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From Pit to Screen

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

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The number of British feature films revolving around miners is comparatively few in number compared with, say, those highlighting the work of the police or a medical profession, but what they lack in quantity is more than compensated by overall quality.

Surprisingly, aside from imports like Pathé's Germinal (France, 1913), silent-screen depictions of coal mining seem to have been all but absent from British cinema screens outside newsreels and documentaries/actualities by Mitchell & Kenyon and Kineto, and with the exception of the amateur drama-documentary Black Diamonds (d. Charles Hanmer, 1932), this remained the case until the late 1930s, when three mining dramas were released in quick succession, the first two based on popular novels by A.J. Cronin, the former Medical Inspector of Mines. The first was The Citadel (d. King Vidor, 1938), in which an idealistic young doctor takes up a post in a Welsh mining town and quickly ends up challenging an establishment that favours cough medicine as a remedy for dust-related illnesses.

The following year, Carol Reed compressed Cronin's 700-page doorstopper The Stars Look Down into a manageable feature, which examined various tensions occurring both in a pit village as a whole, and one of its families in particular. It combined a love-triangle melodrama with surprisingly progressive social comment, not least its call for the mines to be nationalised. Shortly afterwards, The Proud Valley (d. Pen Tennyson, 1940) delivered an equally left-wing message in the form of a story about a black American miner (Paul Robeson) who is welcomed into a Welsh mining community after they discover that he has as much to contribute to the local choir as he does to the economy. Robeson later said that it was the only one of his British films with which he was entirely satisfied.

During World War II itself, mining took a back seat to war when it came to popular dramatic subjects, though the Gainsborough melodrama Love Story (d. Leslie Arliss, 1944) included a mining-disaster subplot. Much more rewarding was The Silent Village (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1943), technically a documentary, but also an imaginative rendering of what a Nazi invasion of Wales might look like, the treatment meted out to the inhabitants of Cwmgiedd consciously paralleling that which actually befell the demographically identical population of the Czech mining town of Lidice. The impact of the 1947 nationalisation is charted by Jill Craigie's Blue Scar (1949) in surprisingly balanced fashion given that the film was part-funded by the National Coal Board.

That concluded the most prolific decade for British mining films, but other outstanding later examples include the pioneering drama-documentary The Brave Don't Cry (d. Philip Leacock, 1952), a reconstruction of a real-life mining disaster from just two years earlier, and Ken Loach's Kes (1969), set in a Yorkshire pit village where children are set from birth for a soul-destroying mining career (which has already taken a psychological toll on Billy Casper's brother Jud), and only the discovery of a tame kestrel promises a fleeting alternative. Surprisingly for a Disney production, Escape From The Dark (d. Charles Jarrott, 1976) was imbued with a similar melancholy, as a mine's pit ponies are scheduled to be destroyed following another bout of 'modernisation'. The independent Amber film collective's first feature, Seacoal (1985), used drama-documentary techniques to record the lives of 'seacoalers' scouring the Northumberland coastline for waste coal washed in by the tide.

The devastation to the coal industry in the wake of the 1984 strike formed the background to three very different films. The underrated The Big Man (d. David Leland, 1990) saw its unemployed miner protagonist (Liam Neeson) forced to take up bare-knuckle boxing when a local crime boss makes him an offer that's hard to refuse. Mark Herman's mournful tragicomedy Brassed Off (1996) explicitly examined the effect of the 1992 pit closures on a small mining community whose brass band may be the only identity they have left. In Billy Elliot (d. Stephen Daldry, 2000), a young teenager's improbable desire to become a ballet dancer is contrasted with the struggle of his father and older brother (both miners) to hold onto their jobs and dignity during the strike - neither being in a position to offer him either financial or emotional support. Although a huge box-office hit that was subsequently adapted into a successful stage musical, it doesn't pull its punches when it comes to the strike itself: the devastating impact on ordinary people merely seeking to do an honest day's work resonates long after the concluding images of Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake have faded from the screen.

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 Kes (1969)Kes (1969)

Masterly Ken Loach film about a lonely boy adopting a wild kestrel

Thumbnail image of Love Story (1944)Love Story (1944)

A terminally ill pianist falls in love with a man who's going blind

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

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