Directed by: Various (Documentary)
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 347 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 28 September 2009
Cat No: BFIVD851
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Portrait of a Miner: The National Coal Board Collection (Volume 1)
A five-hour collection of short films, filmed between 1947 and 1978 by the National Coal Board Film Unit, that brings to life the working... Read More
This first volume of films from the National Coal Board Film Unit is part of a three-year project from the BFI, This Working Life, which looks at Britain’s 20th century industrial heritage on screen. Further volumes, on shipbuilding and steel – are planned. This first volume however, Portrait of a Miner, looks at coal, ‘the bedrock of British wealth and welfare’ as it is described in the 1952 film, Plan for Coal.
The core of the collection is Mining Review, the monthly industry cinemagazine that ran between 1947-83, and which offers a wealth of material, covering subjects as diverse as pit ponies, machinery, juvenile marching bands, whippet racing and women’s football teams (here from Grimethorpe colliery). Also visited are the ‘pitmen painters’ of the Ashington Art Group and Jack Cardiff as he films Sons and Lovers at Brinsley colliery. Some of the monthly issues offer telling period detail, such as the pioneering establishment of a health centre for miners and their families before the formation of the NHS, and the yearly holiday in a model village - a now disappeared world of egg-and-spoon races and running washed nappies through the mangle.
Other films range from straight documentaries to strange and oddly unnerving health and safety films. Songs of the Coalfields are exactly those, sung by Ewan MacColl and Isla Cameron, while Miners is a sombre portrait of a working life underground from 1976, filmed at Bagworth colliery in Leicestershire, which emphasises the darkness and sounds of work lit only by the beams from head lamps. The Shovel, not unexpectedly, traces the tool’s history from a shoulder blade in the Orkneys to the various present types and their uses and concludes with valuable lessons in the art of effective shovelling (which has more to it than you might imagine), while Arthur Clears the Air is a charming colour drama made to promote The National Coal Board Housewarming Plan. It turns from domestic drama into an extravagant ball sequence at which Mrs Smedley - now Cinderella - is the belle, with the other guests including a number of figures representing the various types of clean-burning coal that she will be able to use as soon as Arthur fixes the fireplace.
The standout title though is Richard Mason’s Portrait of a Miner (1966), an impressionistic half-hour portait of a miner’s thoughts, fears and longings as he works his shift at Nottinghamshire's Thoresby colliery, mixed with direct-to-camera addresses by people in his life. It leaves plenty unsaid and offers an evocative snapshot of one day from the middle of many. Mind you, its subject would not have let his attention wander so easily had he seen the extraordinary Man Failure - a cautionary tale on the dangers of daydreaming at work, which leads here to bloody finger loss and - in the case of old Joe, escaping from young Pat's below ground tales of skinny-dipping and naked motorbike riding with a blonde hitch-hiker - exhaustion and death.
A far lighter approach to health and safety comes with Hands, Knees and Bumps-a-Daisy, an animation accompanied by an inimitable commentary to fellow blokies and worklemates by Stanley Unwin, in which he stresses the deep importlude of safety glovery and knee paddery.
Overall, this is a valuable companion volume to the collections of films from the British Transport and GPO Film Units.