Last Sunday evening in Cubby Broccoli Cinema, a fascinating package of short films were presented to a near-capacity audience. King Coal is a specially-curated collection of short films currently touring the UK, charting and describing Britain’s coal industry from 1901 to 2004. Even better, Katy McGahan, Non-Fiction Curator at the British Film Institute (BFI), travelled to the museum to introduce the films and set them in context.
There are fifteen short films in the package, whittled down from the collections in the BFI’s impressive National Archive. Katy’s job, as part of a curatorial team of six, was to select a range of films that together give a representative sense of the history of coal mining in Britain.
Thanks to the availability of footage from several traditions in British documentary making, from very early amateur documentaries to official films commissioned by industry, the screening included: early ‘actualities’ (Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery, from 1901); promotional films (King Coal, Big Job); an artful documentary on miners’ leisure time (Gala Day); recreations of tragic folk songs (the three Songs of the Coalfields shorts); management training films (the amusingly stilted What About That Job); and films designed to counteract press reports of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s (Not Just Tea and Sandwiches), as well at the legacy of one picket line in particular (The Battle of Orgreave).
After the screenings, we conducted a lively and searching discussion of the films and the issues surrounding them. Several issues captured people’s imagination, and people commented on their own memories of the political climate of various periods and the way they were depicted. The discussion also took in a range of other connected areas, from curatorial politics to media rights issues.
We asked Katy for her own feelings on the event:
It was a privilege to be invited to present this curated programme of films from the BFI National Archive showing coal mining through the 20th century. I was extremely heartened that so many people came out on a cold winter night to watch these remarkable films and it was great that members of the audience took the opportunity to take part in a discussion at the end of the screening.
Many thanks to Katy McGahan for her time and for supporting such a great screening and talk.