"Oh the heavy water, how it enfolds
The salt, the spray, the gorgeous undertow
Always, always, always the sea
British Sea Power, 'Carrion'
Archive footage of the kind that's filled a hundred snoozy BBC4 documentaries, overlaid with music by an indie band from Sussex. No captions, no commentary, no clear narrative. So why am I crying?
The Storyville documentary From the Sea to the Land Beyond (Sunday BBC4), directed by Penny Woolcock with a soundtrack by British Sea Power, drew on a century of BFI film charting our relationship with the ocean – how so much of this island's work and play is, or was, concentrated at the coast.
This wasn't one to have playing casually on the larger of two screens. It was a thing to be immersed in, whisky poured, speakers turned up. With no words to guide, full concentration was necessary. But once you were in, the alchemy of precisely arranged visuals and sweeping, shuddering music was mesmeric.
The story started with turn-of-the-century gallavanters in hats and large swimming costumes, peering jovially into a camera that was making them look slightly speeded up. It ran more or less chronologically until it got to oil rigs in the 70s and the Docklands becoming a financial centre in the 80s and 90s. A large span, but everything was suffused with must and melancholy. Industries, ways of life and so many people, all long lost.
Beauty pageants, shipyards with masts and funnels stretching out like city skylines, charabancs down to Brighton, vast liners and tankers built by man and thrown hopefully into peril – all these scenes, put together by Woolcock and her editor Alex Fry with energy and economy, showed the sea as something infinitely fascinating, inspiring and dangerous. The bustle was interrupted twice by World Wars, introduced the first time with bright, energetic shots of men training with bayonets. The second war was met with a moment of black chaos, before a quiet regrouping as Spitfires were assembled and sent out over the sea towards France – British Sea Power fans will have known the two-note string refrain was from the song No Lucifer.
In what might just be an even better piece of work than any of BSP's albums, the soundtrack matched the film unerringly, sometimes by deliberately choosing relevant songs (Carrion, for a moving passage on lifeboatmen) but more often by reacting to the changing moods: here with spruce guitars, there with grimy colliery brass, now with solitary, sad piano. Always the music somehow took away that thick layer of glass that’s normally between us and the strangers in old film. With the drums throbbing and melodies swaying, you saw these 100-year-old faces for half a second, and cared for them. You know how the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 is inexplicably wistful and warming? That.
For her part, Woolcock had dug up fistfuls of images that were hypnotically beautiful or tantalisingly weird in their own right: a woman dancing on a girder, dangerously high up; blindfolded men hitting each other with socks full of sand as their uniformed colleagues cheered them on; a white-hot whip of metal curving around a forge, out of control; children walking barefoot across heath to a clifftop church.
Between eras, the music stopped and we simply looked out to sea. Time passed, people died, the ocean sat there impassively. The tide kept on coming in.