Films of Scotland – Ships and Steel – BBC1 22nd December 2010 – A Review

This film, which compiles parts of some of the 168 of the various government films made between 1938 and 1982 designed to show Scottish industry at it’s best, is presented by Greg Hemphill for the BBC. The films were made by a range of different people but include the famous Basil Wright and Bill Forsyth amongst them.

The most successful of these films was “Seawards the Great Ships” (1960) which won an Oscar. It tells of a different age, in the 1960s, when Scotland was at the forefront of modern industry. There is footage of shipbuilding on the Clyde, and it was not made quickly or lightly.

“Ships and Steel” interviews Eddie McConnell who was a camera assistant on Seawards the Great Ships. He describes how they achieved the opening shots in the days before the fantastic zoom lenses we have today; the use of light air-craft to get tracking shots; Hilary’s year of research before making the film.

There are contributions from George Byng, Draftsman, who talks of having worked with many people who had fought in WWI in his early career; of the god-like kudos of the chief draftsman who might deign to utter a few words to the ordinary draftsmen. The commentary for the film was written by Cliff Hanley who went to great trouble in his scripting to use onomatopoeic  words such as chunks to try to convey the sounds of the shipbuilding industry and so to paint a full picture. Apparently the producer was not happy with the expense of the making of the film, but the prospect of the Oscar changed his attitude!

Hilary Harris wanted to include interviews with the workers but they swore too much, so had to carry out a scripted conversation. This is showing in the Ships and Steel documentary, and .. well judge for yourself, but it certainly raised a giggle here!

As is often the case, there was nothing mentioned in the government film about the dangers of work in shipyards. I the documentary, George Byng talks of this, the particular likelihoods being falls, things being dropped on you, fingers trapped and flashes burning the eyes. Regular readers will be familiar with these risks, both through my own posts and through more detailed comments on some of the sites to which I have links, such as and  

The launch of the “British Trust” features in the film with the workers looking on as the platform party do their bit. Laurence Henson, John Grierson’s assistant, describes their desire to get the best possible footage of the kiss as the ship touches the water. To achieve this, Hilary had launches filmed from every angle to ensure he could get the effect he wanted. The launching technique shown is of ones using drag chains and there are shots showing them rolling down after the ship.

John Grierson recalls his childhood, when he was captivated by Carron Ironworks and industrial processes of the time, saying that anything can be seen as beautiful if viewed correctly, which clearly had an effect on his work which does make the heavy industries look magnificent.

Ravenscraig Steel features too, with some of the immense machinery, and buildings in “The Big Mill” 1963, which was designed to sell the idea of the need for this huge but expensive new venture. Laurence Henson directed this particular film. Eddie McConnell the cameraman describes the intense heat and the need to film and then run away to get out of the dangerously hot environment once the shot had been taken. He wanted to catch the scale of the operation, with huge machinery and processes being run at the touch of a button. Artistic shots and practical detail were fused into the final product.

The investment in motorways to improve transport for Scottish Businesses was important and the first was built in 1958. The Hillman Imp, produced at Linwood car factory was another important link in the government’s drive to showcase and promote the importance of Scottish businesses. Donald Henson, Personnel Manager of Linwood at that time talks of their need to compete with the Mini, which was already in production, and the attachment people had to the Imp as the first passenger car produced in Scotland. 5000 Scots were employed there but industrial relations were not easy, there was a degree of over-manning and union issues made for some difficulties.

The Erskine Bridge 1972 featured in one film, as did the Tay Road Bridge 1967 and the Forth Bridge. Jim Sinclair who was both a Tay Road Bridge and a Forth Bridge diver describes an incident in which the compressor and the communication telephone both stopped working and he narrowly made it to the surface.

Alex Porteous became a construction worker on the Forth Bridge after having watched the early stages of its build from the shore with fascination. The head engineer had built bridges all over the world but found this one of the most hostile environments he had worked in, with the freezing fog and icy conditions making work so harsh and leading to long periods of inactivity. Alex describes the steel erectors as the ones who faced the dangers, taking construction from drawing into fruition. Metal fatigue meant the safety nets in place since they joined the centre spans collapsed one day, with several workers falling to their deaths. The Forth Bridge brought together seven nationalities to work on it, their common language being bridge building.

“The County of Clyde” 1967 reflects on the 1960s during which 227 manufacturing firms in light industry and electronics moved in to Scotland. Clock-making and light bulb manufacture are showing in the film, making the point that many of the jobs in these lighter industries went to women. Lay-offs meant that many men who had worked in mines and steel foundries could find no work. The optimism of these films was eroded, and with the coming of the era of Thatcher, loss-making firms were discouraged and many of the industries and firms features in the films disappeared. Linwood Car Factory – closed 1981, Invergordon Foundry closed 1981, Templeton Carpet Factory – closed 1984, Gartcosh Steelworks – closed 1986, Ravenscraig Mill – closed 1992. Not only were jobs lost forever, skills lost which cannot be regained and Scottish diversity of employment restricted, but the sense of identity which went with the jobs in heavy industry was also no more.

Available to view on i-player ( until 12th January 2011.

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

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About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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