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From Yorkshire to Somerset, the coal industry once employed a million men and was the lifeblood of h

We are all familiar with television footage of the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-85. Pickets fighting police, cops truncheoning pitmen. Thatcher denouncing "the enemy within", and the proud but doleful march back to work. For most people, alas, these are the only enduring images of an industry that once employed a million men, powered the nation's economy and generated a unique way of life.

Film has forgotten King Coal, much as the nation has. Even in Yorkshire, our mining heartland, the BBC years ago dropped spinning pithead wheels from its nightly introduction to the news.

It wasn't always so. The hard romance of miners' lives and work attracted some of film's most inspired directors. Carol Reed's The Stars Look Down, the moving story of an idealistic miner's son starring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, appeared as early as 1939. Ken Loach's Kes (1970), Mark Herman's Brassed Off (1996) and Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot (2000) brought us more up to date, with snapshots of indomitable working-class communities.

To my mind, however, these were unduly glamorised portraits. The good guys - the miners and their families - always won in the end and everybody went home happy. That wasn't what it was like in real life. The reality was a constant and eventually losing battle to create a better way of life and hold on to it. Not to mention a war with nature at the coalface - the real one, not the figment of the white-collar imagination.

Fortunately, the British Film Institute has decided to fill the gap in our understanding with an ambitious programme of features and documentaries. This Working Life: King Coal starts at BFI Southbank and the Sheffield Showroom this month, together with an exhibition of historic material at the London venue. The show will also go on the road to community groups, including film societies and working men's clubs in former mining areas. This is where the material came from and this is where it should return. Quite how it goes down will be fascinating to observe. Club audiences are not always easy, as any circuit comedian will tell you. Miners are perfectly capable of immuring themselves in myth, not to be disturbed. And not many of their clubs survive.

In the pit village of South Elmsall, near Doncaster, Frickley colliery once employed 2,500 men turning out a million tonnes of coal a year. The miners' institute is now a kung-fu academy. I drink at South Elmsall's Brookside social club with Johnny, Chick, Greg and Steve, ex-miners who stayed out the full year. They recollect guffawing in the back stalls of the village cinema (now long gone) when schmaltzy pit romances showed scenes of life underground. The location shots owed more to the director's imagination than to any knowledge of what it was really like.

However, the BFI show should escape accusations of mawkishness because feature films such as Philip Leacock's The Brave Don't Cry (1952) and Jill Craigie's Blue Scar (1949) are matched with realistic, workaday documentaries of the period. Many of these were made by independent producers as distinct as Loach and Ken Russell, but there is also a wealth of material from the industry itself. From nationalisation in 1948 to the late 1970s, the National Coal Board produced a monthly Mining Review, shown in cinemas in mining areas - or practically the whole country, as the pits spread from Somerset to Fife.

Some of these newsreels, together with two-dozen other "shorts" of up to half an hour, have been put together on Portrait of a Miner, a two-disc DVD set released by the BFI. They go back as far as the late 1940s, and though obviously dated, they make intriguing viewing - in some cases because they are so dated. The attitudes of management to men would make any progressive HR director cringe with embarrassment. They are patronising and dismissive of the union and have one eye cocked towards social engineering.

“Close down this worked-out pit in Ayrshire and send the men and their families to new mines and villages in Fife," drawls Lord Balfour, then chairman of the Scottish Coal Board, in his best English accent. Then there's Plan for Coal, made in 1952, intoning: "On coal rests Britain's future - prosperity or poverty." There have been many plans for coal, but never a plan for miners.

Portrait of a Miner conjures up all the stereotypes, although it often offers new insights even for those with long acquaintance. Whitehaven Whippets, for instance, shows how the dogs are trained to race for a rag waved at the end of a track. I wonder if this is the original of the phrase "rag up", meaning unofficial strike? Then there are films about coalfield queens (of the female variety), children's jazz bands (they originated in the South Wales coalfields as a diversion from poverty in the 1930s), pit-week holidays in Blackpool and Filey Holiday Camp (which was originally an RAF gunnery school, and looked like it) and a preposterously funny ballet by eight husky colliers in lace tutus on the stage of the Town Working Men's Club in Normanton, West Yorkshire. My home town, as it happens. Seen through the world-weary eyes of a 21st-century filmgoer, more used to Hollywood than Cortonwood, they may appear naive, even foolish, but they are uncannily redolent of a lost era.

And nowhere more so than the half-hour film from which the series takes its title. Portrait of a Miner follows a day in the life of a young collier
at Thoresby mine in Nottinghamshire, hard-working, keen to get on in the union, with a wife and a baby about whom he dreams. "A bit of a rebel," says his Catholic priest, which is not surprising as he was brought up in Ireland. Snap time underground, shoring up the chocks, the silence of the descending cage broken only by gallows humour ("My mother always said I'd end up on the end of a rope"), political badinage from the men ("I thought you only read Karl Marx"), listening for tell-tale creaking noises from the roof, tired faces riding out to the pit bottom on the coal conveyor at shift's end. Gloom, dark, tiny lamps, dirty sweat, scrubbing each other's backs in the showers. This is how it was, not as portrayed in the romances.

You hear similar authentic voices from the men at Bagworth colliery, Leicestershire, in Miners, made in 1976, among the last of the National Coal Board Film Unit's output before the industry was convulsed by the Great Miners' Strike and then privatised. By this date, mining technology was greatly advanced, with fewer colliers at the face, operating sophisticated extraction machinery costing millions of pounds. But still they peel their oranges with coal-black fingers at snap time. Their wives speak volumes in a few words, admitting there are days when they fear their men won't come back. "There's been many a time I didn't want him to go, but you must go." This said quite casually doing the ironing as the camera rolls. They seem pretty well all the same sort of person. Just ordinary people. Ordinary people made extraordinary by their job.

I have just one small quarrel with these "tell it like it was" films. They don't show anything about the national strikes of the 1970s, particularly the 1974 stoppage that precipitated the most spectacular political harakiri of modern times, by the Tory premier Edward Heath. And they are silent on the civil war of the 1980s. They tell us nothing about the powerful political influence of the National Union of Mineworkers, or the sometimes vicious internal politicking.

That is because the films were made for the NCB - the employer. Their role was entertainment for the public and self-improvement for pitmen, not "Legislate, Educate, Organise", as it says on the Frickley NUM banner. The BFI Southbank programme recognises the quasi-propagandist nature of Coal Board films and balances it with films such as Loach's Which Side Are You On?, made for LWT in 1984, Mike Figgis's The Battle of Orgreave (2001) and Simon Popple and Jeremy Deller's Opening the Archives on the Miners' Strike. These will have to keep us going until 2015, when the cabinet papers of that great event are made public - assuming that they are. What a film they would make.

This Working Life: King Coal is at the BFI Southbank, London SE1, from 8 September.
The NS and the BFI will host a screening of Mike Figgis's "Battle of Orgreave" at Tate Liverpool on 16 September (6.15pm).

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives