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Tower, The (1953)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of Tower, The (1953)
35mm, black and white, 20 mins
DirectorsPeter Pickering
 John Ingram
Production CompanyData Film Productions
Made forAnglo-Iranian Oil Company
Written byPeter Pickering
 John Ingram
PhotographyJohn Gunn
MusicDoreen Carwithen

The erection and operation of the distillation unit at the heart of the oil refinery on the Isle of Grain.

Show full synopsis

The filmmaking co-operative was the most self-consciously left-wing outfit in the mainstream documentary industry of the early postwar years. So it may seem surprising that it was responsible for a trilogy of films commissioned by British Petroleum - The Island (1952), The Tower and Kent Oil Refinery (1954) - extolling the wonders of the oil industry's development of a refinery on Kent's Isle of Grain. This project had been commenced in 1948, and the refinery would remain open until 1982.

The films do seem propagandist, but sit interestingly alongside the other work of both sponsor and production company. DATA was also undertaking work at the time for the steel and coal industries (the latter's Mining Review being its bread and butter). Its Kent oil films are similar in form and, technicalities aside, in content - and they are correspondingly unlike the many oil-sponsored films that had been shot overseas. John Slater, the voice of Mining Review, can be heard on the soundtrack of The Tower. Kent Oil Refinery was a compilation from the footage shot for the first two films, both co-credited to DATA members Peter Pickering and John Ingram. According to Pickering's recollections, the direction was largely his, while the scripts were mostly Ingram's. Very much in the tradition of 1930s rural documentaries, The Island concentrates on the tensions between the timeless and the modern - here, between the Isle of Grain's existing community and environment and the incoming oilmen. Predictably, the film concludes that these can be reconciled.

Less contemplative, The Tower is a conventionally cheerful documentary focused entirely on the refinery itself, and mainly on the erection of the distillation unit at its heart. Low angle shots of the towers, and suspenseful music over key sequences such as the hauling into position of vapour lines, attempt to inject a sense of heroism and romance into an essentially process-based story with a technocratic message.

Actors provide off-screen voices for various groups of workers seen in different sequences and locations - from draughtsmen to construction workers and BP trainees. They speak in the present tense about their part in the process, while a central voice anchors them, speaking always in the past tense.

The conclusion: the refinery has been a stunning success.

Patrick Russell

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (19:29)
Island, The (1952)
Slater, John (1916-1975)
British Petroleum films