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King Coal

A century of coal-mining on screen

Main image of King Coal

It's hard to overstate the importance of coal mining to the British way of life. Until the late twentieth century, it was our primary energy source, both industrially and domestically. In the 1920s, 1.2 million British people were employed by the coal industry (out of a total population of just 45 million), and even after the 1930s (economic depression) and 1940s (World War II) had taken their toll, British mines still employed three-quarters of a million people in the early years of nationalisation. Many regions, particularly in the north of England, Wales and Scotland, were dependent on it, and mining communities were amongst the most tightly-knit in the country, a by-product of a job that was still immensely difficult and dangerous well after the encroachment of technology had supposedly rendered it safer.

British film history is full of images of mining. The iconic image of the winding-tower towering above the colliery, often silhouetted against the sky, sums up centuries of industrial achievement, while shots of the miners themselves, whether working underground or emerging from the pithead still blackened from the day's toil were featured in films as early as Mitchell & Kenyon's Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery (1901), Black Diamonds: The Collier's Daily Life (1904), or the important A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910), the latter one of the first attempts at creating a properly structured documentary portrait, as opposed to a more artless actuality record. Equally interesting, if far less well known, is another film entitled Black Diamonds, this one made in 1932 by Charles Hanmer, a working miner determined to give an accurate portrayal of conditions underground. Its naïvete is one of its strengths: despite the melodramatic plot (the head of a film company is blinded by an accident underground, but later says that the experience has opened his eyes to the reality of mining), the portrait of actual working conditions is powerfully conveyed, with the caged canary still a part of the miner's toolkit even in the 1930s. (If the canary died underground, this acted as a warning of the presence of gas). More professionally, the GPO Film Unit made Coal Face (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935), a film as renowned for its experimental soundtrack - partly devised by the young Benjamin Britten - as for its portrait of miners at work.

By the 1930s, feature films were also going underground, with outstanding examples including Carol Reed's pit-village drama The Stars Look Down (1939) and Pen Tennyson's The Proud Valley (1940), the latter starring Paul Robeson as an itinerant American who finds himself embraced by the Welsh mining community, especially after his vocal talents are revealed. Although nominally a documentary, Humphrey Jennings' The Silent Village (1943) deserves mention here too, for its fictionalised impression of what a Nazi-backed massacre of a Welsh mining village might look like - Jennings was trying to convey the horror of the atrocity in Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in a way that would have a more immediate impact on a British audience. Jill Craigie's Blue Scar (1949) also drew on recent events - in this case the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947, and its implications. The drama-documentary The Brave Don't Cry (d. Philip Leacock, 1952) restaged a real-life colliery accident that had occurred two years earlier.

One of the by-products of nationalisation was the production of films made by the coal industry itself, firstly by established companies like the Crown Film Unit and Data Film Productions on behalf of the National Coal Board, and then by the NCB Film Unit itself. Over the four decades following 1947, the NCB made approximately a thousand films covering nearly all aspects of mining life (see below for significant exceptions), which were widely screened in cinemas in mining communities. Over a third of these were issues of the popular newsreel Mining Review (1947-83), a monthly ten-minute magazine-style digest of items of interest to miners, which could cover anything from national announcements of NCB strategy to technical innovations to portraits of individual miners (especially their hobbies) or indeed anything that could be linked to mining in some way - descendants of miners were fair game, whether they were the novelist D.H. Lawrence or women's snooker champion Agnes Morris.

Although the NCB catalogue clearly offers unrivalled coverage of British mining over much of the mid-to-late twentieth century, we shouldn't take it as our sole reference point. The range and variety of the films notwithstanding, they ultimately existed to promote the work of the sponsor. Mining disasters were something that happened in the past (the NCB was happy to reconstruct the 19th-century Blantyre explosion, but one will look in vain through Mining Review for an acknowledgement of the 1966 Aberfan tragedy, perhaps the worst twentieth-century mining catastrophe and one for which the NCB itself was largely responsible), and strikes were unheard of in this ostensibly happy community dedicated to the single cause of winning coal for the nation. So to find reliable accounts of the devastating stoppages of the 1970s (which brought down a government) and 1980s (which nearly did), we need to go elsewhere.

Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives. The radical film collective Cinema Action's overview of twentieth-century mining, The Miners' Film (1975), put strikes at the forefront, even concluding with a statement that the 1974 strike was the first true realisation of the miners' collective power. Ken Loach's Which Side Are You On? (1984) was commissioned as a documentary but ended up as a political statement strongly supportive of the striking miners. Also in 1984, various campaigning videotapes were made and circulated free of charge to supporters of the miners - these still survive, and offer a fascinating, sometimes unique insight into the lives of ordinary miners, and indeed their wives: the edition 'Not Just Tea and Sandwiches' focused specifically on their own contribution towards supporting the strike. More recently, Mike Figgis' The Battle of Orgreave (Channel 4, tx. 20/10/2002) recorded the artist Jeremy Deller's restaging of one of the strike's most notorious flashpoints: the clash between miners and police at Orgreave, South Yorkshire on 18 June 1984.

The 1984 strike and the subsequent devastation of the coal industry later, inevitably, found their way into fictional treatments such as the feature films Brassed Off (d. Mark Herman, 1996) and Billy Elliot (d. Stephen Daldry, 2000). One would have thought that this was a subject off-limits for comedy, but Channel 4's Comic Strip team produced one of its most wholly successful creations in The Strike (tx. 20/1/1988), a very effective satirical portrait of how Hollywood might distort history in its pursuit of entertainment, with the National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill (performed by Al Pacino, impersonated with wicked accuracy by Peter Richardson) leading the striking miners to an improbable triumph. The reality, sadly, was to be rather different: by the mid-1990s, the majority of working mines had closed, and the number of people in the profession now totals only a few thousand.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Blue Scar (1949)Blue Scar (1949)

Welsh coalmining drama dealing with ambition, class and gender

Thumbnail image of Brassed Off (1996)Brassed Off (1996)

Mournful drama about the fortunes of a colliery brass band

Thumbnail image of Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)

Drama-documentary about a Scottish mining rescue team

Thumbnail image of Coal Face (1935)Coal Face (1935)

Classic documentary about the mining industry

Thumbnail image of Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, A (1910)Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, A (1910)

Classic early actuality that prefigures later documentary approaches

Thumbnail image of Gala Day (1963)Gala Day (1963)

Documentary portrait of the 1962 Durham Miners' Gala

Thumbnail image of King Coal (1948)King Coal (1948)

Animated promotional film for the coal industry

Thumbnail image of Miners' Film, The (1975)Miners' Film, The (1975)

A record of the coal miners' overtime ban at the end of 1973

Thumbnail image of Mitchell and Kenyon: Black Diamonds (1904)Mitchell and Kenyon: Black Diamonds (1904)

Miners unloading coal in an unidentified pithead

Thumbnail image of Portrait of a Miner (1966)Portrait of a Miner (1966)

Intriguing part-subjective documentary about an ambitious coalminer

Thumbnail image of Proud Valley, The (1940)Proud Valley, The (1940)

Paul Robeson's last British feature, set in a Welsh mining community

Thumbnail image of Seacoal (1985)Seacoal (1985)

Poetic and unsentimental story of the death of a way of life

Thumbnail image of Silent Village, The (1943)Silent Village, The (1943)

Powerful drama-doc reenacting a Czech village under Nazi occupation

Thumbnail image of Stars Look Down, The (1939)Stars Look Down, The (1939)

Breakthrough film for Carol Reed, a progressive pit community drama

Thumbnail image of Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)

Long-running film showcase for the alternative comedy generation

Thumbnail image of End of the Battle... (1985)End of the Battle... (1985)

Ken Loach's bitter anatomy of the failure of the 1984-85 miners' strike

Thumbnail image of Which Side Are You On? (1984)Which Side Are You On? (1984)

Controversial documentary about the 1984 miners' strike

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of From Pit to ScreenFrom Pit to Screen

The small but memorable body of British coal-mining feature films

Thumbnail image of Mining Review (1947-83)Mining Review (1947-83)

Monthly film magazine for the coal industry and mining communities

Thumbnail image of The National Coal Board - The DocumentariesThe National Coal Board - The Documentaries

What the NCB made aside from the long-running 'Mining Review'

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of National Coal Board Film Unit (1952-84)National Coal Board Film Unit (1952-84)

Film Unit