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Tales from the Shipyard

A century of films about one of our island nation's great industries

Main image of Tales from the Shipyard

A devotion to ships and maritime matters is almost a national trait of the British; perhaps it's inevitable in an island nation. So it's unsurprising that filmmakers have been fascinated too, especially since the earliest days of the medium coincided with the period in which British shipbuilding was at its absolute peak, responsible for some 60% of all vessels constructed worldwide.

Some of the very first British films feature the sea ('Rough Sea' films could be considered an early film genre) and ships. Many of Mitchell & Kenyon's "factory gate" films featured teeming masses of shipyard workers. In fact, the sheer number of people typically employed by a shipyard made them especially appropriate for these films, since the filmmakers were always keen to include as many people as possible in shot, as their subjects were also their potential audience. Although originally conceived as little more than a fairground attraction, these films now provide a remarkable sense of the scale of the industry.

British filmmakers were recording ship launches as early as 1898 (at least three films were shot of HMS Albion's tragic debut, two survive), and the footage of the stage-by-stage construction of the Titanic's equally gigantic sister ship (SS Olympic, 1910) is one of the earliest British films that can accurately be called a documentary. It is known to have been shown in at least one other country, since the BFI National Archive's print originally had German intertitles prior to its restoration.

There does not appear to be any footage of the actual Titanic under construction, though the film has been featured in many feature films, "starring" in A Night to Remember (d. Roy Ward Baker, 1957) and the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic (US, 1997) and with "cameos" in many others: Time Bandits (d. Terry Gilliam, 1981) being a case in point. Two of Alfred Hitchcock's British films were partly set on a cruise ship (Champagne, 1928; Rich and Strange, 1931), while the shipyard formed a backdrop to Michael Powell's Red Ensign (1934) and Vernon Sewell's The Shipbuilders (1943).

However, it is generally non-fiction filmmakers who have been most taken with shipbuilding as subject matter. Unlike many of the other great British industries, shipbuilding was not nationalised by the Attlee government of the late 1940s (nationalisation belatedly occurred in 1977, long after the industrial documentary's heyday), and so it never had a state-funded film unit along the lines of British Transport Films or the BP, Shell and National Coal Board Film Units, with catalogues of hundreds of films - but this means that while shipbuilding films may be fewer in number, they were often more artistically adventurous.

One of the outstanding products of the original British documentary movement of the 1930s was Paul Rotha's Shipyard (1935), which combined sleek modernist images with a highly inventive soundtrack that combined conventional narration with the sound of the shipyard and snippets of voiceover from the workers themselves. 25 years later, John Grierson, the movement's founder, scripted and supervised the Oscar-winning Seawards the Great Ships (d. Hilary Harris, 1960), a visually spectacular evocation of the great Clydeside industries. A more international perspective was typified by A Great Ship (d. John Reeve, 1962), in which the construction of the huge liner SS Canberra at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast is fuelled by products from overseas - and the ship itself is then bound for Australia.

The glories of majestic and powerful ships, which reflected Britain's international influence were followed in the 1960s by the industry's terminal decline in the face of increased international competition and outdated working practices. This had an unexpected result in 1967 when Sean Connery, then at the height of his international fame, made his directorial debut (the only film he ever directed) with The Bowler and the Bunnet (1967), for Scottish Television. It is a stylish and witty perspective on industrial relations in the Fairfields shipyard on the Clyde. Five of the main Clyde shipyards were subsequently combined to create Upper Clyde Shipyards (UCS), whose workers staged a memorable industrial dispute in 1971 in the form of a fourteen-month "work-in", continuing to build ships instead of coming out on strike. This became the subject of two films by the left-wing collective Cinema Action: the campaign film UCS1 (1971) and the more reflective Class Struggle: A Film from the Clyde (1977). Another collective, Amber Films, made the wordless, elegiac Launch (1974). Despite being shot on a fraction of the budget of earlier films, the final shot of the launch was one of the most potent yet, as the gigantic ship glides away from the bottom of a street, indelibly changing the horizon.

