The Tyne Documentaries Review

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Amongst the Amber collective’s various projects and side-projects over the past 40 years was a series of lectures and screenings under the title Filmmakers Talking. Held at their Tyneside Cinema, it played host to a number of British filmmaking talents, amongst them Robert Vas, Edgar Anstey and Michael Grigsby. I mention this for the two reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates some of the influences on Amber’s documentary output, and secondly because the likes of Vas, Anstey and Grigsby are currently being well served from a revival of interest in the British documentary movement. Over the past few years I’ve enthusiastically reviewed various boxed-set, compilations and special editions – the BFI’s Free Cinema and Land of Promise collections, their volumes devoted to the GPO Film Unit and British Transport Films, to name but a few – and many have been enthusiastically received by the general public too. Put simply The Tyne Documentaries more than deserves a share of this audience. Watching this quartet of films is like seeing a continuation of these filmmakers’ works. Anyone who marvelled at Shipyard or Enginemen will see an immediate kinship here, whilst those who know of Amber solely through their later features (Seacoal, In Fading Light, Dream On, and so on) would similarly do well to sample these earlier productions. They offer the same level of craftsmanship and the same focus on work and the community - and not simply in prototype form either.

The four shorts which make up The Tyne Documentaries were all made during the 1970s. Launch, from 1973, records the closing stages of the World Unicorn’s construction. Bowes Line (1975) documents Stephenson’s incline railway near the River Tyne and the men who operated it. 1976’s Last Shift re-employed the workforce from a Swalwell brickworks for one final week so as to provide some lasting record of their methods, many pre-dating the Industrial Revolutions. And Glassworks, made in 1977, takes in Lemington’s glassblowing works for similar reasons. Indeed, there’s a definite sense of nostalgia about these films, each focussing on an area which has since become marginalised or obsolete. Of course, this is an idea which has informed much of Amber’s output over the years, though it’s especially striking to see it here in strictly factual form. Without the narrative underpinnings which would form an integral part of the collective’s films from Seacoal onwards we are simply left to observe and, with hindsight, to realise many of these practices are no more.

Indeed, observation is the thing as each of the shorts is shorn of many traditional documentary elements. There are no voice-overs, no background music and the human element comes in solely through moments of snatched dialogue. As such there’s no playing on the emotions, no patronisation and, importantly, nothing to date these films. Amber have clearly trusted their audience as opposed to trying to entertain them (it’s easy to imagine some celebrity of the day offering a fawning, simplistic narration or a wistful, folksy score that would scream out the decade of production more so than the hairstyles or the film stock) and as such we end up with works which are quiet, relaxed and willing to let the natural flavours or beauty overtake; in this respect I was much reminded of Paul Barnes’ documentaries on the end of the steam era (recently collected on the BFI’s Black Five disc), films which similarly had a wistful undertow.

The Disc

Just as these films more than hold their own against the various classic documentaries released onto disc of late, so too does their DVD handling. Having been produced by Amber themselves The Tyne Documentaries therefore has access to the best prints available and clearly their handling here meets the collective’s own approval. Each short was shot onto colour 16mm and each still looks really quite wonderful to this day. The colours remain strong, the clarity and level of detail is consistently impressive and the only flaws to speak of are those inherent in the filming process: poor light, that kind of thing. Otherwise original formats are adhered to, i.e. mono sound and 1.33:1 aspect ratios, and as such we’re getting the films in as good a condition as when they were first produced. Note however that Amber have now opted for issuing their films solely onto DVD-Rs as a means of cutting back costs (their first, In Fading Light, was issued as a standard disc), though this never once proved detrimental to the copy used for review.

As for extras, the disc comes accompanied with the standard Amber: A History booklet which has so far adorned all of their releases (and a terrific overview it provides too) plus a 29-minute ‘making of’ documentary. Consisting simply of three people speaking in a room, it nonetheless proves to be fascinating stuff. Accompanying Murray Martin (who directed or co-directed all four of the shorts) and Peter Roberts (their main cameraman) is Stafford Linsey, an ‘industrial archaeologist’ whose influence was particularly important on the last three works. Linsey had decided that his line of work - effectively creating a record of work practices which were ceasing to exist, primarily through stills photography and drawings - needed to encompass the moving image to document the more complex areas. As such he contacted the Amber collective and so the films from Bowes Line onwards were born as a form of ‘rescue recording’. The result is that much of the discussion turns to how and why these films were made, with especial mention made of the simple methods employed. However, there’s also space for plenty of digressions, whether it be individual anecdotes or the way in which class and upbringing informed these productions (an area which also found a space in Amber’s The Pursuit of Happiness documentary, recently screened on More4). Particularly interesting is the discussion of Launch and how it’s initial editor, who worked primarily in recorded, turned in an initial cut of just over a minute. He even broke up the film’s most remarkable moment involving the launch of the title – a single shot which finally allows us to take in the sheer size of the World Unicorn, one that’s all the more impressive to eyes now so bombarded by CG enhancement when it comes to the cinema screen that they forget the impact something as immediately real as this. In fact I’m also tempted to recommend this disc on the basis of this one moment alone, except that would be to ignore the many other delights found elsewhere.

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8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10


out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:25:28

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