tue 26/03/2019

Timeshift: When Coal Was King, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Timeshift: When Coal Was King, BBC Four

Timeshift: When Coal Was King, BBC Four

Social and industrial history captured in a superior clips film

Another king of energy giant: King Coal BFI

Energy is this season’s dirty word. The big six fix prices from their ivory towers beyond the national borders, and wouldn’t dream of turning up in person to take a fearful wigging from a Commons Select Committee. In the old days, it was all a bit different. Energy came overwhelming from coal, mined domestically by a huge workforce. So central to British life was coal that, when the industry was nationalised in 1947, the National Coal Board took what now seems a remarkable decision to set up a film unit and show the results in up to 800 cinemas.

The Mining Review consisted of dramas, documentaries, news features, even a crude animation glorifying a benign giant called King Coal. And there were training films. One film called The Shovel was, reckoned Russell Senior (of Pulp), “the most boring film on earth: you learn how to shovel coal really well.” The technique, explained the voiceover earnestly with illustrations, was not dissimilar to playing a forward defensive.

Apart from a Coal Board cameraman, no one dwelled on the hellish working conditions

Senior, though from the steel city of Sheffield, was one of several talking heads who has taken an interest in this forgotten (ahem) goldmine of social history. They weren’t all academics from the BFI. The coal industry in his native north-east has been at the heart of Lee Hall’s two great hits, Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters. The Ashington group of amateur artists from his play also featured here, but as part of a wider picture illustrating the way in which culture flourished among the miners as working men’s institutes and colliery bands were paid for out of a levy from each man’s wage. The theory, explained Hall, was that “you couldn’t have full life without some form of artistic expression”. Meanwhile Paul Robeson sang for miners and Ewan MacColl sang about them (though – pedant alert - it grated to hear him mispronounce Rhondda).

Put together for the Timeshift strand by producer Kate Thomas with a voiceover by Christopher Eccleston, When Coal Was King was a superior clips film about social and industrial history hymning the dignity of labour. To keep company with the academics and celebs, several ex-miners and miners’ wives, who wouldn’t have been that old when it all ended in 1984, recalled a vanished era and a hard kind of underground utopia where individualism was banished and trust enhanced.

Apart from a Coal Board cameraman, no one dwelled on the hellish working conditions. Indeed, while there was much footage of coal being cut away from the seam, many of the films were shot in the open air – miners’ picnics, a huge and ancient ball game played in Workington every Easter across a two-mile pitch, and of course funerals. “It was a brilliant thing to come up into the sun,” said one Welsh miner.

Most of the footage was in black and white. Colour bled into the films in the Sixties, but the more permissive era saw a marked drop in quality. By the end, The Mining Review was resorting to blind optimism, reporting from a new mine touted in 1983 as “a blueprint for the other great coalfields of the future”. A year later came the miners’ strike.

Ex-miners recalled a hard kind of underground utopia where individualism was banished and trust enhanced

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