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Timeshift: When Coal Was King

Mon Nov 4, 9-10pm, BBC4

The opening scene of this film – black and white footage of some ballet-dancing coalminers wearing tutus – is a hint that this isn’t going to be your average documentary about the mining industry. And so it proves – it’s a memorable and often moving social history of working-class community life back in the days when it had every reason to feel valued, respected and adequately rewarded.

The National Coal Board Film Unit was set up around the time of coal nationalisation in 1947. It served a dual purpose; to explain these communities to their stakeholders (the taxpayers) and to unify the communities themselves. The resulting footage is remarkable, ranging from Paul Robeson singing beautifully to a canteen full of Scottish miners to a gloriously tedious guide to shovelling coal.

Even more remarkably, these ‘Mining Review’ films were shown everywhere – thus spreading the visionary but sadly unfashionable idea that public ownership can equal a genuine interest in and respect for other people’s working lives. A thought-provoking treat.