The Road to Penallta Colliery 4: ‘South Wales Colliers Go Down the Mine’
British Movietone News (a subsidiary of the American company Movietone News) began its twenty-five year run in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of a global economic turndown. This was also the year when the BBC made its first broadcast using Baird Television’s electromechanical system. The start of commercial television broadcasting in 1955, and the development of news programmes in particular, would sound the death knell for celluloid newsreel, which, before the popularisation of television viewing, could be seen only at cinemas in between the B-movie and main feature.
British Movietone News made short documentaries on current affairs and events, places, and people of contemporary interest. Their early titles included: ‘Black Tuesday’; ‘A Glimpse into the Heart of Erin’; ‘The Cabinet photographed in sound at No. 10 Downing Street’; ‘The Derby’; ‘Vesuvius in Eruption’; ‘Mussolini Speaking (the first foreign personage to make a talking picture)’; and ‘Oswald Moseley discusses unemployment’. They were, the agency boasted, ‘for your ears as well as your eyes’. The first commercial early sound movie, The Jazz Singer (1927), had been released only three years before its crew documented Penallta Colliery. Thus, British Movietone News’s ‘sound pictures’ were not only a novelty, as far as the audience were concerned, but also at the cutting-edge of nascent audiovisual technology.
By the early 1930s, sound-on-film technology had become the mainstay of the film industry. The means of allying the two sound and pictures involved a process
in which the audio signal to be recorded was used to modulate a light source that was imaged onto the moving film through a narrow slit, allowing it to be photographed as variations in the density or width of a ‘soundtrack’ running along a dedicated area of the film. The projector used a steady light and a photoelectric cell to convert the variations back into an electrical signal, which was amplified and sent to loudspeakers behind the screen.
It’s very likely that a tripod-mounted motion camera with this capability was used to capture the sounds and pictures of the colliery. (The film format would’ve been either 35 mm or 16 mm, depending on the size of camera.) The only alternative — one which would’ve been hardly either portable or practicable within the confines of the coalface — were to use two separate, synchronic, and mechanically-linked devices: a motion camera and a turntable with a recordable disc.
The camera’s operated by rotating a crank handle, which drove the gears, cogs, and rollers that moved the film forward. Due to the risk caused by sparks that might ignite flammable gases underground, whatever electrified lamps were used to ‘lighten the darkness’ of the mine would’ve been air-sealed, in accordance with prevailing health and safety rules and regulations. Quite possibly, the film crew deployed the colliery’s own equipment for this purpose. Nevertheless, even under conditions of moderate illumination, the camera film’s sensitivity would’ve been pushed to its limit.
The black and white cinematography is exceptional in places. The discerning placement of the light source creates a high-contrast chiaroscuro which serves to dramatize the machinery. Pistons, cranks, shafts, and flywheels are made to appear immensely powerful, efficient, dangerous, and exquisitely beautiful — as they were, in all these respects. (Some of the footage of the engine hall’s interior reminded me of the ‘Man in the Planet’ scenes in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). )
British Movietone News’s proclamation ‘speaks for itself’ encapsulates the narrative methodology at the heart of the films. Unlike, for example, the contemporaneous Pathé News, the documentaries and newsreels don’t feature a disembodied, anonymous, and pervasive voice-over that describes the events seen on screen. In ‘South Wales Colliers Go Down the Mine’, an announcement stating where the coal was being extracted is spoken to camera, initially, by a collier. It’s a diegetic commentary given by a representative of the industry. Someone who was present and in-the-know, in other words. Later, the same collier provides off-camera (non-diegetic) voice-over narrations explaining the processing of the coal at various stages in the colliery’s production line. Apart from these interventions, the story is ‘spoken’ by the moving pictures alone. This was achieved by means of an intelligently conceived storyboard, a clear and succinct script, discerning direction, and the careful arrangement and editing of the visual material. It’s remarkable how much information is compressed into just over 11 minutes.
My initial scope of the film was rendered as a tabulation of its scenes and the profiles of the sound content. In so doing, I returned the film to a storyboard and grew in my appreciation of how the visual narrative was constructed, thereby. Thereafter, I extracted the soundtrack and divided the whole into 38-discrete components. These constitute a repository of acoustic material that’ll be modified in the process of composition.