In the UK, the majority of coal-related films are from the National Coal Board period (1946-1987). At the screening we saw a recruitment advert from the latter part of that period, which presented coalmining as the way towards individual prosperity and prestige. Most of the NCB films were less flashy, including many training films intended for miners, and importantly a monthly newsreel, the Mining Review, which was shown in cinemas in mining areas until 1983. These films are looked after by the National Film Archive at the British Film Institute, and many have been digitised. The collection of coal-related films available to watch for free on the BFI Player is well worth the while, containing several episodes of the Mining Review, alongside strike fund appeals, slices of everyday life in mining towns, and even a Tory advert against nationalisation:
https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/collection/coal-on-film

Alongside the well-made propaganda films with their authoritative voice-overs, it is always fascinating to look at the smaller films – those without industry funding or big names attached. The film we chose to screen was one of those, made for screening in schools rather than for commercial cinemas. In fact, Coal mining in Central Scotland was made in 1937 by a group of Lanarkshire schoolteachers who had formed a filmmaking group as part of the Scottish Educational Film Association. This was one of Scotland’s several pioneering initiatives in the use of film in education, and it aimed to select or produce films that would be suitable for the classroom. The teachers would have had received some support and film stock from the Association, but would have short and edited the film themselves. The mine that they chose to present as a typical colliery was Kingshill, near Shotts. This was the largest of the eleven pits owned by the Coltness Iron Company. By this time, the company employed 5000 people for an annual output of 2 million tons of coal.

Coal Mining in Central Scotland – watch online at the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive: https://movingimage.nls.uk/film/3942

The style of the film is simple and direct, starting with schematic maps of the coalfields and travelling with the miners from the surface to the coalface. This plain structure was appropriate for school use, where the teacher would explain and narrate. However, this is not only a film about the process of extraction, but also about the workers – from the hewers crawling into the seam, to the young screeners at the pit head. Its most memorable sequence was that in the baths, an intimate and unguarded glimpse of the otherwise stoic men. The pit baths at Kingshill had opened in 1929, and were a significant contribution to quality of life for the men and their families. That the film spends some time in this space suggests that the teachers wanted to talk to kids about the life of a miner, perhaps a likely occupation for the pupils and certainly one with which they would be familiar. We don’t know where the film was screened after it was shown to teachers, but it became part of the Lanarkshire schools film library, so it would have been screened in local schools. How many pupils recognised a brother or an uncle? How many had worked at the screens, or ran up the bing to slide down again? Coal was at the heart of Lanarkshire communities, not just a topic for geography books, nor a romantic notion about patriotism.

The sheer amount of films about coal that exist in UK archives is evidence of the fascination that coal held throughout the 20th century. In some cases this fascination has been a form of extraction, when the labour and the bodies of the miners are shown as a spectacle, dehumanised in their heroic symbolism. Many of these films, before and after nationalisation, conflated coal-mining with national progress, serving to justify both extraction and the capitalist state. There are, of course, more radical perspectives, but as a counterpoint to the chauvinism of ‘King Coal’, a bunch of guys in their bath towels laughing at the camera is a good place to start. It’s the end of the shift, and everyone’s made it out alive today.