Amber Films 1985
Betty and her daughter Corinna are introduced to the harsh seacoaling way of life by Ray, an ex-seacoaler returning from a job with ICI. His offer of a caravan on a cliff top and promises of the Klondyke that awaits them at least seem preferable to the violent marriage she has left behind. The film sets Betty's struggle for survival against the wider struggles of the seacoaling community, surviving on the fringes of capitalism. Despite the exploitation by a local entrepreneur, run-ins with dole snoops and School Board men and the ever encroaching regulations of a hostile council, their lives retain a kind of anarchic romance, which is reflected in the film's lyrical style.
The inspiration for Seacoal undoubtedly came from the staggering visual location in which it is filmed; the industrial landscape of power station and pit framing the blackened beach of Lynemouth where, for generations, local people and travellers have made their living from collecting waste coal washed ashore. Channel 4 wanted a feature film and Amber suggested this territory. A small commission for the Ashington photographer Mik Critchlow in the early 1980s had, in consequence, opened access to the seacoaling community at Lynemouth, where one of Mik’s cousins, Trevor Critchlow, worked. The bleak energy of its raw capitalism had often attracted photographers, Chris Killip among them. The caravan Amber bought on the site housed Chris as he developed his photography project, Seacoal (1984), with its stark images of life at the margins. When he moved out, the Amber crew moved in, making a feature film of the same name, which was released the following year.
Seacoal, Amber’s first feature film represented a major step forward in its experimental mixing of drama and real life. The production team lived with the seacoalers on and off for two years, and the daily events of the camp were incorporated into the film as straight documentary, improvised sketches or fully dramatised reconstructions. Equity, the actors union, granted Amber special concessions to work with the seacoalers themselves on the condition that they did not script for, or direct them. Amber were unable to predict responses to the actors’ lines, which meant that the scripting had to be done piecemeal as the plot developed. The technique paid off, however, in terms of the film's spontaneity.
After screening on Channel Four, Sean Day Lewis, from the Daily Telegraph, while devoting most of his TV Choice column to this ‘haunting unsung film’, nevertheless expressed surprise that this was in spite of it being made by Amber Films, ‘a co-operative too devoted to equality to acknowledge the existence of a director or cameraman.’
Made under the auspices of the ACTT Workshop Declaration with financial assistance from Northern Arts and Channel Four Television.
Sunderland, Tyne & Wear & Lynemouth, Northumberlan
AMBER PRODUCTION TEAM
Assistant Camera: Peter Woodhouse
Additional Sound: Dave Eadington & Graham Denman
Assistant Sound: Sue Cleaver
Electrician: Brian McEvoy
Assistant editing: Yvonne Dawson & Judith Tomlinson
Continuity: Kate McManus
Administration: Jane Neatrour
Catering: Douglas Doherty
Additional help: Alan Daly & Isabella Jedrzejczyk
Composed and arranged by Alisdair Robertson
Musicians: Ray Stubbs, Alisdair Robertson, Colin Tipping
Music Engineer: Douglas Doherty
Special thanks to: The Laidler Family, Trevor & Margaret Critchlow, Chris Killip, The Lynemouth Hotel, the inhabitants of the camp and all those people of Lynemouth who made this film possible
Made under the auspices of the ACTT Workshop Declaration in conjunction with Channel Four
Betty: Amber Styles
Ray: Ray Stubbs
Corrina: Corrina Stubbs
Ronnie: Sammy Johnson
Joe: Benny Graham
DHSS Investigator: Steve Trafford
Man on Dole: Tom Hadaway
Woman on Dole: Maureen Harold
Counter Clerk: Murray Martin
Country & Western Band: Cody
Mother's Voice: Gwen Doran
Coal, Community, Harness Racing, Industry, margins, North East, Northumberland, Traveller, Unemployment, Beach, Lynemouth, Horse, Cart, Black Economy, Benefit, Family
Reviews and Awards
Marks & Spencer Award, Tyneside (1985)
European Film Award, Munich (1986)
The European prize... went this year to a British film Seacoal, by unanimous vote of the international jury. The award is all the more gratifying as recognition of the film workshop movement which flourishes in this country. Even though the group insists there is no dominant creative individual there is evidently a real film genius at work here. The film triumphantly demonstrates that the more specific, local instance can often provide the most significant illumination of the human predicament. David Robinson, The Times
As haunting visually as it is heroic politically... Seacoal celebrates more than nostalgia for a lost way of life. Despite the poverty, the weather, the uncertainty of the living, the conspiracies of the dole queue, anti-Romany racism and the fear of the caravan fires and ghosts on the beach; this reconstruction of lives lived takes on epic proportions. Amber have escaped their anthropological style to become something new and startling on the British scene. Sean Cubitt, City Limits
Gritty Loach style realism, leavened by lyrical camerawork and a strong romantic sense of community... intelligent and sensitive, but be warned the dialect and accents are sometimes impenetrable. Geoff Andrew, Time Out
Seacoal... might be classified , in television terms, as a docu-drama. But the resonances here are all cinematic. The film's soundtrack calls to mind the treatment of working-class lives in certain American genres, (sagas of the dustbowl for instance)... What emerges is a style and an address that has more in common with neo-realism... With unfailingly persuasive performances from its leads, Seacoal is a notable achievement of quite unflinching conviction. Verina Glaessner, Monthly Film Bulletin
A haunting, unsung film... There is an extraordinary quality of gritty melancholy, with lovely camerawork... a consistent emotional truth in the acting which makes the professional players and the coalers indistinguishable from each other. Sean Day-Lewis, The Daily Telegraph
There is such a raw and vivid authenticity about Amber Film's Seacoal as to suggest a complete naturalism, that the film-makers simply turned up and pointed the camera. Ironically, it took two years living and working with the Lynemouth seacoalers before they could attain this precious lack of artifice. It's a radical piece of film-making of the highest importance. Peter Mortimer, Northern Echo
Seacoal (Amber Films, 1985). Follow link if you would like to buy it.
Seacoal, photographic exhibition by Chris Killip
Seacoalers, photographs by Mik Critchlow. Follow link to free online presentation.
Eden Valley (Amber Films, 1995, AF/EVA), film drama made with the Laidler Family, exploring fathers and sons and the harness racing community in Durham.
The Pursuit of Happiness (Amber Films, 2008), documentary about the life and death of Amber founder member and visionary Murray Martin, in particular his relationship with the harness racing community.
For a monthly changing selection of films and videos by Amber and its friends, visit www.sidetv.net.
For more information about Amber and its film and photographic work, visit www.amber-online.com