Friday, August 3, 2012


Over the last two or three months I've been watching a BFI 2-DVD set called Tales from the Shipyard which documents around 75 years of shipbuilding in Britain. It starts and ends with a ship's launch: a 1-minute B&W silent reel of a battleship plunging into the Thames in 1898 (tragically drowning 39 people in the wave it created), finishing with a half hour colour documentary of a tanker sliding into the Tyne in 1974. It's fascinating stuff.
The early ones are pretty rough & ready. There's an 8-minute one of Titanic's sister-ship, SS Olympic, the largest in the world at the time, being built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast in 1910, contrasted with the beautifully modernist Shipyard by Paul Rotha in 1936 and the Oscar-winning Seawards the Great Ships, shot on the Clyde in 1960. 
There's a cacophonous one specifically about the steel-making process, another about how they made the massive chains for the anchors, and a cartoon about the evolution of tankers (the director of which went on to make Animal Farm). There's one about wooden shipbuilding in Cornwall. A few of the war-time ones were either sponsored or distributed by the British Council. Most of them take the opportunity to glimpse into the lives of the proud workers and of course there's lots of shots of terraced houses dwarfed by the massive ships which look as if they are about to head, Terry-Gilliam-like, inland.
It gets progressively more depressing as it goes on. In the early 1950s Britain was still the biggest producer of ships in the world, but Japan took over with its more modern yards, slimmed down workforces and better management. South Korea is now the world-leader. 
There's a curious 1967 film, starring (and directed by) Sean Connery, then at the height of his fame, where he looks at a management experiment to try to save Fairfield Shipyard on the Clyde. It failed, and Fairfield became Upper Clyde Shipyards, which in turn failed in 1972 following a year-long occupation by its workforce, captured in another doc simply called UCS 1
All in all, it's a story of proud ingenuity, fathers passing on skills to their sons, some big & beautiful ships launched, and an industry that has gone into sad decline.

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