The Black Country 1969 Review
Earlier this week I took a belated look at Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow (link), a two-disc set from the BFI devoted to various ancient folk traditions and their representation on film over the past century. One of the many intriguing elements to this compilation was its collaboration with a number of UK-based regional archives. In doing so they were able to correctly encapsulate the local flavour so intrinsic to its subject matter, whether that be the throwing of boiled pennies to children in Harwich or the game of Kirkwall Ba’ played only by members of its community. Unsurprisingly perhaps, many of these regionally-sourced pieces where made for television, either as half-hour documentaries or, more commonly, as miniature stories for the local news. With that comes some shift in tone - a serious piece hosted by folklorist Peter Kennedy on one hand, light-hearted vox pops about gurning on the other - but this was nonetheless truly interesting stuff, all the more so given its rarity. In pretty much every case it would be safe to say that these various clips and programmes hadn’t been aired since their initial broadcast.
The Media Archive for Central England (MACE) had no involvement in the Here’s a Health release, but had done something quite similar the previous year with their inaugural DVD, The Black Country 1969. The title relates the main event, a half-hour documentary with a self-evident subject matter and year of production, that was produced by ATV Today, a kind of One Show for the West Midlands that ran between 1964 and 1981. But there’s plenty more to the disc - 56 minutes’ worth, in fact - which has also been culled from the Birmingham-based current affairs programme. All hailing from the seventies, these additional pieces, much like the Here’s a Health news items, range from the silly to the serious. Also present is a 1974 episode of Jaywalking in which ATV Today presenter Sue Jay spends a fundraising evening at the Lower Gornal Football Club.
Whilst the disc delineates between its central documentary and bonus materials, it’s likely that most viewers will not. With a total running time of just under the 90-minute mark there is the obvious temptation to see The Black County 1969 as a full-blown feature. Moreover, the mixture of two half-hour docs plus the various bite size pieces produces an ultimately multi-faceted experience, levelling out the more sternly serious aspects and the sillier items into a wider-ranging account of the Black Country: its history, its character, and all points in-between. The main film, which is entitled simply The Black Country, offers up the general overview of the region and its people, in a largely conventional style but peppered with strange little aside. On the Road to Nowhere, the Jaywalking episode, uses its narrower focus to concentrate on the traditions and the rituals. It’s a kind ‘Night Out in the Black Country’ - and what better way to sample all of the local colour? The remaining pieces take in regional heroes, regional recipes and more besides, effectively a grab bag to fill in the gaps.
According to the booklet notes, The Black Country was the only half-hour documentary produced by ATV Today during its 17-year existence. The date of its original transmission, Monday the 7th of April 1969, points towards it being conceived as a Easter special and as such it’s hard not to afford it a little prestige. Certainly this is a serious-minded production, typified by its opening moments: a montage edited to the beat of heavy machinery. We see hard work, heavy drinking and horses, folk of all ages and cobbled streets; a glimpse of things to come. The staccato cuts give way to Gwyn Richards’ voice-over that is both poetic and authoritative. Describing the beginnings of the industrial revolution that centred itself on the Black Country we get the following: “Once its black heart had been slapped into life there was no stopping it.” Also to hand is Dr John Fletcher of the Black Country Society, providing the necessary history with intermittent to-camera addresses, although it’s hard at first not to distracted by his distinctive look: balding, bespectacled, heavily bearded and sporting a duffel coat. Between Richards and Fletcher we get a look at the past and how it has both maintained itself and slowly eroded over the years. We witness the continuing production of immense chains in the traditional style (“If you don’t know what hard work is, you’re looking at it”) and old staging posts along the canals, now empty and gradually falling apart after years of disuse.
Greater continuity through the years is seen in the character of the Black Countryman and so it is that The Black Country consists heavily of interview material. The aim, no doubt, is to demonstrate the various facets first hand - the proud nature, the slightly belligerent demeanour, the cruel sense of humour. (And those are the voice-over’s descriptions, not mine.) The average man and woman on the street comes under the camera’s glare as do more prominent interviewees. There’s Mrs. Baker, for example, who has lived in the same house for 63 years, now condemned. Or Joe Mallen, chain-maker and “general tough nut” who has bred dogs for both Crufts and illegal fights in his pub’s cellar. Fascinating characters though they are, they also have a tendency to meander in their anecdotes and general observations, on occasion derailing the documentary. They can also be near impossible to understand, though thankfully MACE have provided optional English subs across the entire disc.