Britain's shipbuilding industry effectively ceased to exist in its traditional form in the 1980s, when British Shipbuilders (only six years old) was privatised and individual shipyards were left to fend for themselves. Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen (2002) is set in the former Clydeside community of Greenock, and graphically shows how poverty and drugs have taken the place of what would previously have been plentiful and secure employment.

However, while the British shipbuilding industry is the merest shadow of what it once was, a century's worth of films preserve its grandeur. Aside from providing a stunning visual experience in themselves (it's no coincidence that most of the documentaries climax with a real-life ship launch), they are now immensely valuable as a vivid record of a way of life that has practically vanished.

Ros Cranston

Related Films and TV programmes

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Turning around a cargo and passenger ship at Hull dockyards

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Thumbnail image of Champagne (1928)Champagne (1928)

Hitchcock melodrama about a millionaire feigning ruin

Thumbnail image of Great Ship, A (1962)Great Ship, A (1962)

The construction of the SS Canberra, Britain's largest liner for 20 years

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Launch of a powerful new battleship

Thumbnail image of Launch (1974)Launch (1974)

Impressionistic doc following the launch of a new ship at Wallsend.

Thumbnail image of Launch of HMS Albion at Blackwall, The (1898)Launch of HMS Albion at Blackwall, The (1898)

Evocative long shot of the launch of the gigantic battleship

Thumbnail image of Mining Review 2/3: Shipyard for Colliers (1948)Mining Review 2/3: Shipyard for Colliers (1948)

The construction of ocean-going colliers at Sunderland shipyards

Thumbnail image of Mitchell and Kenyon: Employees Leaving Vickers and Maxim's (1901)Mitchell and Kenyon: Employees Leaving Vickers and Maxim's (1901)

Workers leaving the Barrow-based shipbuilding and munitions firm

Thumbnail image of Mitchell and Kenyon: Launch of HMS Dominion (1903)Mitchell and Kenyon: Launch of HMS Dominion (1903)

A ship is launched at Barrow-in-Furness

Thumbnail image of Mitchell and Kenyon: Workforce of Scott and Co. Shipyard (1901)Mitchell and Kenyon: Workforce of Scott and Co. Shipyard (1901)

Workers leaving the Greenock-based shipbuilding firm

Thumbnail image of RMS Queen Mary Leaves the Clyde (1936)RMS Queen Mary Leaves the Clyde (1936)

The iconic Cunard liner leaves the shipyard of her birth and ventures seawards

Thumbnail image of Red Ensign (1934)Red Ensign (1934)

A visionary shipbuilder strives to rescue the British shipping industry

Thumbnail image of Rich and Strange (1931)Rich and Strange (1931)

Hitchcock melodrama about a couple contemplating infidelity on a cruise

Thumbnail image of SS Olympic (1910)SS Olympic (1910)

The construction and launch of the Titanic's sister ship

Thumbnail image of Sea Shall Test Her, The (1954)Sea Shall Test Her, The (1954)

The building and launch of the liner 'Southern Cross'

Thumbnail image of Seawards the Great Ships (1960)Seawards the Great Ships (1960)

Stunning, Oscar-winning doc celebrating Scotland's shipping industry

Thumbnail image of Shipyard (1935)Shipyard (1935)

The building of the S.S. 'Orion' at Barrow-in-Furness.

Thumbnail image of Sweet Sixteen (2002)Sweet Sixteen (2002)

Bleak portrait of a Scottish teenager coping with drugs and poverty

Thumbnail image of Topical Budget 87-2: Launch of H.M.S. Lowestoft (1913)Topical Budget 87-2: Launch of H.M.S. Lowestoft (1913)

The British Navy's new light cruiser

Thumbnail image of UCS I (1971)UCS I (1971)

Campaign film supporting Clydeside shipbuilders

Thumbnail image of Visit of Their Majesties to North-East Coast Shipbuilding Works (1917)Visit of Their Majesties to North-East Coast Shipbuilding Works (1917)

A morale-boosting Royal visit towards the end of WWI

Thumbnail image of We've Come a Long Way (1951)We've Come a Long Way (1951)

Animated look at the development of oil tankers

Thumbnail image of Bowler and the Bunnet, The (1967)Bowler and the Bunnet, The (1967)

Sean Connery examines the state of shipbuilding in Govan, Glasgow

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