Featuring almost six hours of fictional, documentary and political short films, Steel – A Century of Steelmaking on Film is the third and final part of the BFI’s epic This Working Life series, which also includes King Coal (2009) and Tales from the Shipyard (2011). These chronicles of Britain’s industrial heritage not only give us an insight into the world and workers of a forgotten past. They also chart the development of cinema throughout the 20th century, from a silent 1901 short of workers leaving Parkgate Iron and Steel Company, to the 1987 newsreel of the controversial closing down of the Consett Iron Company.
To judge this collection for its entertainment value is absurd. It’s an historical document, not a Judd Apatow movie – and yet some of quintessentially English propaganda pictures are often intentionally and unintentionally amusing. The choice pick on show here is almost undoubtedly You only Live Twice (1967) and Educating Rita (1983) director Lewis Gilbert’s film-within-a-film, The Ten Year Plan (1945), featuring future Carry On star Charles Hawtrey as a lazy young writer who is sent out to investigate a prefab business.
Another highlight is the Frank Capra-referencing Mrs Worth Goes to Westminster (1949), which was commissioned by the British Iron and Steel Federation in an attempt to convince the public that a proposed nationalisation of the industry was, perhaps, a bad idea. Although the political message of these pictures are about as subtle as a sledgehammer to modern audiences, it’s still interesting to see these early propaganda pictures, especially when you compare their lack of sophistication to the complex invasions of the sub-conscience churned out by today’s advertising machines.
The stunning Technicolor masterpiece Steel (1945) is undoubtedly the most accomplished and visually impressive of the shorts, but that’s no surprise considering the photographer is legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff – who went on work on such colourful classics as A Mater of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947). Like the previous instalments of the This Working Life series, the BFI’s Steel can be hard going, and only those of true grit would attempt to digest every film in one sitting. However, taken in bite-sized chunks, it’s a thoroughly interesting collection which should be issued to every history teacher in the land.