I’ve mentioned on these pages before a love of archive documentary films, the British Film Institute restoring, reissuing and reminding us of so many inspirational cinematic moments in recent years, not least treasures from the pioneering GPO Film Unit and its successor, the Crown Film Unit.
That era included Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail and further masterpieces from the likes of Alberto Cavalcanti and Humphrey Jennings, giving rise to another success story, British Transport Films following in their wake in 1949, the subject matter ranging from industry to travelogue, and often both.
In recent years I splashed out on the BFI’s GPO Film Unit, British Documentary Movement (1930-50) and British Transport Films DVD collections, reliving key moments in my youth watching black and white ‘shorts’ – cuppa in one hand, biscuits ready to dunk. And it’s not just about nostalgia. This was film-making as art.
One such film that resonated was Tony Thompson’s A Letter for Wales (1960), scripted by Brigit Barry and Norman Prouting and narrated by Welsh actor Donald Houston, reminiscing one night at Paddington as he posts home via the night mail train, remembering days of steam, bridges, boats, first love and more. And that came within three years of another Prouting and Houston link-up, Every Valley, Michael Clarke’s study of a day in the industrial valleys of South Wales, the locally-born screen star’s lyrical approach perfectly linking a soundtrack of arias, choruses and orchestral interludes from Handel’s Messiah.
Sixty years on, that film is the foundation for an album of the same name by a band that regularly raid the BFI vaults, going back to 2012’s The War Room, including their take on Night Mail a year later. And for their third album they’ve fallen from the heavens above (The Race for Space, 2015) to the coalfields of South Wales, previously believed to hold enough fossil fuels to last us another 400 years of work.
It’s a brave project, yet as with PSB’s previous concept album they mine the seam so effectively. It’s timely too. History teaches us so much, and in this chaotic, austerity and Brexit-obsessed era we’re struggling through, there’s plenty to dwell on. And if there’s one message to be taken from Every Valley, perhaps it’s the need for communities to come together and demand a better future.
While band leader J. Willgoose, Esq. admitted concerns about the idea of a group led by a ‘middle-class South Londoner’ (his description) turning up in Ebbw Vale to tell the locals’ tale, he also reported a positive response. And that won’t just be down to a part of the profits being donated to the South Wales Area Miners’ Benevolent Fund. Perhaps the main reason for the resultant ‘encouragement and acceptance’ was the fact that PSB avoid using their own words for the most part, instead telling the story ‘through the voices of the time or those who lived through it and who subsequently reflected on what it meant to them’.
While the hand of Willgoose looms large – producing and mixing as well as supplying guitar, synth and occasional percussive touches – it’s a team effort, the brass and strings arranged by bass player J.F. Abrahams, Wrigglesworth (again) a hewing colossus behind his drum-kit, and engineer James Campbell also digging deep.
And the result – like those archive documentaries – Is a lovingly-assembled, beautifully-honed work of art, in the style of The Magnetic North’s similarly-evocative Orkney: Symphony (2012) and Prospect of Skelmersdale (2016). It’s also arguably PSB’s most important work to date.
Subtly-picked acoustic guitar and strings introduce the title track, the scene set by the lilting voice of Donald Houston and a riff (carrying traces of The Blue Aeroplanes) that leads to fellow Welsh actor Richard Burton (you may recall them together in The Longest Day) in a clip from The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, his rich tones recalling a South Wales childhood aspiring to be one of the ‘Kings of the Underworld’.
Meanwhile, percussion and building brass characterise the sound of heavy industry in pursuit of a precious commodity, The Pit taking us deeper still into that magical, hellish subterranean world where we toiled, bass trombone and bass clarinet conveying us, the fall of coal on a working morning neatly personified by the drums.
You also get a sense of claustrophobia among the foul air, a sense of danger never far away, as we reach the heart of the matter on People Will Always Need Coal, the recruitment drive assurances of secure futures jarring in hindsight. As the voice tells us, ‘There’s more to mining than dust and dirt’, something that became apparent in the years of conflict to come, promises that ‘The South Wales Coalfield will be turning out best Welsh for a few hundred years yet’ later broken by the Government of the day. And throughout there’s that stirring staccato, Latin-like riff pushing us on.
