Hollywood film could tell story of 1875 Lan colliery disaster

By Matt Lloyd
BBC Wales

media caption"When people heard there were children working underground they were outraged"

A schoolboy's project that inspired his grandmother to write a book on a mining disaster is set to become a film.

Norma Procter was inspired by the story of workers at Lan Colliery in Gwaelod-y-Garth, Cardiff, who were killed in an explosion on 6 December 1875.

It was after her grandson Jo Thorne researched the history of her cottage, where one of the victims once lived.

Now a Hollywood production company wants to turn her book - The House of Abraham - into a £5m movie.

As well as the disaster itself, the film aims to explore issues of the time such as politics, the class divide, child labour and immigration.

And the director, who has worked on several Marvel Comics blockbusters, is hoping to attract Welsh acting talent such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sir Anthony Hopkins to the project.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCatherine Zeta-Jones is among many Welsh stars being considered for roles

It was a snowy December morning when an explosion ripped through the coal seam of the drift mine.

Among the 16 killed were two children, aged 11 and 12, who had been playing hide and seek underground.

The disaster led to changes in laws on women and children working underground, as well as safety measures to reduce the risk of future gas explosions.

However, as the entrance to the mine became hidden under the overgrowth, memories of the disaster and those who perished within faded.

Then Mrs Procter, 79, discovered the mine's overman Abraham Phillips, who inspected the state of the mine every morning, had lived in her cottage at the time.

image captionNorma Procter's cottage was the inspiration for the story
image captionNewspapers reported "another explosion" in a Welsh mine, and four more people died from their injuries in the following days

Mrs Procter started campaigning for a permanent memorial before writing a book on the tragedy.

"Jo was a young archaeologist and needed a project about researching a Welsh cottage so we looked at the deeds of our house," said Mrs Procter.

"I couldn't believe there was a pit somewhere nearby that people had forgotten about, just 200 yards away in the woods, completely overgrown.

"It really caught my interest so I started researching. It grew from there."

image captionThen and now: The entrance to the mine became hidden from view before restoration
image copyrightNorma Procter
image captionDirector Gabriel Beristain took time out from a Marvel film to look at locations with screenwriter Jo Thorne

Now Los Angeles-based Vedado Films want to bring the story to the silver screen.

It caught the imagination of cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, who fell in love with Wales while living in the UK before moving to Hollywood and working on films such as Iron Man, Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy.

"The book was phenomenal and it's important to remind people how ordinary people were exploited," he said.

"It's not just about the disaster but the relationship between the characters, the struggle of the working class and the role of women in Victorian society.

"Now we want to attract the biggest Welsh stars in Hollywood to the project.

"They won't get the salaries they usually draw here in Hollywood but it's the passion of working on a film in their homeland."

image copyrightHopewell Colliery
image captionLan Colliery would have looked similar to Hopewell Colliery in the Forest of Dean

Vedado Films are in talks with international investors and said the Welsh Government have offered support.

However the decision by Pinewood to end its involvement in a Cardiff film studio has caused a delay.

Producer Sacha Rodriguez said there was a "real enthusiasm" among Welsh actors and people living in America.

"It's a story that needs to be told," he said.

"Amid the industrial revolution and the push for progress, it was ordinary people working in these mines who were suffering, which will have parallels in many parts of the world.

"For many people outside of the UK, they would never have imagined this suffering was going on so close to London.

"It was one of those scars that makes the Welsh nation so strong. While it was tragic, many positive things came out of it."

image copyrightLan Film
image captionAbraham Phillips risked the poor conditions due to the threat of closure

How a schoolboy's project made it to the silver screen is almost a story in itself.

Mrs Procter said: "I'm trying not to get too excited because I know lots of things can go wrong with producing a film.

"But it would be wonderful to see these characters come alive on screen."

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