Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film Review

Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film is the third and final volume in the BFI’s This Working Life series. It follows 2009’s Portrait of a Miner and 2011’s Tales from the Shipyard and shares in both sets’ preference towards remarkable imagery. Miner had marvellous underground footage and records of long-gone colliery towns. Shipyard had the enormity of the vessels under construction and the once thriving British docklands. Steel has the steelworks themselves, vast arenas of heat and fire, colour and light. No wonder we find some of British cinema’s finest directors of photography at work across this volume, some well-known, others less so.

Of the 23 titles contained on Steel, five were shot by major cinematographers, all of whom were working in colour. Geoffrey Unsworth, later to win Oscars for his work on Cabaret and Roman Polanski’s Tess, gained one of his earliest credits for the Technicolor photography of Teeth of Steel (1942). Jack Cardiff, celebrated for his work on Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and so many more, also had Technicolor at his disposal for Steel (1945). Steel Town (1958), meanwhile, made use of the talents of Wolfgang Suschitzky, whose career encompassed everything and everyone from Paul Rotha and British Transport Films to Get Carter and Worzel Gummidge.

No less prolific, though certainly less familiar is Fred Gamage, who shot Men of Consett (1958). Look around the BFI’s British cinema output and you’re bound to find his name, whether it’s among the extras on a Flipside disc, nestled in a GPO or COI compilation, on one of the Humphrey Jennings Blu-rays or on Portrait of a Miner. He really was one of the everywhere-men of British documentary filmmaking, yet also an unsung presence. Similarly, Edward McConnell, responsible for The Big Mill (1963), deserves to be much better known. He worked pretty much exclusively in his native Scotland, primarily on documentaries for the Films for Scotland Committee (of which The Big Mill was one), but also lending a hand if, say, British Transport Films were making a travelogue in Glasgow or the Children’s Film Foundation decided to venture over the border. His efforts, too, are quite commonplace on disc, although in this instance it is Panamint Cinema’s DVD catalogue that requires investigation. A Line for All Seasons, his 1981 record of the West Highland rail journey, comes highly recommended.

In the hands of these five talents, Steel really comes to life. As Ros Cranston points out, “filming in steelworks was a dangerous occupation, particularly in the era of highly flammable nitrate stock,” which only makes us marvel all the more. The scenes of men at work are wonderful combinations of light and colour, arguably all the more so in the 1940s Technicolor efforts of Unsworth and Cardiff. The Big Mill – in which the team behind the Oscar-winning Seawards the Great Ships (included on the Tales from the Shipyard set) gave a similarly epic treatment to a works in Lanarkshire – also utilised Technicolor and emphasises the sheer expanse of the vast arena before its lens. McConnell favours abstraction and lengthy tracking shots, creating a cine-poem in the process. By way of contrast, Gamage’s work on Men of Consett remains most memorable for the local life it captures, especially since it no longer exists. British Steel shut up shop in this one-industry town in 1980 causing the immediate loss of 3,700 jobs and many, much more lasting effects. A year after closure it recorded an unemployment rate three times the national average.

This combination of former industries and immense machinery is such that even the more mundane of titles come with spectacular imagery. Steel for the Seventies (1970) resembles a banal schools’ programme, complete with chat show jazz on the soundtrack and the calm presence of BBC reporter Jeffrey Iverson in the voice-over booth, and yet its forges and furnaces nevertheless make for some terrific visuals. Much the same can also be said for 1928’s The Building of the New Tyne Bridge from Newcastle to Gateshead, which should, as a 47-minute silent document designed to provide a functional record more than anything, be an exceedingly dull affair. But that fails to take into account what we get to witness over those 47 minutes: the construction of the Tyne Bridge from start to finish. Of course, who knows what a more accomplished cinematographer could have achieved in such circumstances (the film comes without credits and Steel for the Seventies similarly fails to acknowledge its director of photography), yet the fundamental qualities remain.

The inclusion of the likes of The Building of the New Tyne Bridge point up the fact that Steel is as much concerned with delivering an historical record as it is a cinematic one. For every The Big Mill there is also a Steel in South Wales (1950) providing a snapshot of the industry at a given point. (The accompanying booklet even acknowledges as much, with Patrick Russell describing the film as a “meat-and-potatoes short”.) This ‘Century of Steelmaking’, to quote the set’s subtitle, is an eventful one, taking in war, austerity, prosperity, nationalisation and decline. Fittingly it begins with the busy factory gates of Parkgate Iron and Steel Co., Rotherham in 1901 (as captured by Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon in their actuality of the same name) and closes in Consett in 1987 as one of Penny Woolcock’s Northern Newsreels gauges the effects of unemployment and the rise of the National Front.

Impressively, the 23 films contained within Steel allow for plenty of idiosyncratic voices to go alongside the history and all those wonderful images. 1945’s The Ten Year Plan, written and directed by Lewis Gilbert long before his move into Bond movies and Educating Rita, takes a tongue-in-cheek post-modern approach: it’s a Gaumont-British Instructional documentary about the fictionalised making of a Gaumont-British Instructional documentary. A 30-year-old Charles Hawtrey takes the lead as a screenwriter researching Britain’s post-war steel needs and does so with a certain cheek and wry humour. The film still manages to convey its messages, albeit with a welcome sense of fun. Conversely, Common Sense About Steel is deadly serious: a two-minute independently-produced, Conservative Party-funded no-to-nationalisation propaganda piece.

