TV blog: The Last Miners

Benjie Goodhart / 17 November 2016

A poignant documentary follows the closure of the last deep coal mine. Plus, a look at British salaries from top to bottom and the rest of the week on TV.

The Last Miners, Monday 21st November, 9pm, BBC One

Here’s a fact and a half to kick things off: Once upon a time, Britain’s coal industry employed over a million miners, who produced more than half of the world’s coal supply. This extraordinary statistic makes even more poignant the subject of this two-part documentary – the closure of the country’s last deep coal mine, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire. The cameras follow a handful of the mine’s workers over the last five weeks of their employment, and the result is both fascinating and profoundly sad, a love letter to a bygone age and to the hardy men who powered it.

And it is all men. The only women who feature in the film are the WAGS. In  a world where women can do pretty much any job a man can, the tunnels half a mile below the earth are an exclusively male preserve. Whether that’s because women aren’t allowed to mine, or are just too sensible, is unclear. It is seriously hard graft, in searingly hot conditions. And filthy. So filthy that afterwards, the men all have to wash each other’s backs in the showers. A woman miner would put a rather large cat amongst those grubby pigeons.

The men of Kellingley are hard, proud, and very funny. You probably have to have a sense of humour when your job involves going half a mile underground and then four miles along a pitch black tunnel to a hot, dangerous coal face. Dangerous is right – the mine has been open since 1965 and there is disturbingly long memorial to those who have died there while working – 17, no less. That’s approximately 17 more than have been killed in any of the places I’ve worked. I suppose it’s difficult to die from a paper cut or the photocopier running out of toner.

It all looks and sounds pretty hellish – not least the single portaloo that serves all 400 miners. I bet that would have seen off the mine’s canary in the old days. And yet the guys seem to love it. The camaraderie is effortless, hard-won, and genuinely moving, and the evident pride they have in their work is something we could all learn from. These hardy souls used to power the nation. They kept our factories going, but they also kept us warm, powered our kettles and our tellies. We owe them a debt of gratitude. I’m not convinced that’s the deal they got, in the end.

What Britain Earns with Mary Portas, Tuesday 22nd November, 9pm, Channel 4                

According to Mary Portas, we’re seven times more likely to tell people we’re having an affair than what our salary is. I’m more likely to tell you I’m having an affair than what my salary is, and I’m not even having an affair. Mind you, I would say that. A TV blog on Saga’s website would be an unusual way to confess to a marital infidelity. Not that my wife ever reads this – she says she gets enough of my jokes at home. Then she rolls her eyes. And then starts to cry a little bit.

Anyhow, this one-off programme takes a look at what we earn in Britain, from the people at the top to those at the bottom of the pile, and an awful lot in between. At the top is Sir Martin Sorrell, who earned £70m last year. I assume he was simultaneously curing cancer, bringing peace to Syria, and making Top Gear good again, because that’s a fair wedge.

Portas also meets an Uber driver, who reckons that, after his expenses, he earns £3.50-per-hour. Working an eight-hour day, five-days-a-week, with five weeks’ holiday every year, it would take him 10,638 years to earn what Sorrell does in a year. (This is my own calculation, so feel free to check this – extra marks will be awarded if you show your workings out.)

And what of MPs? They earn £75,000-a-year. This may sound a lot, but it is dwarfed by the equivalent earnings in Germany, Australia and the US. Our PM earns a reasonable £150k, and has a not-too-shabby central London pad, rent-free. But President Elect Donald Trump will take home £316k, which is a relief – I was starting to worry about the parlous state of his finances.

The programme is just bursting with little nuggets of info. In 1989, the Queen was No. 1 on the Sunday Times Rich List. Now she’s 319th. Were that not humiliation enough, she shares her spot with the nation’s de facto monarch, Simon Cowell. The show reveals the best and worst-paid towns and cities in Britain. Okay, the best-paid you already know, but the second best? It’s something of a surprise.

