Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Price of Coal : Meet the People & Back to Reality (1977)

It will come as no surprise that Ken Loach's 'Film for the Silver Jubilee' (as a caption during the titles daringly has it) is less than reverential to the Windsor family and the pomp and ceremony they inspire.

Meet The People was the first of two Play For Today's under the title The Price of Coal, which depicts a South Yorkshire mining community and reunited Loach with his long time producer Tony Garnett and Kes writer Barry Hines.

This first film concerns a Royal visit to the colliery from the Prince of Wales and produces much comedy, including widespread painting and improvements to make the colliery look good for HRH's inspection, two Bomb Squad officers growing suspicious of an unattended lunchbox, someone painting 'Scargill Rules OK' on the wall and the Prince's helicopter blowing off a character's toupee. One scene I really enjoyed was the dry run of the visit with a palace emissary acting as the Prince being introduced to a variety of employees by the brown nosing officious colliery manager. He describes one old stalwart as having put in "41 years loyal service at the pit" to which the old man - sans teeth - replies "Loyal service? I had no bloody choice!"

Loach bolsters his cast with club comedians and entertainers like Bobby Knutt (above), Duggie Brown, Stan Richards (who later found fame as Seth in Emmerdale) and Rita May to name but a few - a casting approach he has used time and time again and is rewarded with naturalistic performances and dialogue on each occasion. But aside from the comedy, serious issues are also raised. Bobby Knutt's miner Sid's protests at the sudden splurge of spending for repairs now after years of neglect, just because a Windsor is descending upon them. 

There is also a strong undercurrent of just how politically strong miners were back in the day running through the film like a rich seam, but it's not as politically overt as some of Loach's other films it is more, as Hines had said, 'entertaining propaganda' Kudos to a BBC that dared to broadcast something so anti-Royal during the Silver Jubilee year; this and Jim Allen's The Spongers are key examples of a public service broadcaster unafraid to show differing points of view, unlike the bias the corporation has now. We never had anything like it in the Golden or Diamond Jubilee's that's for sure!

This second play is certainly the other side of the coin and is steeped in drama and tragedy to balance the first's sense of fun and comedy. A fatal underground accident displays the heroism of miners and rescue workers and gives us a sense of the inherent danger in mining for coal, as well as community spirit and safety negligence from a management being pushed and, in turn, pushing too hard to achieve production targets. Back to Reality takes place one month after the events of Meet the People - which foreshadowed the tragedy here with a brief reference to a mining disaster which occurred in the early 1900s on the same day as a previous Royal visit. History would clearly repeat itself, but it would also bide its time. 

Brian Tufano's excellent photography really captures the claustrophobia and uncertainty of being underground and the designers did a fantastic job constructing an underground tunnel in a slag heap to film in. Loach's direction and Hines' script steer safely clear of melodrama and the cliched trappings of disaster movies or emergency serials and, in being unafraid to linger on the banality of a crisis - the long wait into the night for concerned relatives, their endless cups of tea, the fug of chain smoking and their washed out faces losing optimism by the hour, depicts totally realistic and naturalistic depiction of a crisis that feels more like a fly on the wall to a real tragic event than a piece of fiction. 

Both Price of Coal films are available on the excellent boxset Ken Loach at the BBC, along with many other great Play for Today's Ken helmed. But some aren't as lucky and remain languishing in the BBC vaults unwatched. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

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