When The Unthanks first covered the haunting Shipbuilding – a song written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer for Robert Wyatt during the Falklands War – they probably never thought it would lead them here: soundtracking a documentary of the once-proud shipyards of the north-east at London’s Southbank Centre.
Nearly 30 years after they were written. Costello’s lyrics seem more poignant than ever. It was one thing to point out the irony of the Falklands War bringing back the promise of prosperity to Tyneside as its shipyards replaced the warships destroyed half a world away, but even he would have been hard pushed to guess that only a decade later, the Swan Hunter shipyards would go into receivership and, within 30 years, shipbuilding on Tyneside would be all but dead.
Songs from the Shipyards charts the glory days of this once proud industry. Falling somewhere between being a video installation to which The Unthanks provide the background music (film-maker Richard Fenwick has edited together the visuals) and a straightforward documentary with a musical, rather than spoken word soundtrack, it’s a poetic and emotive history of a bygone era.
Sponsored by the Port of Tyne, still a working port today through which cruise ships, cargo, exports and imports pass daily, the film and songs trace a century of shipbuilding in the north-east, from the earliest days of cinema through to the announcement in 1993 that the Swan Hunter shipyards were going into receivership. One of the most shocking things about the film is how dated the Swan Hunter footage looks when it’s less than 20 years old: this more than anything acts as a reminder that shipbuilding really does belong to past decades.
While Fenwick weaves together old documentary footage, The Unthanks do the same with the folk music of singer-songwriters from the north east, including Jez Lowe, Graeme Miles, Alex Glasgow and Johnny Handle. They hold it together with compositions of their own, in particular the brilliant The Romantic Tees, whose sparse spoken word lyrics are repeated over and over again by the band’s Adrian McNally above repetitive industrial clashes that segue perfectly with the background footage.
In romanticising the industrial past and the anti-war sentiments of the Shipbuilding-inspired Falklands section, the film can’t help but have a dig at Margaret Thatcher. The audience boos where they’re expected to, but it’s a shame the documentary gives the impression that it was only the failure of her government to provide the same subsidies received by other European shipyards that destroyed a much-loved way of life, while making not even a cursory reference to the Swan Hunter Group’s woeful management of a major Navy contract nearly 20 years later, which saw one ship taken away from it and the company banned from future Navy procurements, that really provided the nail in the coffin.
Nonetheless, the film does what it mostly intends to: it reminds the viewer of how much shipbuilding and the dockyards where it took place once dominated a community that lived together and worked together in a way that no longer exists. The hull of an enormous ship looming over the narrow terraced streets as it launches from the docks is an impressive sight on film, and must have been even more so for the people responsible for building it. Evocative images, evocative music, and an art installation that doubles as a history lesson. This is folk music for the twenty first century, deftly and beautifully chronicling the past.