Lead single Progress gave us a first glimpse into Every Valley, the mighty Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell adding a sweet vocal on a respectful nod to pioneers Kraftwerk and all things electronica, accentuating the tide of mechanisation that promised so much. Similarly, Go to the Road is also synth-driven yet a sense of a gathering storm is underpinned by Wrigglesworth’ powerhouse drumming and Abraham’s driving bass as we reach ‘the end of the road’ and that first mention of closures, a workforce caught in the political crossfire soon to be ‘chucked on the scrapheap’.
Anger surfaces as we kick off side two on All Out, grinding guitar bringing to mind The Wedding Present and local lads The Manic Street Preachers, PSB’s earlier Signal 30 relocated from race-track to the frontline. ‘We’re not going to take anymore. Enough is enough’ comes the battle cry. But this is about ‘the right to go out of the house in the morning and go to work’, not some vainglorious struggle, breakdown in respect for the old order inevitable – you can only take so many broken promises.
Turn No More reflects on what followed, and who better to convey visionary poet Idris Davies’ message (adapted from Gwalia Deserta, which also brought us Bells of Rhymney) than the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield. ‘In the places of my boyhood the pit-wheels turn no more’ and ‘In derelict valleys the hope of youth is slain’ he wrote just before the Second World War, changes already afoot. Yet even here are glimpses of optimism, not least in the lines, ‘Though blighted be the valleys, where man meets man with pain, the things my boyhood cherished stand firm and shall remain’.
Calls for a brighter future rise on They Gave Me a Lamp – with vocals, accordion and percussion from Haiku Salut – and take us by the hand into that uncertainty with renewed optimism, a sense of community ever stronger, and enveloping female empowerment. And that’s taken on through this album’s biggest revelation, 9Bach’s Lisa Jen Brown duetting with Willgoose – the unlikely vocalist, hence my surprise – on You + Me, an ‘intensely personal’ yet simple love song sung in Welsh and English, ‘a story of strength and togetherness in the face of apparently overwhelming odds’. Again the brass and strings stir us, bringing the point home. ‘If you take my hand and if we stand as one, we’ll have something they’ll never break. I have you and you have me’.
Mother of the Village adds further reflective light on an end of an era where ‘it was never going to be normal’ after the loss of the pit – the mother in the title – and the need to start afresh amid the harsh realities of what was lost or broken. And that sense of inherent resilience ultimately suggests we have the power to overcome, as embodied next in the album’s finale.
As the Houston-voiced Prouting commentary put it, as ‘The sun set in the west over South Wales, and mine and steelworks and factory spilled out their people to the evening and leisure as the people of the valleys – colliers and choristers, lovers and lonely alike – sang out aloud with life’. And that perfectly sets up Rod Edwards and Roger Hand’s Take Me Home, emotively voiced by the Beaufort Male Choir, not least as they sing of those fathers of the valleys, ‘He’d laugh and he’d say that’s one more day, and it’s good to feel the sun shine’.
For this is not about the political leaders who hogged the news all those years ago. There’s no mention of the opposing leaders, McGregor and Scargill, nor the real architects behind this whole sorry episode – Thatcher and co. Instead, PSB focus on those who rallied around in spite of it all. From days of prosperity through to the anger and conflict of the 1980s and ‘sad acceptance’ beyond, and a realisation that ’what was once the lifeblood of the valleys is no longer there, replaced by something far more intangible’, Every Valley offers valuable reflective insight into a story that could teach us so much. Perhaps we just need to listen.
For our most recent interview with J.Willgoose, Esq. – in April 2017 – and links to past Public Service Broadcasting features and reviews on this site, head here. And to get hold of Every Valley, available in a variety of formats, and the band’s forthcoming dates, try the band’s official website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.