There is discussion of the absurdly inflated salaries of sports stars, the cost of living in London, and the shocking gender disparity in salaries for the same job. But ultimately, as the programme is brave enough to acknowledge, what your salary is does not necessarily determine how happy you are. Sorrell has a broken marriage and bitter regrets behind him that no amount of millions can assuage, while Portas meets some very poorly paid workers who are happy with their lot. Mind you, if you’re going to be miserable, you might as well do it on a superyacht.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 19th November

Britain at Low Tide 1/3, 8pm, Channel 4: You might think Britain at low tide would be much like Britain at high tide, only fractionally bigger. This, hopefully, is not the case, or C4 are on to a real dud here. This is a look at Britain’s coastal archaeology, and the stories it reveals about our maritime, industrial and natural history.

Michael McIntyre’s Big Show 1/6, 8;10pm, BBC One: The amiable funny man returns with his show from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with guests Ellie Goulding and Olly Murs, a performance from new musical School of Rock, and a grandfather surprising his grandson with hilarious results.

Sold! Inside the World’s Biggest Auction House 1/2, 9:10pm, BBC Two: A year in the life of the global empire that is Christie’s, where men in sharp suits sell Pollocks for millions. Expect to see exactly what Christie’s want you to see.

The Rolling Stones: Ole Ole Ole! A Trip Across Latin America, 11pm, Channel 4: That’s not a programme title, that’s a novel! Anyway, this feature documentary follows the band on their 2016 tour across ten Latin American cities.

Sunday 20th November

0 to 60mph: Britain’s Fastest Kids, 7pm, Channel 4: Doc following three different boys on the junior karting circuit, and the sacrifices involved. Unsurprisingly, this involves a lot of ambitious and unfulfilled fathers, and their little boys just desperate to impress them.

The Last Lotus: Restoring a Race Car, 8pm, Channel 4: Actor Philip Glenister and car-nut Ant Anstead restore a Lotus Elite, for the benefit of audiences who like watching men restore Lotus Elites.

Life and Death the Pentecostal Way, 9pm, BBC Two:  The Pentecostal Chruch is now the largest Christian faith in London. This film meets the congregation of the Brixton New Testament Church of God, and follows some as they go through moments that will define their lives.

Monday 21st November

Our Guy in China 1/3, 9pm, Channel 4: Guy Martin, owner of a fine pair of sideburns, tea-aholic, and man who rides motorcycles ridiculously fast, investigates a side of China the tourists don’t normally see. Expect to see more than one trip to a garage.

Tuesday 22nd November

Breaking the Silence: Live, 8pm, Channel 4: This observational documentary promises to be one of the highlights of the week. Live on TV, a group of profoundly deaf people will hear for the first time, as their cochlear implants are switched on.

The Martin Lewis Money Show, ITV, 8pm: The inestimable Mr Lewis’ new series begins with an hour-long live special, in which our hero will try to save viewers hundreds of pounds while they watch, including cutting our energy bills and slashing credit card rates. It’s like being paid to watch telly! Hurrah!

One Killer Punch, 10pm, Channel 4: Three men discuss the moment they threw a punch that killed someone. If there is a very simple lesson to take from the film, it is this: Don’t punch people. It’s not rocket science.

Wednesday 23rd November

Kids on the Edge: Last Chance School, 10pm, Channel 4: A look at an NHS-run primary and early secondary school for kids with complex emotional, social and behavioural problems. Fascinating, humbling, sobering and rewarding.

Thursday 24th November

Grand Designs: House of the Year 1/4, 8pm, Channel 4: First in the series. I previewed this last week, and then those scoundrels at C4 moved it, just to spite me. Read the full preview here. If you can’t be bothered, then just know it’s a lovely programme full of lovely houses and lovely Kevin McCloud. Lovely!

Who Do You Think You Are 1/5, 8pm, BBC One: Tough-nut and professional East End geezer Danny Dyer learns he is related to royalty. No. Really. He learns he’s related to royalty. King Danny, anyone? “I name this ship the Pride of the Seas. Bosh. ‘Ave some of that, you mugs!”

Friday 25th November

Alan Carr’s Happy Hour, 8pm, Channel 4: The spexy beast returns with a new series, featuring comedy, variety, music, celebrities and games. Carr’s warmth and wit might make this worth a peek.

Walliams and Friend 1/6, Friday 25th November, 9:30pm, BBC One: The comedian has a special guest on each week to co-star with him in a series of sketches. This week, it’s Jack Whitehall. A fun idea, rich with potential.

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