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40 Years On (1978)


Main image of 40 Years On (1978)
16mm, colour, 20 mins
Production CompanyNational Coal Board
ProducerFrancis Gysin
ScriptFrancis Gysin
 Robert Kruger
CommentatorW.J. Bourne

The changes in coal mining which have taken place during one man's working lifetime.

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Prepared as part of the Presidential address to the Institute of Mining Engineers conference in 1978, 40 Years On charts the developments in mining engineering over the course of one man's working lifetime in the British coal industry. Although intended for an audience for whom the Samson stripper, Hewitt Slicer and Anderton Shearer would have been part of the everyday vernacular, the film supersedes its remit in offering a moving document of human endeavour across a generation. Unsurprisingly, following its inaugural screening it was also made available for hire by general audiences.

Archival footage, taken from previous NCB productions, deftly woven with W J Bourne's authoritative narration, guides us from the pre-nationalised days of pit ponies, oil and wick lamps, and steam-powered winding, to the electronic surface controls of the late 1970s. In lesser hands the film might have amounted to a dry catalogue of technical innovation but under the supervision of NCB Film Unit stalwarts Francis Gysin and Robert Kruger (both of whom had worked for the Board since the late 1940s), there is no place for purely technical explanation, and the lasting impression is one of human strength and skill in the face of adversity - the vital ingredients for any drama. Indeed, the column of flat-capped men carrying pick-axes and lanterns walking to their nightshift are about to enter a dangerous and precarious subterranean world which has inspired documentary and feature filmmakers alike.

For decades Britain's coal reserves were acknowledged to be sufficiently extensive to enable supply for at least 400-500 years. However, Bourne's closing assertion, that "we shall continue to win our essential energy from under the earth, not only for the next 40 years, but for the next 400", is rendered naively optimistic given the events which were to follow. A year after the film was made, Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister and presided over what would be the beginning of the industry's inexorable decline.

Katy McGahan

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

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Complete film (19:28)