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Nobody's Face (1966)


Main image of Nobody's Face (1966)
35mm, black and white, 21 mins
DirectorPeter Pickering
Production CompanyNational Coal Board Film Unit
ProducerFrancis Gysin
PhotographyEddie Tilling
CommentatorEwan MacColl

A coalface team fails to achieve the output it could because its mining equipment is not fully utilised.

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Nobody's Face is topped and tailed by Lord Alfred Robens, the rightwing Labour politician who, as Board chairman for ten years from 1961, was a pivotal figure in mining history. Inheriting bewildering challenges, he reluctantly felt obliged by circumstance to accept further hits to the number of collieries and colliers, necessitating yet more disciplined efficiency from the potentially demoralised remainder. Adopting a dual communications strategy, Robens was an indefatigable advocate for his industry when facing government and the public, an exponent of managerial tough love when facing the staff. Unsurprisingly, then, he took a close interest in the film unit at his disposal - it could help with both planks of the stratagem.

Veteran NCB filmmaker Peter Pickering had turned out his share of upbeat exhortations. Asked to make a film about inefficient machinery use, he contrived instead a winning exercise in reverse psychology, rendered as semi-improvised farce. Hence 'Nobody's Face', a sort of daydreamed coalface with "a shift that we can all agree nobody's ever worked on". Yeah, right - that half-smile falling on Robens' face as the film proper begins is worth the admission price (admittedly, the admission price was £0.00; in its unexpurgated form, Nobody's Face was strictly 'restricted to colliery audiences' who wouldn't have been given the choice not to see it).

The film contains excellent 35mm cinematography, never drawing attention to itself but sometimes set at angles tilted just-so, suggesting an underground domain slightly out of control. It is attentive to the sounds of machines and belts - and the ominous silences when they're standing or stopped. The director and his cast collaboratively concocted the mildly salty dialogue. For sheer screen presence, hot-tempered machine operator Johnny gives the larger-than-life Robens a run for his money (many viewers surely felt Johnny won hands down).

Ewan MacColl speaks the narration: a surprise to hear him as managerial mouthpiece, and besides helping pay his bills a sign that the filmmakers actually saw their film as somewhat subversive. But the deeper surprise is witnessing once more the grand project of the erstwhile British documentary movement (the tradition of getting noble working class 'types' to play 'themselves' on screen) reaching a pretty pass. This is a tawdrier vision than the one documentary's old masters proffered in the 1930s and 1940s - yet perhaps more candid and even, bizarrely, more courteous. Either way, the acting's way better.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Portrait of a Miner: The National Coal Board Collection Volume 1'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (18:44)
The National Coal Board - The Documentaries