Screen • BBC • The Price of Coal

Off-Cut: The Price of Coal

In 1976 Ken and I were reunited with Barry Hines. I’d been asking him for some time what he wanted to write about, and he said “the miners”. He had been underground briefly as a teenager. His relatives and friends in and around Hoyland Common were miners and he felt a deep solidarity with that community. It became a two parter, called The Price of Coal. The first film was set around the preparations at a South Yorkshire pit for the visit of Prince Charles. The pit management preened themselves and looked forward to the visit, making everyone tidy everywhere and paint everything white. Most of the men were indifferent but one was hostile on ideological grounds.

Men from the clubs were recruited, including Bobby Knutt, a big local star comedian and singer, in his first acting role. Some were old favourites of Ken and me. It was all played seriously with no hint that they thought they were funny; none of it was played for laughs. In the end, after weeks of preparation, the Prince arrives by helicopter, shakes hands with a few dignitaries assembled in a line, and then disappears.

Ken provided his own private entertainment by contriving to find a bald dignitary and fitting him up with an ill fitting wig, so that the draught from the helicopter blades would blow it away. I thought it was a lot of preparation for a dubious gag which wasn’t that funny. In the finished film you have to look in detail to notice it. But I said nothing. I had been bemused for years by Ken’s obsession with wigs on men. He referred to them as “sightings” and excitedly pointed them out in the street. It amused him. No doubt there were psychoanalytic explanations. Maybe it was the pretension which amused him. It was a harmless hobby. I ignored it.

Actually, I didn’t. I sent him up about it. We were always looking for odd personal traits, because we loved sending each other up. I couldn’t resist this one. I’m lucky. My hair is intact. His has been showing signs of retreat. But to date, he hasn’t succumbed to the attractions of a toupee. Now that would be a real teasing opportunity.

I had difficulty with the press and public relations people at the Coal Board. Eventually they saw that the joke in the first film was gentle enough. They realised they would escape accusations of revolutionary republicanism. It was the second film which exercised them. There was an accident at the pit face followed by tense rescue attempts. Men died. Questions were asked about safety and the push for productivity. They wanted to be of “technical assistance”, which was code for censorship. We had our own technical advice. I went to endless meetings in Doncaster arguing for Barrys’ screenplay and resisting their interference. I was in a bind. We couldn’t make the film without their co-operation. The Coal Board owned everything and everyone. I further acknowledged they had no obligation to help us. But I was not in business to make Public Relations films, either. I emphasised the BBC’s rules about editorial interference. It was touch and go. Eventually, we were given enough freedom.

It was the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board all over again. How can you make films about institutions when those institutions own the locations and the people? Easily, if it is a film of celebration. They will give you anything you need. But what if you wish to be critical, to ask questions of their policies, say their labour relations? The film will be aborted. So interrogating London Underground or following the construction of Crossrail, or any other institution, is fraught with difficulties. We do not have free media. We have controlled media. Those controls have to be fought, by fair means or foul.

An accident was the core of the second film. Men were trapped underground. We followed both them and the rescue attempts. The problem with disaster films is you must start with the disaster because you want to get the film moving. You have little time to get to know the characters, to identify with them, to learn about the their hopes and plans, to make friends with them. It’s possible to do all that during the course of the attempted rescue, but it means stopping the action for conversations which would be unlikely in those circumstances. It’s just empty exposition. We tried to solve this by showing our films over two consecutive weeks. The audience already knew the men in danger of losing their lives at the pit face; the men at the top keen to go down to rescue them; and the wives and children waiting for news. They had followed them before, in amusing detail. Our hope was that they would have forged a bond with them, treating them as friends.

As usual, we were welcomed by the miners and their community. It was a hot summer and the country pubs around were filled every night with our crew and the miners singing songs and drinking. The miners sang louder and drank even more than our electricians.

The films were Barry’s respectful obeisance to the humour, warmth and courage of that community. The ratings were good, but the nodded approval of the miners was what pleased Barry, Ken and me.

 

TG

The Day the Music Died is the memoir of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett. For the first time, Tony shares details from his childhood in working-class and war torn Birmingham. He then takes readers behind the scenes of a selection of his more famous productions, offering secrets and anecdotes, some moving, some amusing. Now available for pre-order on Amazon.

EXPLORE THE WHOLE SITE