Back in Steel City
By Thea Lenarduzzi
Two men stand smoking on a hill overlooking the sprawling city of Sheffield. Judging by their raincoats and trilbies it is the early 1950s.
“Near half-a-million people live down there”, says one.
“Let’s take a closer look”, says the other.
Cut to silent footage – from the early 1900s – of young men lining up outside a mill, waiting for the taskmaster to give them the nod and the day’s work to start. One gives us the two-finger salute, a four-letter word on his lips. Boys in the forecourt jostle for the camera’s attention.
It seemed far away and long ago to us, as we sat in the plush surrounds of the Curzon Chelsea last night for the premiere of The Big Melt, a film collaboration between Sheffield Doc/Fest and the BBC’s long-running documentary series Storyville. The film combines 100 years of footage from the BFI National Archive, selected and edited by Martin Wallace, with a soundtrack devised by Jarvis Cocker and recorded live at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre last year.
The project, which will air on the BBC on January 26, is ostensibly “about” the steel industry. The opening sequence is drawn mainly from educational videos with authoritative voiceovers describing fire-breathing dragons and rivers of molten ore – but the music brings a very human element to the surface. A rousing string rendition of “Being Boiled” by the Human League (formed in Sheffield in 1977), more mellifluous than the original, accompanies images of the extraction process, all pounding machines and spectacular eruptions. A flute piece – John Cameron’s theme for Kes – is played as a delicate vein of liquid steel pushes upwards like a budding flower.
The connection between Sheffield, steel and music (embodied by the Crucible Theatre which takes its name from a technique discovered in the city in the 1740s), was discussed further in the Q&A which followed the screening. Cocker offered the theory that industrial workers made good dancers – “they had to move to the rhythm of the machines…”. There is a sequence in the film of men dipping and diving on suspension wires during the erection of a bridge, a sort of Fantasia for steel, with the hippos in tutus replaced by slim men in boiler suits. Elsewhere, two men thrust their hips forward and to the right in time, passing a red-hot ingot along the production line. The flipside, Wallace said, is that bass-heavy music took off in Sheffield probably because everyone was deaf from the machinery.
The material in The Big Melt is ordered, cut and selectively repeated so that its different themes gradually emerge: huge bridges are built; brass instruments are played; cutlery forged and shaped. An initially somewhat abstract wave of rivets and bolts which rippled through the clouds in an opening scene finds its place in an animated educational film inviting viewers to imagine “a world without steel”: a man trips up when the garters holding up his socks disappear; his wife struggles to cope as her hairpins vanish; doors fall off as the hinges go, along with the stove, pots and pans. Everything falls to pieces, and the woman's baby is left crying in the wreck of his cot, his nappy unpinned. But then comes the wave, reanimating vehicles that had ground to a halt and fallen apart before a suspension bridge that was no longer there anyway . . . . Thank God for steel, we collectively sigh.
Cut back to the young men queuing, the same footage, but set to a more sombre score; the line-up evokes a different sort of work now. War has come. Women step up, taking steel and transforming it, carefully, tenderly and with visible pride, into munitions that will, hundreds of miles away, undo thousands. A woman’s voice sings huskily about something having gone wrong in the machine – “Some adjustments must be made” – over shots by Jack Cardiff, who was then working as a cinematographer on public information films.
Explicit politics – the strikes of the 1980s, for instance – are deliberately left out to allow for a more meditative experience, a sort of impressionistic reclaiming of the official record. The film was conceived, at least in part, as a work of social history, but, by taking the project back to Sheffield and involving local musicians – from pop stars to school choirs, and the perfunctory brass band – Wallace and Cocker aimed to “drag this archive into the present”. In so doing, they have made something altogether more compelling – in Wallace’s words, “more playful and, at the same time, challenging” – the sort of thing that seems to get less and less airtime on television these days.