was is an open question: if there was a gap between ambitions and results, that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the subject.

3. An essential source for studying the relationship between economics and culture.

The NCB’s filmmakers were frequently underground, surveying an industry’s startling technological advance. But also above ground, glimpsing mining communities’ varied cultural lives (a subject the BBC programme explores in loving detail). Hence, the standard Mining Review mix, of technical with social stories, allied to a policy of regularly covering all major coalfields.

This complete issue (including ‘Balletomines’, which opens When Coal Was King) illustrates that balance:

4. A unique archival record, both epic and intricate, of what remains the most fascinating of industries and industrial cultures.

Tracking Mining Review’s changing priorities and personality is an absorbing exercise: its early driving optimism; the intriguing, varied middle period; and the later years, alternating gentle nostalgia with slightly desperate bombast.

5. A gateway drug to the hundreds of further films in the NCB canon.

Again, there are distinct cycles, throwing different lights on the coal-film relationship. The BBC programme includes several well-chosen examples: the precision-crafted training films of the 1950s (like 1953’s notoriously hypnotic The Shovel)… a 1960s sequence of cheerfully grim animations used in internal safety campaigns… and when you get to something like Manfailure (1971), a bonkers brew of surrealism, sexism and gore. You can catch these and more on the DVD. 

Manfailure (1971)

Manfailure (1971)

6. The heart of a great tradition.

We can trace these films’ lineage back to early cinema, and indeed to earlier visual representations of the industrial revolution. But their direct descent is from the 1930s documentary movement. The early Mining Review filmmakers had worked for leading light Paul Rotha and were led by the great Donald Alexander, arguably the key figure in the story of coal on film, whose centenary fell this year.

An important detail: for some years it was the production company DATA, in which Alexander was prominent, that produced Mining Review for the NCB’s film department; it was in 1952 that Alexander set up an internal NCB film unit, focused initially on training films but later taking over Mining Review.

7. Excellent filmmaking.

When you watch the celebrated Coal Face (1935), or Rotha’s Face of Britain (1935), you’re seeing the documentary movement in its thrusting, modernist and more politically bold phase. With the NCB’s films you’re looking at the ‘high renaissance’ of industrial documentary, marked by classical craftsmanship and rather cosier consensus. Mining Review rarely wears its art on its sleeve, but quietly perfects the artistic templates it inherited. See, for example, this fine interpretation of ‘industrial process’ filmmaking:

8. A thought-provoking sidebar to modern debates…

….about work, class, culture, industrial ownership, the balance of the economy, our sources of energy.

The last ever Review majors on the latter theme. Voiced by Alexander’s long-time successor Francis Gysin, it’s in hindsight a heartrending goodbye — to a series, an industry, a filmmaking tradition and a long phase of national life.

I could go on, but webpages have their limits too, so I’ll stop there and encourage you to keep digging.

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