One of the standouts is River of Steel, a 1951 animation from the Larkins Studio. Lesser known than, say, Halas & Batchelor or Bob Godfrey, they were fittingly situated somewhere in-between. Godfrey earned one of his earliest credits on the film, whilst fellow animator Vera Linnecar had graduated from Halas & Batchelor’s series of Charley shorts for the COI. In terms of style, there’s a definite kinship with their US contemporaries at UPA (creators of Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing) as well as a look back to the abstraction of Len Lye and Norman McLaren’s GPO efforts. Among the key creative talents in this instance were Spanish surrealist painter Oscar Domínguez and writer Roger MacDougall who, that same year, had contributed to The Man in the White Suit’s screenplay. Pretty impressive for a 10-minute short intended to summarise the manufacture of steel from iron ore.

Just as distinctive, although in a completely different way, is Men of Consett. It was directed by Tom Stobart, an adventurer in the old-fashioned sense who would translate his experiences into books, photographs and, on occasion, films. This particular title was a commission from the British Iron and Steel Industry with the aim of mixing promotional tool with travelogue. Yet Stobart, limping as a result of shotgun injury in Ethiopia some years earlier, positions himself in front of the camera as well as behind it producing a strange vanity project with an off-kilter central performance. (Men of Consett uneasily blends fact with fiction.) The booklet notes sum it up best: “peculiar dialogue, unsettling unexplored class tensions and flashes of beer-fuelled psychological masochism.” Much more surefooted is Gamage’s wonderful photography.

Special mention should also be made for Sheffield Film Co-op’s Women of Steel, made in 1984. Its format is a simple one and all the effective for as a result. Various women who worked in munitions factories during the Second World War recall their experiences in a series over the course of 27 minutes. Occasional snippets of newsreel footage interrupt their tales, but it’s their input which is most important. In part, the recollections serve as a corrective to the patronising tone found in some of Steel’s earlier shorts: the well-meaning Mrs Worth Goes to Westminster (1949), a dramatized affair in which a newspaper editor’s wife finds out more about the nationalisation of steel and iron industry for herself; the ‘utopian’ vision of Steel Town in which a man’s dinner is always on the table at just the right time.

Of course, this dialogue between the different films plays a key part in Steel’s qualities. As was also very much the case with Portrait of a Miner and Tales from the Shipyard, it’s the overall picture which counts most of all. You can designate highlights and low points, but ultimately it’s the manner in which the 23 films interact that allows them to become more than a collection of isolated entries. Yes, there is plenty of terrific photography from some of British cinema’s finest cinematographers. And yes, there are some wonderful short films contained within. Yet it’s the richness of the portrait they create in unison which is the reason for Steel’s success and why it makes for yet another superb documentary compilation from the BFI.


Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film is spread across two region-free discs and accompanied by a 44-page booklet. As should be expected the quality of the present varies from film to film, with some faring much better than others. Steel in South Wales and Men of Consett, for example, have soundtracks that are definitely showing their age, while Steel Town, say, looks as good as new. Steel, the 1945 film with Technicolor photography from Jack Cardiff and Cyril Knowles, has undergone a full restoration and is now suitably gleaming. Be aware also that Women of Steel and the Northern Newsreel extract were produced on videotape and come with inherent problems as a result. In all cases original aspect ratios are adhered to as are the mono soundtracks. (There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.)

The booklet provides available credits and full notes for each of the 23 inclusions, plus two wider ranging essays (‘Steel on Film’ by Mark Miodownik and ‘Molten Movies: Steel and the Post-War Documentary Industry’ by Patrick Russell and James Piers Taylor) and a piece on the restoration of Steel by Ben Thompson. Needless to say, the quality is up to the BFI’s usual standards making this a valuable addition and the equal of any on-disc equivalents.


Disc One

Parkgate Iron and Steel Co., Rotherham (1901, d. Sagar Mitchell & James Kenyon)
His Majesty's Visit to the Clyde (1917)
The Building of the New Tyne Bridge (1928)
Steel (Civics and Commerce series) (1933)
Mastery of Steel (1933)
British Steel (1939)
Teeth of Steel (1942, d. Ronald H. Riley)
Steel (1945, d. Ronald H. Riley)
The Ten Year Plan (1945, d. Lewis Gilbert)
Common Sense about Steel (1948)
Mrs Worth Goes to Westminster (1949, d. Nigel Byass)

Disc Two

Steel in the South Wales (1950, d. Peter Pickering)
River of Steel (1951, d. Peter Sachs)
Ingot Pictorial No 27 (1956, d. Geoff Busby)
Steel Town (1958, d. Bill Mason)
Men of Consett (1959, d. Tom Stobart)
The Big Mill (1963, d. Laurence Henson)
Steel for the Seventies (1970, d. Frank Black)
Women of Steel (1984, d. Jenny Woodley)
Northern Newsreel no 7 (extract) (1987, d. Penny Woolcock)

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


out of 10

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