Steel on screen

6th February 2013

I have said this here before but it definitely bears repeating: over the past seven years or so a series of BFI screenings, publications and DVD releases has rewritten the history of the British documentary. This is an achievement that has, as yet, been insufficiently celebrated – and of course the task is far from complete. Much of what we’ve learned and seen anew has been to do with cinema and industrial documentaries and we still have the glories of television documentary to discover. But already we can understand more fully and engage more deeply with and simply and straighhforwardly see an enormously rich filmmaking heritage from the early 1930s to the late 1970s (and occasionally beyond). And the latest instalment of the project is this month’s initiative This Working Life: Steel which was launched on Tuesday evening at BFI Southbank. Here’s the trailer…

Steel is the third of a trilogy of projects exploring Britain’s industrial heritage on screen. We have had King Coal and Tales from the Shipyard, each of which included new research, screenings (and not just in London) and a DVD collection. I wrote about the DVD sets Portrait of a Miner in this post, and about Tales… in ‘Down to the sea in ships’ part one and part two. Now with Steel (and I intend to return in detail to the DVD set in a future post), we can recognise the shape of a wonderfully rich tradition of industrial filmmaking.

Since 2006 the BFI has also opened up and made available Free Cinema and the films of the GPO Film Unit, as well as issuing two entirely essential DVD collections with a more general focus, Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950 and Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-war Britain, 1950-1970. There have also been exemplary books on the GPO Film Unit and post-war documentary, as well as quirkier collections like Roll Out the Barrel: The British Pub on Film. Bravo, bravo, BFI

On Tuesday we were treated to a taster menu of extracts from many of the films on the Steel DVD, a number of which are also being screened in full at BFI Southbank over the coming month (the dates and a brief introduction by curator Ros Cranston are here). But the main event was the premiere of a newly restored print of the 34-minute Technicolor documentary, Steel (1945), which is also included on the DVD set (and from which the image above comes). Written and directed by Ronald H Riley, it was shot by the great Jack Cardiff and Cyril Knowles, a much less celebrated but still significant figure.

And the screening was a revelation – gloriously beautiful, often astounding in the way in which it captured the technical processes of steel production at exceptionally high temperatures, accompanied with a great Hubert Clifford score played by the London Symphony Orchestra, and inscribed with an optimism about the post-war world and those who would build it that was, with all that we now know, close to heart-breaking.

For more on the film and its recent restoration, see the BFI blog How Steel got its gleam back – and I will return next week to it and the other treats on what is unquestionably a compelling DVD set.

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