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Saturday, 19 November 2016
Meet the unlikely screen star of the last days of coal mining as the demise of an industry is filmed.
Meet Big K, unlikely screen star of the last days of coalmining . Not Kellingley Colliery, which shared that title, but Kevin Rowe, who leads a cast of pitmen in a fly-on-the-coalface TV documentary.
The Last Miners tells the story of King Coal's demise in Britain, through the closure of the last pit.
Baccy-chewing Kevin, 55, a chargehand at Kellingley, North Yorks, kicks off the drama with a characteristically flamboyant song at the shaft bottom.
"Are you ready for the northern calypso?" he asks his workmates. "We are," they chorus.
And off he goes:
"Hey, Mrs Micklethwaite will tha feed ma whippet?
Daylight comes, and I'm still down pit
I go down pub where I drink 10 pints
I think I'm getting plastered
I go back home and I beat my wife
Cos I'm a big fat northern b*****d!"
The lads applaud, and one says: " David Cameron may take our jobs but he can't take our sense of humour."
So starts another day of grafting 800 yards below the surface.
But no amount of hard work will save their jobs. The pit shut on December 18, 2015 – the death-blow of an industry that powered the industrial revolution and once employed more than a million men.
These are the last miners.
Independent film-makers Keo Productions were given unprecedented access to these unsung heroes of labour – well, they're singing now, louder than pit canaries.
The story begins five weeks before closure and follows the fortunes of four miners: Kevin, alias "Jonesy", 49, a shift manager; Jack, 23, a fitter; Sheldon, 54, a supervisor and Andy, 22, a surface electrician. They're all made redundant, but make a new life for themselves.
Narrated by Christopher Eccleston , The Last Miners follows men riding four miles on a paddy train to the coal face, ripping "the black diamonds" with giant cutting machines and tackling nightmarish power breakdowns.
They work in singlets soaked in sweat and shorts, ribboned with day-glo stripes.
The only light is from their headlamps.
Banter is frequent, but interspersed with real anxiety – they have a deadline to complete a huge coal cut to pay for their own redundancy.
This was the condition of a £4million loan from the Government to keep the pit open for a limited period. The money has to be repaid.
It's their determination to reach this production target, and commitment to each other, that turns an everyday story of work into a drama.
The documentary is shown on BBC1 in two parts, beginning on Monday.
"They'll be bored stacking shelves," says Kevin. "These lads, they need some hard graft. It's good for the soul. We'll do it. We don't do the F-word – fail."
It's about the only F-word they don't use. There's no political correctness here.
In the last week of operation, men working the two-metre thick Beeston seam produce 40,000 tonnes of coal worth up to £200million – proof that Kellingley was still a viable pit. As the deadline approaches, the men work 12-hour shifts, and the toil takes its toll.
Ray Whitty, a 63-year-old miner who's worked at Kellingley for 47 years, falls in the shower. It's a heart attack, and he's given CPR by his workmates. Jack, who is quickly on the scene, says: "You could see the life had gone from his eyes."
Ray is taken to hospital, survives, and comes back for the pit's last day. Death is no stranger to these men – Andy's father Gerry died after being buried by 15 tonnes of rock in a roof collapse at Kellingley in 2011 .
Andy, who was training elsewhere in the pit at the time, says: "I always wanted to be a miner." A wall of his home is covered with photos of his dad.
On the last day of the last deep mine, the media are out in force (I was there, too). The miners had mixed feelings.
One says: "It's a shame they couldn't show the same interest about Kellingley when it was open as when it was closing. I don't mind publicity, but we could have been fighting to keep the pit open rather than celebrating it closing."
In the locker room, Sheldon passes by a heap of discarded uniforms, a poignant metaphor for the men who wore them and will never wear them again.
"That could be workers on the scrap heap," he observes dolefully.
But there is still a note of defiance.
"Kellingley is history – but the people who worked there are not."
The last piece of coal is carried out from underground, a trophy.
Then the final rites are technical: switching off the huge ventilating fans.
Amid emotional goodbyes, the last evening shift is sent home without going down. But it's not over until the fat man sings. Kevin brings down the curtain with another song.
"At the age of 16 years
With my father close to tears
When he swore to God never to send his son to the dark recesses of the mine
Where you're old before your time and the cold dust flies heavy on your lungs.
At the age of 55
I thank God I'm still alive
When the wheel above the hole no longer turns
And they finally close the hole where we fought for years for coal.
Never again will I go down underground."
They clap, and cheer, and gather round. They hug, and kiss, and wipe the tears from their eyes. But it's not quite the end of the story. The men start looking for work.
Sheldon is stir-crazy at home. Then, one day the phone rings, and he's got a job as a telecoms engineer on the railways.
So, no longer a miner?
"I'll always be a miner," he retorts to an interviewer who should know better. "You'll never take the coal dust out of my lungs."
Jonesy is taken on by a Mercedes dealer. Jack, demoralised by months on the dole, moved to County Durham to be with his girlfriend. He finally got a job as an engineer, and is about to become a dad.
Andy works for the National Grid. And after taking time out, Kevin trained as a handyman.
Success stories – if not the kind they sought. But what of the other 435?
Keith Poulson, National Union of \ official, says: "At least two thirds have found jobs, mainly manual. Lorry driving, buses, warehousing, but nothing like the industry they were in."
The pit may be gone but its legacy remains – like its twin towers that still dominate the local landscape. Demolition work is under way and the land is scheduled to become housing and industrial development.
Kevin has given up chewing tobacco, and is busy plumbing, laying floors, painting and decorating. "I'm actually loving it at the moment," he says.
Still, I hear a wistful note in the voice of the pit troubadour.
"I really love my new life. But I'd go back to being a miner in a flash – and 99% of the other men would do the same."
That will never happen, and we're all the losers.
The Last Miners, which is in two parts, starts on Monday at 9pm, on BBC1.