The Jaywalking episode should be just as meandering, but here the looseness of tone aids proceedings very well. Sue Jay offers a little preamble at the very beginning (repeating many of the oft-told tales of the Black Country such as Queen Victoria drawing the blinds on her train carriage as she passed through) before moving onto the main event. This is the Madame President Faggot and Pae Supper at the Lower Gornal Football Club. An annual event hosted by the local bookie and mother of eight, it’s essentially a communal charity get-together in which money is raised for the area and everyone gets up and does a turn. Jay attempts the odd interview during the increasingly boozy evening but to little success. Instead the documentary must make do with a more observational tone, simply recording the many acts as they perform, some of which are rather bizarre. One man plays the bones (made out of cow’s ribs), another plays the spoon. One woman plays the mouse-trap, though we never understand why. There’s also a crooner and, outside of the musical turns, some local-flavoured humour in the form of an Aynuck and Ayli joke and a closing poem extolling the virtues of community, specifically this Black Country one. Indeed, On the Road to Nowhere (a reference to Lower Gorton having not a single main road running through it) is a celebration, pure and simple, and an infectious one at that. It may be a little odd at times (the faggots are cooked in the lining of a pig’s stomach, named ‘Nottingham Lace’ because it’s so “pretty looking”), but there’s no denying its overriding warmth of feeling.
The remaining inclusions are all miniatures (averaging about four minutes apiece) from ATV Today made between 1972 and 1978. Presented in chronological order these offer up a range of topics and see reappearances of both Dr John Fletcher and Sue Jay. Some are akin to local news items, some are rather comical in tone and others are decidedly serious. We learn about local gourmet and Black Country beer, hear the tale of a local legend like Jumping Joe Darby (aka Spring Heel Jack, aka Josey Darby) and even get an illustrated poem set amongst the chain forges. As always the sense of regional pride is high on the agenda and as always it makes for really quite charming viewing. Furthermore, the concentration on local customs and traditions brings us back to Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow; there’s even an item on May Day ponies to make an explicit thematic connection between the two. Indeed, as a companion piece The Black Country 1969 really should appeal to those who’ve sampled Here’s a Health. But that’s not to say that this disc doesn’t hold its own strengths and qualities - it presents some fascinating documents of its time and one can only hope that further releases continue and that other regional archives follow suit. There must surely be a wealth of such treasures out there awaiting rediscovery.
The Black Country 1969 houses all of its material on single dual-layered disc encoded for all regions. This material hasn’t been restored but nevertheless the presentation standard is perfectly acceptable. The Black Country was filmed in black and white whilst all of the bonus items were made in colour. The former demonstrates some heavy grain and has understandably succumbed to some wear over the years resulting in an image that has as much character as those it captures. At worst such flaws prompt the odd bit of chroma, but for the most part contrast levels are very good (blacks are often wonderfully solid) and the amount of detail better than expected. The Jaywalking episode, on the other hand, suffers from some heavy discoloration that, almost forty years down the line, emphasised the pink and green to the detriment of everything else in the spectrum. There’s also some signs of damage, but once you’ve adjusted to the overall standard it doesn’t prove too problematic. The shorter items amongst the extras are understandably variable, and again show signs of wear and tear, but have generally better colours than On the Road to Nowhere and prove more than watchable. Optional subtitles are also available across the board, though soundtracks (in their original mono) are generally crisp and possess an acceptable level clarity once age and damage has been taken into account. Indeed, it will likely be the strong accents that prompt their use. Also present on the disc is a two-minute showreel for MACE, whilst inside the package we also find an eight-page booklet with notes from MACE’s Emma Morley and Mike Pearson of the Black Country Society.
(Since The Black Country 1969 MACE has produced a second DVD which was released earlier this month. A two-disc set entitled From ATVLand in Colour, this is a five-part documentary series newly produced by ATVLand.net and taking us through the history of the ATV Centre in Birmingham from the 1960s through to its closure in 1997. This was the home to Tiswas and Crossroads so understandably both figure heavily, as does ATV Today and other more regionally-minded programming. Production staff, presenters and actors provide the talking heads, whilst MACE provide a wealth of archive material. I haven’t seen the discs myself but am reliably informed by Frank Collins of the Cathode Ray Tube blog that “the sheer amount of information, anecdotes, rare archive footage and enthusiasm for the subject matter” make it a worthwhile release. His full thoughts on the discs can be found here.)
The Black Country 1969 can be purchased via MACE.