BBC 4's Storyville strand is one of the finest documentary series currently on British television.The Big Melt: How Steel Made Us, an English documentary, brings the series very close to home. As its name suggests, this is the story of steel's impact on the development of Sheffield--a 75-minute-long documentary that was premiered at the Crucible, with a soundtrack written (mostly) by Jarvis Cocker.It is told as a musical mash-up of archive footage taken from public information films, BFI archives, old television programmes, documentaries, training videos and many other original sources to give us an audio-visual history of both steel and Steel City.
This approach, of taking archive footage and adding music, is the typical modus operandi of the band Public Service Broadcasting, and here Cocker and documentary maker Martin Wallace take the footage and marry it to a musical score that is as eclectic and idiosyncratic as the Sheffield music scene itself.Sheffield has a knack of producing unique musicians, including The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Pulp, Arctic Monkeys, Richard Hawley, and Dead Like Harry, amongst many others, and its folk scene is also particularly vibrant, due to its location in the tradition-rich Peaks, straddling the Derbyshire/Yorkshire border.The city was the crucible (pun fully intended) for many important musical genres, especially electro in the 1980s, and the harsh beats and monotone synth on the soundtrack replicate the industrial noise of the steel mills and evoke the factory landscape of early eighties Sheffield--less musique concrète and more concrete music--while folk and rock, brass music, and a full orchestra are also seamlessly interwoven in a continuous piece that is tied perfectly to the images. With the musicians list reading like a full reformation of Pulp (Jarvis Cocker, Steve Mackey, Candida Doyle, Nick Banks, Richard Hawley), alongside other Sheffield musicians like Ross Orton, the City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra, and the City of Sheffield Brass Band, it must have been particularly moving to see this film premiere in the centre of Sheffield.
Luckily, the BBC 4 broadcast brought it into our homes.Jarvis Cocker is the only Sheffield musician who could have pulled this score together, having spent thirty-odd years writing about his home city.(Although Arctic Monkeys are arguably better known, they have drifted towards the mid-Atlantic, while Jarvis has consistently focussed on the Sheffield streets.)The soundtrack nods significantly to the city's other big band The Human League, accompanying the beginning images of fire and ore with the piece Being Boiled, before bringing the people who made the steel into focus. This is their story, showing how they lived in the town of my birth, and worked in the huge sprawling factories that once covered most of the Lower Don Valley, their tall chimneys blowing out smoke over Attercliff, Handsworth, and Tinsley, connecting Rotherham and Sheffield by a stream of molten metal.If you cut through the city with a saw (made in Sheffield, of course) you would find that steel runs through Sheffield.It influenced everything important in the town: the magnificence of Cutlers' Hall, the road names in the housing developments, the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey team, the Crucible itself. If you still have good quality cutlery, then it will invariably be stamped Sheffield.Steel made the city, and the massive collapse in British industry in the late seventies and eighties nearly killed it--yet, like all good Northerners, the locals refused to give in and the city is as vibrant as it ever was, although the glory days of working at the steel mills are long gone, with Forgemasters left as the only mill of significant size.
To be on the floor of the steel mills was extraordinary: watching the crucible pour the molten ore was awe-inspiring, as I know first-hand from filming a training video for British Steel when I was sixteen and still at school (which, incidentally, won an enterprise award). Steel touches the lives of everyone in Sheffield and its environs-- one way or another, you have steel in your blood.
Of course, to make the steel you had to have the coal to fire up the factories, and the South Yorkshire coal seam, one of the most productive in the UK, was also one of the most decimated after the miners' strike (which is another story altogether). The double whammy of losing both the steel and coal industries has had a massive socio-economic impact on the South Yorkshire towns, still felt keenly today.So it is good to have this evocative reminder of the way we were: black-and-white brass bands in the Easter parades, kids' games in the fields, and above all flat-capped men, smoking, digging the iron ore, working hard in the factories, playing harder.There used to be a pub on the corner of every street where there was a mill, all gone now, of course--the boarded-up front doors or badly-converted windows clues to where they used to be.
A few years ago BBC Radio 2 remade the Radio Ballads, with Derbyshire lad John Tams writing The Song of Steel. This documentary reminds me of that approach, an audio-visual ballad on the impact of steel on modern life.It has touched every part of our world, in peace and in war, and one of the film's most affecting pieces, sung by a beautiful female voice, is about working in the transmission room, cut with footage of women mass-producing bombs.Yet this is far from a staid history programme, as a blast of Pulp's legendary Sheffield Sex City played with full orchestra serves to underscore.It takes real peoples' real lives and reminds us, their descendants, of what this city built on steel gave us.
This homage by Jarvis Cocker and Martin Wallace to their home town is not purely reverential.It is a living thing that has a harsh beauty of its own, like the dark steel mills that once dominated the banks of the Don.--James R. Turner
Epic of Everest is not the film that Captain John Noel had wanted to make. The unfortunate failure of Andrew Irvine and George Mallory to return alive not only changed the game in a film-making sense, but it also haunts this footage of their party's 1924 attempt to master Everest. The passage of ninety years, a remarkable process of cleaning and restoration, plus a new, ethereal wash of colour tinting have bestowed upon the film a portentous and slightly surreal quality, a feeling enhanced by Simon Fisher Turner's score. The soundscape is plaintive and touching: an ambient fusion of electronic, traditional Nepalese music, and discovered samples that stands up as an extended piece in its own right. It also brings to Epic of Everest a useful touch of modernity.
