National Coal Board


The creation of the National Coal Board (NCB) on 15th July 1946 sowed the seeds for one of Britain’s most substantial and long-lasting industrial film units – the NCB Film Unit.

Initially the NCB commissioned films from established production companies, using government-supported firms such as the Crown Film Unit and commercial firms such as Data Film Productions. Recruitment, training, public information films and the industrial cine-magazine Mining Review (1947-83) were the mainstay of this initial burst of production. The NCB also provided logistical support to a number of feature films, including Blue Scar (d. Jill Craigie 1949) and The Brave Don’t Cry (d. Philip Leacock 1952).

Film production in mines is fraught with technical difficulties and real dangers. There is no natural light, conditions are cramped, and there are stringent safety concerns. All equipment had to be made safe owing to the danger of gas explosions, making it heavier and bulkier, and no electrically driven cameras were allowed. To prevent overheating, the lights could only be used for ten minutes at full power. The NCB overcame these technical challenges, often developing its own specialist equipment.

In 1952 the NCB published The Plan for Coal, a national plan for the reconstruction and reorganisation of the industry. The plan would lead to an increased demand for training and recruitment, a demand that led the film officer, Donald Alexander, to put forward a proposal for the NCB to set up its own film unit – thus the National Coal Board Film Unit was born. Initially the three-year programme of technical films allowed for half the films to be made by outside companies, with the remainder by the NCB Film Unit.

By 1959 around two thirds of the NCB’s production was handled in-house. According to Donald Alexander, the NCB production team consisted of “three to four directors, one and a half cameraman, a supervising cameraman and appropriate assistants. As a matter of interest, it can be demonstrated theoretically that this is the smallest size at which a unit of this type can keep all its members busy”.

The 1974-75 film programme included 47 productions, and by 1980 around 100 titles were being produced. In total over 900 films were sponsored or produced. However, 1980 marked the highpoint of the NCB’s output. The decline of the coal industry in the early 1980s, increasing production costs for films and videos, and budget cuts within the NCB saw an inevitable drop in production. The last of the Review series (formerly Mining Review), Review 36th Year No. 5, was released in March 1983, and on April 1984 the NCB Film Unit closed.

This article originally appeared on BFI Screenonline


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