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Big Meeting, The (1963)


Main image of Big Meeting, The (1963)
35mm, black and white, 24 mins
Production CompanyNational Coal Board Film Unit
ProducerDonald Alexander

Sam Watson, former General Secretary of the Durham Miner's Union, explains the origin of the Durham Gala Day and its purpose.

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Galas had been regularly covered by Mining Review since 1947. Though this longer documentary about Durham's (the biggest and most iconic miners' gala of them all) is uncredited, it was apparently a labour of love for the NCB's departing producer Donald Alexander. Unlike many NCB films, it was submitted for cinema release. Delving into everything from the event's historical roots to the symbolism of union banners, it deepens the emphasis of Mining Review's 'social' items by foregrounding the history and community presence of the National Union of Mineworkers. Principal narration is by veteran regional NUM officer Sam Watson, to whom the film is dedicated. He is supplemented by other community voices: for instance, a sequence showing brass bandsmen practicing before the big day, while their wives dutifully bake for them, has overlaid comments from several men and women. Their apparently unrehearsed naturalism brings the film's style gently up to date.

Yet this remains a traditional social documentary, straightforward in style and simultaneously socialistic and conservative in viewpoint (community cohesion being the ideologically binding theme). Compare The Big Meeting with John Irvin's Gala Day. Covering the same subject, released the same year, the latter had no coal industry support (funded instead by the BFI and made by youthful independent production house Mithras Films). Yet it attracted greater critical attention than the NCB film. Many scenes are direct analogues: parading, a cathedral service, speeches, dancing, fairground entertainment. But Gala Day abandons off-screen commentary altogether and extensively uses hand-held 16mm cameras. The contrast with The Big Meeting's boldly static, painterly 35mm compositions is immediately evident, and befits a different view of their identical subject matter. The documentary movement's frosty reception for Humphrey Jennings' Spare Time back in 1939 was echoed by a few criticisms that Gala Day was sneering at its subjects. Certainly it includes some drunkenness and mess, coyly absent from The Big Meeting, but itself omits the latter's attention to build-up and context.

Undoubtedly, the 'official' production shows the more uncomplicated generosity towards working-class culture (all the more moving today in the light of the later decimation of the communities it celebrates). The Big Meeting also pays unequivocal tribute to the Labour Movement, though made during the dying days of moderate Conservative rule. Indeed, Labour Party Leader Hugh Gaitskell (who had prematurely died by the time the film was released) features prominently.

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
Complete film (26:27)
Gala Day (1963)
Alexander, Donald (1913-93)
The National Coal Board - The Documentaries