wed 16/04/2014

DVD: The Miners' Hymns | Film reviews, news & interviews

DVD: The Miners' Hymns

An elegy for the British mining community with a wonderful brass-drenched score

A rich seam: The British coal-working community gathers on gala day in 'The Miners' Hymns'British Film Institute

Bill Morrison’s film, mostly edited together from archive material, serves as an elegy to Britain's recent industrial past. The older footage has been handsomely restored, and often it’s only the clothes that give a sense of period. It focuses on the Durham coalfields, where the last mine closed in the early 1990s. There’s little left to show for it – the film is framed by aerial sequences where we search in vain for any trace of the industry. Collieries have been replaced by retail parks, artificial ski slopes and football stadia. We still use coal for a third of our energy needs, but it’s nearly all imported.

Morrison conveys what’s been lost – the sense of community instilled by identification with a single industry. Shots of the Durham miners’ gala, described by Michael Foot as "the best working-class festival there was in this country", are overwhelming, all vast crowds, banners and brass bands. The band culture survives, the legacy of mill owners anxious to ensure that their employees had something productive to do with their leisure time.

Morrison’s most arresting footage doesn’t flinch from showing us the bleak reality of miners’ lives. The workers squeeze into cramped cages, ultimately reaching the coal seams on hands and knees, through passages supported by flimsy pit props. And though we see the increasing mechanisation of the process, ultimately the raw coal is brutally hacked away with picks. It’s wet, claustrophobic and dangerous.

We see film of battles between police and strikers in the 1980s, but there’s no sermonising, no preaching. There’s no narration either. Instead, we have Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wonderful brass-drenched score providing its own eloquent commentary. DVD extras include an interview with Morrison and Jóhannsson, and extracts from the premiere screening in Durham Cathedral, complete with the soundtrack played live.

Watch the trailer for The Miners' Hymns
Shots of the Durham miners' gala are overwhelming, all vast crowds, banners and brass bands

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