Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review: Children of the Valley

144. The number at the end of the times table, its merciless grid emblazoned on countless classroom walls for so many years, and no doubt in those of the Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, South Wales, whose obliteration by a colliery slagheap landslide 40 years ago this week has been shamefully overlooked by TV - save for this unassuming yet quietly impressive documentary, squirreled away by ITV beyond the watershed.

144. I always remember that number. The number at the end of the times table, and the number of people that died when a school and half a village was engulfed. The current writer was scarcely even there yet, scarcely alive when all those kids died. But I remember it. 144.

The show revolved around the return of the old Time magazine photographer, Chuck Rapoport, to the village from whence his neo-realist photographs of grief and desolation (Brandt, Doisneau supping Brains' SA) has so shocked the world. Aberfan is, Rapoport found, much the same. The disquieting TV footage of the rescue (as the commentary pointed out, it was one of television's first major disasters), with its antlike hordes of human chains almost a blackly comical, scrabbling resistance to the mountain of debris, looks as distant in time now as Battleship Potemkin. In two of the snapper's best shots, a podgy little survivor, traumatised beyond imagining, in duffel and NHS specs, uncertainly fringes a shot of frowning tips and slates and heathery mountains. In another, the sister of a bereaved mother clutches a soaked brolly as dun as the hillside behind her as though it will stave off further disaster, further godly retribution. Even now, watching Rapoport return, it's hard to tell if the pictures are in monochrome or colour; the bricks are often the colour of liver or arterial blood. From a distance, the cemetery where the bodies lie looks like little more than a jumble of fallen and splintered sarsens. Everywhere, everything, is the colour of cheap dull clothing. In 1966, Aberfan was definitely not swinging. It never was, it never will. There was no Biba here, no Floyd, no Play Power. The haircuts in the archive footage date from the 1920s, not Carnaby Street. There was as little license in Aberfan as there was oxygen for the drowned kids to breathe.

But how can it be otherwise? The Welsh valleys are full of apocalyptics, Baptist freaks, ascetics; John Collins, famously and unimaginably, lost his entire family while out at work. Wife, kids, house, extinguished by the black flood, a Job-like Biblical smiting of a kind the preachers used to promise to the unfaithful in pulpits from Brynmawr to Llanelli. Maybe the most monstrous irony of all was that a mining village should suffer its greatest tragedy above ground.

This was all tactfully, if untelegenically, recorded (Aberfan doesn't do pretty - but then again, neither do mine catastrophes). The mayor of Merthyr Tydfil breaks down when a six-year-old moppet asks him 'were you sad when your friends died?' Another survivor displays his unfeasibly mangled right hand and his scars. Did he fight the tears as much that day as when he told the camera, 'I was shouting for my mam, like?' in between long breaths that issue from him like a very old puncture. One other lucky child, now as unhealthily plumptious of girth as most valleys residents, is pictured holding a Subbuteo set that Rapoport's journalist chum gave him as a present in 1966.

Cello, as well as sparse, plashy modal piano ('file under moody') features predictably on a soundtrack which is laudably and decently minimal. Wider issues were skirted; negligence on behalf of the NCB, and the geological reasons for the landslide, were simply ignored. Plus, the quality of the whole and in paricular its production values, was compromised, wan, make-do; but it works perfectly for such a down-at-heel town, and the immeasurable pathos it embodies.

It also stresses the importance of simplicity in TV's discourse of the most interesting and absorbing of history lessons, those told by its makers or victims. It is the sort of modestly impressive documentary TV that most ITV and BBC regions used to make and relegate to the graveyard slots - which, with a decent budget and genuine commitment, could make it to prime time and anthology tapes for ever. ITV1 seem to feel the same, which sadly diminishes the considerable honour due to them for having Children of the Valley made in the first place.

This one's in my library already - to any connoisseur of TV history, it should be in yours.


Rhys said...

It's a very long time since I read any review that genuinely made me sorry to have missed the programme. I revisited that feeling, though, when I read your review of Children of the Valley on Off the Telly. Do you happen to know if it's due a repeat on ITV1 Wales (or network) soon?

Your stylishness reminds me, in a highly positive way, of that of another OTT contributor, Robin Carmody. I take it you're a connoisseur of his blog?

Robin Carmody said...

Sadly my OTT contributions are very much in the past tense, having been kicked out some years ago mainly, I think, because I also wrote for Transdiffusion. I suppose my encyclopaedic mind might come in useful if I was still involved there (The Flumps, contrary to TJ Worthington's suggestions in his otherwise excellent series, didn't disappear in 1984; it was shown right up to 1988, and I have the memories and the Radio Times to prove it).

But I just thought I'd say, in case you don't know (I think you're the Rhys Jones I know from MHP-chat) that there is a longer, more detailed version (though still far from complete or definitive; that is some way off) of The Hangman's Ancient Sunlight: http://www.livingstonemusic.net/hangman.htm