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Unthanks soundtrack brings life to shipyards film

A THOUGHT-provoking new historical film has been set to music by The Unthanks, as Tamzin Lewis writes.

Rachel and Becky Unthank with Richard Fenwick at the Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend
Rachel and Becky Unthank with Richard Fenwick at the Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend

THE Kingdom of the Three Rivers sounds a bit archaic now, but is a perfect description of the Tyne, Wear and Tees when shipbuilding was at its height.

A new film premieres this weekend charting the rise and fall of the kingdom’s shipyards, accompanied by a live soundtrack composed and performed by The Unthanks.

The event, at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, is called Songs from the Shipyards, and although it sold out quickly, it’s a show The Unthanks hope to reprise.

The band worked closely with acclaimed Newcastle-based filmmaker Richard Fenwick to produce an emotional journey through the history of the shipyards.

Rachel Unthank, originally from Ryton, Gateshead, says: “The Tyneside brought us together with Richard and for us it seemed like the perfect project to work on.

“It will be a challenge to play live to a film but the subject is very close to our hearts.

“My sister Becky and I grew up on the banks of the Tyne and saw the passing of some of the industry on the river.”

They combined the project with a recent tour of Australia and worked on their shipyard songs while in Melbourne for a week.

Rachel says: “Instead of going and lying on the beach, we went into studios and worked hard on these songs. It worked out really well.”

Songs from the Shipyards is the second strand of a project called This Working Life launched by the British Film Institute in 2009. The first was King Coal and the third will focus on the steel industry.

Rachel says: “There is a rich wealth of historical song material for mining but not as much for shipbuilding. However, we discovered that many local songwriters had written about the industry, like Alex Glasgow and Graeme Miles. We also include a song about the Clyde, so we represent the industry as a whole, with a focus on the North East.”

The Unthanks were also inspired by the Radio 2 Radio Ballads, which included the Ballads of the Big Ships with contributions from North East songwriters like Jez Lowe.

Richard Fenwick sourced footage from the BFI, BBC and Northern Region Film and TV Archive and his film covers shipbuilding from 1900 onwards.

Rachel’s husband, Adrian McNally, The Unthanks’ manager and musician in the band, says: “The film collates footage and it has a narrative, but there is also an onus on asking questions about the rise and fall of the industry.

“We are looking for meaning from the images and Richard has been looking to create meaning in the images: so the collaboration has been working both ways.”

He adds: “Songs from the Shipyards is an attempt to celebrate and remember people who worked very hard in difficult conditions, who brought a lot of pride and prosperity to the region. “We didn’t want to glorify or be nostalgic without respecting the fact that it was tough and unpleasant work and also that communities fell to bits when the industry came to an end. We have to tread carefully.”

The Unthanks: Songs from the Shipyards Live is at the Tyneside Cinema on Sunday, see www.tynesidecinema.co.uk It is sponsored by the Port of Tyne. Watch this space for another date.


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