Industry in Welsh film

Black and white photograph of a coal mine

The Welsh industrial landscape was appallingly under-represented in silent film days when almost all features set in Wales boasted sylvan landscapes among communities of rustics, and gypsies.

Strangely, south Wales' urban, industrial life has been largely ignored in mainstream cinema up to today, despite the visual and dramatic possibilities in past decades offered by the mining valleys and the disfiguring - if photogenic - changes wrought to the landscape.

Spectacular images of scale offered by the north Wales quarries have been similarly neglected. Images of the steel industry have, inexplicably, largely been confined to actualities or documentaries.

CH Dand's fiction short Men Against Death (1933), shot at the Dorothea quarry and Slate Quarrying of North Wales - at Dinorwic (1935) were early examples of 'industrial' subjects - the latter singularly impressive in creating a real sense of the dangers facing workers there.

Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards' Y Chwarelwr (The Quarryman) (1935), the first Welsh language sound fiction film, was slight as drama but featured striking images from Blaenau Ffestiniog and scenes of the workers in off-duty debate and at leisure.

The south Wales pits were virtually ignored throughout the silent film era except for odd footage of the aftermath of tragedies, such as Senghenydd's notorious Universal Colliery collapse in 1913 claiming 439 lives.

The only fictional silent drama with a mine at the centre of events was The Foreman's Treachery (1914), directed by Charles Brabin for America's Edison company - and that was a copper mine. Anyone studying silent film only might be lulled into thinking there was no industrial turmoil in Wales' pre-Great War years, the period of the 1910 Tonypandy Riots and growth of the South Wales Miners Federation (founded 1898).

The first fiction film to deal with a pit fall was The Citadel (1938) made by American King Vidor for MGM in Britain, featuring Robert Donat as a doctor dealing with silicosis cases and helping to sabotage a tainted water supply in a valleys community in which disease is endemic. The south Wales scenes have genuine power - and do full justice to The Citadel novel from AJ Cronin, once a GP in Gwent and later for a spell as a Government inspector of mines.

The Oscar-laden How Green was My Valley (1941) was a film of much warmth and fellow Celtic feeling from American born John Ford (of Irish descent). In keeping perhaps with his predilection for creating screen mythology and legend, Ford ignored the final pages of Richard Llewellyn's novel, with their description of central character Huw Morgan as an adult, battling alongside outsider 'scabs' to keep the pit open.

These scenes, which add compelling problematic and ambivalent elements to the character of Huw and to Cronin's book, were probably omitted, however, in order to feature child actor Roddy McDowall on screen as Huw throughout the film. Made entirely on 20th Century Fox's 's back lot and ranch at Malibu, How Green is persuasive at a mythical level and always visually impressive - but it cannot be regarded as a realistic study of mining life, especially one set around the time of the Tonypandy riots!

Black and white photograph of Paul Robeson, taken in 1958.Photograph of Paul Robeson, taken in 1958.

The south Wales mining drama Proud Valley (1940), a British vehicle for US singer Paul Robeson, was his own favourite even though, at the climax, his character dies as a self-sacrificing hero and, as he observed later: "the black man goes down the chute again".

This Ealing Studios film, directed (incongruously enough) by Pen Tennyson, great-grandson of the poet and an old boy of Oxford University and Eton, was brave enough in its own way, tackling racism, with Clifford Evans' bigoted miner given short shrift by his colleague, Edward Chapman's stalwart veteran, with his famous riposte: "Dammit, man, aren't we all black down that pit"?

Proud Valley allows us sharp if amusing glimpses of families living on credit and facing hardship, and the mining scenes, shot in the studios, seem relatively authentic. Outdoor shots of miners gathering coal from slag heaps were taken in Staffordshire as south Wales private mines, in these pre-nationalisation days, refused to give permission for shooting.

Tennyson himself was hardly what he seemed - he was vociferous in supporting the nationalisation of the pits and wanted to call the film One in Five, the proportion of miners injured in the pits, a suggestion quashed by Ealing studios head Michael Balcon.

Jill Craigie's fiction feature Blue Scar (1949) offered a sensitive but forthright approach to pits nationalisation and shot excellent location footage in south Wales. This movie from a left-winger who married Michael Foot in the year of the film's release, examined bravely the pro and con views of miners and employers after nationalisation.

Other impressive films on industrial subjects included two agit-prop drama-docs from the Strand company, London, in 1937. Today We Live had a pits segment shot by Communist Ralph Bond among unemployed Rhondda miners, and Eastern Valley, made by Cambridge graduate Donald Alexander, was set in a Gwent agricultural and clothing co-operative for the jobless.

The films had marked similarities, with a structure and visual style owing much to their producer Paul Rotha - and placed the blame for mass unemployment on capitalism. Bond's film was the more outspoken, allowing one of three Rhondda miners central to the narrative, to criticise an actual scheme for a social and leisure centre as a short term palliative and no substitute for 'real' work.

Black and white photograph of miner Llew Jones from Cwmgiedd who featured in Silent village.Photograph of miner Llew Jones from Cwmgiedd who featured in Silent village.

Humphrey Jennings made a bigger impact at the time with Silent Village (1943) in which villagers in Cwmgiedd, west Wales, dramatised a 1942 Czechoslovakian massacre by the Nazis, as if these events took place in Wales. This daring film lacked a little energy and passion but Jennings' penchant for understatement and striking imagery carried its own force - and the film, calling for solidarity among miners faced with the German threat to freedom, was instrumental in forging enduringly strong relationships between Czech and Welsh miners, in particular.

South Wales pitmen found their lives portrayed consistently on screen only when Karl Francis, from the Rhymney valley, began his powerful, and largely polemical oeuvre of work with Above Us The Earth (1977) and followed with such films as the impressive Ms Rhymney Valley (1985) - and his intended magnum opus The Angry Earth (1989), the story of the south Wales coalfield told through the eyes of a 110-year old woman, which proved too ambitious and far too schematic to make the desired impact.

The north Wales slate quarries appeared, belatedly, in sound films. Endaf Emlyn exploited the milieu's features as a striking backdrop in his 1991 Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Full Moon).

Stephen Bayly's 1984 S4C comedy feature Aderyn Papur (And Pigs Might Fly), conveyed the plight of folk in the once thriving slate-quarry areas within an amiable, occasionally wry, comedy about a north Wales boy who finds increasingly idiosyncratic ways to impress two Japanese visitors he believes (misguidedly) are in the district as potential investors.

Bayly and his regular writer Ruth Carter demonstrated with S4C's cinema feature Rhosyn a Rhith (Coming Up Roses) (1986) a similar ability to make a likeable comedy delivering trenchant points about the Thatcher government and the prevailing sad state of the south Wales mining industry and their communities beset by pit closures.

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Mark Kermode

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