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Reviewed: Steel - A Century of Steelmaking on Film

The BFI screens rarely-seen films from the great era of British steelmaking.

Hot red molten sludge drips from the gruelling furnace. Sweat-drenched, open-shirted, the man shovels his shovelfull of coal through the yawning mouth of the open flame. Little more between him and the fire than a cotton vest and a pair of black specs – small, round, and rather less than hearty in the face of flying molten metal.

Archetypes of the steel man – son of the golden age of industrial Britain – walk freely across the BFI’s latest project, Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film. So to do the truths. In a comprehensive spread of 20 rare documentaries, narrative films, shorts and animations, Steel examines the pivotal role of steelmaking at the heart of British industry, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. The collection is both a nuanced examination of the steelmaking process and an insight into post-war factual film as a British cinematic sub-genre. These astonishing, moving pictures almost fetishise the white-hot liquid rivers and sublime mechanisms that made the steelworks tick. As Mark Miodownik writes in Steel on Film:

The steelmaking process documented in these films seems rudimentary, brutal and raw. But this is because the subtleties that make the material revolutionary are hidden from view inside the metal itself. The steel created is not just a grey blob of matter; it is, in fact, made up of billions of tiny crystals.

That steel is celebrated using celluloid, a material that created the new visual culture of cinema itself, is entirely appropriate. After all, steel is often perceived as monolithic and bland, and needs its exotic cousin to bring out its magic.

I spoke with Patrick Russell, a senior documentary curator at the BFI, who explained how Steel came about and why it resonates today.


How did the program come about?

Steel is the third part of our project This Working Life looking at major British twentieth century industries represented on film: coal, shipbuilding and finally steel. The impetus for this project is firstly that the collections of the BFI are particularly rich in these areas. There are literally thousands of films documenting these once-staple industries, which themselves are immensely cinematic.

Where did most of the archival film come from, and was it difficult to recover and restore?

All the material is preserved either by the BFI National Archive, the Scottish Screen Archive or the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. Material will have come from many different sources over the years – production companies, commissioning organisations, laboratories, private individuals… Some of them had not been seen since they were released. Various levels of restoration are required. In the case of steel, our signature title Steel required full Technicolor restoration, which was complex and expensive but produced wonderful results.

Has the age of steel left a residual cultural impact?  

All the ‘staple’ industries had a huge – unavoidable - presence in mid-century Britain. In truth, they were in slow long term decline since the heights of the industrial revolution to which they were so important, but at this point that was far from obvious: their economic and cultural place in the life of the nation remained huge.

I can’t think of a better illustration of their continuing cultural impact than Danny Boyle’s use of the industrial Britain – and of steelmaking – in particular as a central part of the national story he told through the Olympics ceremony. When we look at the films of these industries made in the twentieth century, their visual charisma and place in national personality becomes very palpable.

Which of the films particularly resonates with you?

Like everyone in the project, I’m particularly in love with Steel (1945). It exemplifies how brilliant industrial filmmaking can be – great technical information accompanying (almost literally) breathtaking visual artistry, in the form of bold yet painterly Technicolor cinematography.  Another film which we’re showing in the season, and that I love personally, is Stone into Steel (1959), which takes that visual grandeur in even more formalist directions – there is no commentary or dialogue, just images and music. 

These films all come from the ‘classic’ British industrial documentary tradition, but it’s interesting to compare them with more politicised, oppositional or experimental works. Penny Woolcock’s film When the Dog Bites (1987) is a very interesting, unusual take on the de-industrialising of Consett in the Thatcher era.

Is cinema is a particularly apt tool for examining history? 

Film has the power to awaken us to history as no other medium can, and to strengthen our emotional relationship with people, places and events. Equally, of course, we have to be as critical of it as any other historical source. I hope people come away understanding of the magnitude and the complexity of these industries – their technical and social worlds that grew out of them – and the sheer scale and fascination of the filmmaking that allows us, in the century that has followed, to be drawn back into those worlds for a moment.

Steel: A Century of Steelmaking on Film is on at the BFI from 5 - 28 February, 2013.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide