- "Go Away Back to Berwick and Die!":The Blackhill Campaign, the Coal Industry, and the British New Wave
Could anyone have imagined a situation, muses the narrator, in which miners were at war with their union and a Tory MP stood up for their rights?Philip Oakes, Sunday Telegraph, January 19, 1964 [End Page 83]
On February 20, 1959, a small coal mine in Northumberland, close to the border between England and Scotland, was closed with the loss of approximately 160 jobs.1 Blackhill Colliery, near the village of Scremerston, four miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, was one of thirty-six pits that the United Kingdom's nationalized coal extraction agency, the National Coal Board (NCB), announced would cease production on December 3, 1958. In the face of intense opposition from the NCB and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the Blackhill miners and their supporters in the area organized an intense and sustained campaign to prevent the mine's closure. When that failed, they attempted—again, in the teeth of substantial opposition from both management and unions—to reopen a nearby drift mine that had been abandoned in 1908 and subsequently operated it successfully until the late 1960s.2
The Blackhill campaign (both the event and the film it inspired) is significant in the history of both Britain's coal industry and its national cinema. It could be argued that Blackhill's closure, along with the other thirty-five mines that closed in 1959, signaled the start of the coal industry's rapid decline as the United Kingdom's principal energy source. The coal industry had held this position since coal had fueled the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, yet its decline into insignificance took a mere thirty years. The emergence of nuclear power in the 1950s, the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s, and the problematic industrial relations that had affected the coal industry throughout the twentieth century, and that culminated in the now infamous miners' strike of 1984-85, brought about massive change in the politics, culture, and economics of energy production in the United Kingdom.
The campaign was also the subject of a forty-eight-minute documentary film, The Blackhill Campaign (prod. 1959-63, rel. 1964), that was written, produced, directed, and edited by an academic and former NCB researcher, Jack Parsons (1920-2006).3 At the time of the closure announcement, Parsons was living in North London and had become acquainted with a number of left-wing intellectuals and filmmakers based in and around Hampstead, notably the producer and director Karel Reisz (1926-2002).4 As Parsons became involved with the Blackhill campaign, Reisz was a rising star of the Free Cinema documentary group, an alliance of filmmakers often characterized as a movement that Reisz founded with Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Lorenza Mazzetti. Free Cinema is often cast as the cultural heir to John Grierson's documentary movement, specifically the more personal and impressionistic elements of it, as represented by Humphrey Jennings, rather than the discursive, public information approach of Paul Rotha. It involved, in Christophe Dupin's words, "films [that] were 'free' in the sense that they were made outside the framework of the film industry, and that their [End Page 84] statements were entirely personal."5 Free Cinema was characterized by authentic locations, fast and grainy handheld 16mm shooting, controversial political statements, and a sense of protest against established cultural and ideological norms.
Free Cinema was closely associated with the British Film Institute (BFI), a publicly funded arts organization established in 1933 to "raise the standard of public appreciation of films, by criticism and advice addressed to the general public."6 Its proponents wrote extensively in the BFI's house journal, Sight and Sound; many of their films were financed by the BFI's Experimental Production Fund (which would later provide completion money for The Blackhill Campaign); and their reputation was established through a series of screenings at the BFI-operated National Film Theatre (NFT), on London's South Bank, between 1956 and 1959. Five years later, the NFT would also screen Parsons's film. In the year Parsons met Reisz and began work on...