Prior to the expedition John Noel had struck an uncommon type of deal for the times: he secured the entirety of the future film rights. The money required to do this, a significant £8000, came from investors. For Noel it merely added to the already huge burden of importance that his end product - and therefore the summit attempt itself - should prove a success. That it did not prompted a re-framing exercise: a presumably vexed attempt to ensure that adventure-hungry audiences could still leave the theatre placated. And so the 'heroic failure' card is played, glorifying the deaths of Mallory and Irvine, which are re-imagined as 'what they would have wanted'. Obfuscated is the fact that Mallory, a family man, was by some accounts in two minds over whether to embark on a last attempt on Everest, and the tragic ending of Irvine's young and promising life is similarly given a thick coat of gloss. Furthermore, two local Tibetans died on an abortive first summit attempt (out of a total of three). The film's acknowledgment of this is a shamefully missable footnote.
Regardless of the manipulations at play in the putting together of Epic of Everest, the aristocratic John Noel (his original, less earthy name was Baptist Lucius Noel) was an explorer of great ability. Fully able to track the group, picking and choosing his shots with an adapted-for-purpose camera, he made it to the business end of the expedition, climbing to around 24,000 feet. From this point, he employed a tele-photo lens. The images here, climbers reduced to miniscule figures battling in the distance, hopelessly dwarfed against an impassive Everest, are extremely poignant. Before this, back at base camp, Noel captures a strangely workaday environment by poking his lens into the lives of temporarily invaded locals. As has been remarked elsewhere, there is a patronising air to these scenes, but at the same time it should be borne in mind that the year was 1924. The collective British psyche was different, while cinema was prone to veer from the leaden to high melodrama with little in between. Still, it must be said that there is a tone of distaste which rankles with us today. It was evidently unpalatable that these Tibetan people, painted as simpletons with ridiculous beliefs, knew more about Everest than the climbers themselves, and that success relied upon them. In direct contrast to the scenes featuring locals, the British climbers are consistently seen from afar. It's hard to believe that Noel would have declined close-up footage of Mallory, Irvine, Norton and the others, which leaves us to assume that he was directed not to interfere. This is not to imply that there is a drama-shaped vacuum in Epic of Everest: all three attempts are recorded. The first features a heroic operation to rescue porters stuck high up on the North East ridge (during which two of them died), while in the second push we see the alarming after-effects of Teddy Norton and Howard Somervell's oxygen-unassisted climb to over 28,000 feet - both men return incoherent and largely broken, physically and mentally, from a place that would later become known as the Death Zone. Norton, who came within a thousand feet of the summit on this climb, is seen snow-blinded, carried by a porter back to camp. On the third summit attempt, Mallory and Irvine are not seen. We do, however, witness what followed -- sleeping bags laid in the shape of a cross on the mountainside indicate that Mallory and Irvine have not returned. "The symbol of DEATH," says a title card, in keeping with the film's and indeed the era's sense of melodrama.
Unresolved debate continues as to whether Mallory or Irvine reached the summit. When Mallory's preserved body was found in 1999, a photograph of his wife, which he had intended to leave upon the summit of Everest, could not be found among his other possessions, but nor has it been found at the peak by subsequent climbers. Irvine's body is still missing, although there are theories and anecdotal sightings. In fact, numerous theories on the whole affair have been examined. Viewpoints have been dissected by the highest authorities, to no avail, while startling new evidence seems unlikely to appear. An alternative line of discussion centres on the question of the (possible) triumph's validity; the fact of the men not making it back to base even if the summit had been reached. Mallory's own son, John, declared that such an achievement would constitute a job "only half done".
Captain John Noel's mission to document a great British triumph had not turned out as he had hoped. It is perhaps, then, for reasons of convenience that Epic of Everest assigns the great mountain an increasingly mystical quality towards its conclusion. Could there have been spiritual forces at play? A particular sequence endures in the memory: the elders of the Tibetan community are forewarning the expedition party, graphically relaying how the gods of 'Chomolungma' are unwilling to grant them the prize that they seek. So indeed it proved - even though such sentiments from the elders would have been at odds with the area's prevalent Buddhist faith. (Not for the first time in Epic of Everest, we sense the hand of editorial control.)
Swatting aside moral concerns, some of which are arguably unfair to impose upon the film in the modern age, Epic of Everest truly is an extraordinary thing to watch. It has been said that the star is not the climbers but the mountain, and while this is true, there is another star of the film - the unseen Captain John Noel, clearly a man just as driven as the climbers themselves, and a film-maker ahead of his time. --Neil Jackson
Postscript: So determined was Noel to wring every last drop from his product that he brought, without permission from the relevant Lama, seven Tibetan monks to London in order to perform what he called their 'devil dance' at screenings. It caused a row between Britain and Tibet that led to Everest's closure to British climbers until 1933.