Thursday, 23 April 2020

FILM REVIEW: The Price Of Coal - Ken Loach

Comedian Greg Davies recently made an excellent documentary for BBC4 about the Yorkshire born writer, Barry Hines and his enduring novel, A Kestrel for a Knave. As part of the programme, Davies, a former English teacher visited Barnsley where both the novel and director, Ken Loach’s iconic film version are set. The documentary, which is still available to view on BBC iPlayer, gives a fascinating insight into Hines’ literary career and the community that he lived in for most of his life. Some of the people and locations that featured in the film Kes, also appear in The Price of Coal, which Hines wrote as a two part television drama. It was directed by Loach for the BBC Play for Today series in 1977, the same year as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The Price of Coal, is set in the fictional village of Milton, the skyline of which is dominated by the local colliery. The colliery and its miners provide the focus for the two contrasting films that make up The Price of Coal.

The first film, Meet the People, documents the efforts of the colliery’s management and officials from the National Coal Board to give the pit a makeover ahead of a visit by a young Prince Charles. This premise provides Hines and Loach with plenty of opportunities to grind their political axes and inject bucket loads of social realism and critical satire. In both films, Loach cast comedians from the Yorkshire working men’s club circuit in lead roles. In Meet the People, one of these Bobby Knutt plays the central character of Sid Storey, a miner who doesn’t approve of the Royal visit and is extremely vocal in criticising those who do. It is a wonderfully nuanced performance and the scenes of Sid with his friends and family are the most accomplished and satisfying in the film. There is not much in the film that would engage TV audiences today, the plotting appears clumsy and the pacing at times is desperately slow. However watching the first film is essential to be able to fully appreciate and understand the dramatic tensions and political undertones that lie at the heart of the second.

In, Meet the People, reference is made of a previous Royal visit to a colliery in 1912 during which 85 men and boys were killed at a neighbouring pit. One of the characters remarks in the film that this was, “bad luck.” This proves to be a prescient remark as the second film in the series, Back to Reality, takes place several weeks after the Royal visit and deals with the aftermath of a devastating underground explosion that kills a number of miners and leaves others trapped. Making this second film must have presented Loach with enormous logistical challenges but he handles the underground scenes with assurance and confidence, conveying in harrowing detail the horror of the miner’s plight. This he does with great technical skill and a keen sense of the dramatic. The scenes of the miners' families waiting fearfully for news of their loved ones are as raw and compelling as any I have seen in recent TV dramas. Loach shows in this early film that he is not scared to pull punches and use his position as a film maker to call out those he believes to be responsible for social injustices. In this instance it is the NCB who are accused of compromising on safety and working conditions.

The Price of Coal may lack the artistry and sophistication of Kes, but it is nonetheless imbued with the same degree of compassion and humanity. This two part drama is a fine example of filmmaking from a golden age of British television drama and as such is recommended viewing.

The Price of Coal films 1 and 2 can be viewed on YouTube, (please note that the last minutes of part 2 appear to be missing).

Reviewer - Richard Hall
on - 22/4/20

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