Title ID 5100Collection ID722
TitleThe Way We Live
CollectionH.K Lewenhak
Genre/TypeProfessionalTelevision companyNon-fictionActuality/Factual
ThemeTransport Working Life
KeywordsHouses Industry Men Music Railway Stations Railway Steamers Railways Steam Locomotives Transport Workers Uniforms
NationalEngland United Kingdom
ProductionH. K. Lewenhak
CameraWilf Gray
DirectorJulia James
ProducerH. K. Lewenhak
Commissioning bodyTyne Tees Television, Newcastle
EditorBill Robertson
WriterJulia James
MusicEwan MacCall and Peggy Seeger
FormatBlack & White Sound
Duration13 min. 40 sec.
Copyright & AccessCopyright restrictions apply, contact Screen Archive South East for details


Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger's music and songs accompany Julia James and Kurt Lewenhak's portrait of railway workers during the gradual usurption of railway steamers for diesel trains. Men working on the railways are seen building, repairing and driving the steam engines in and around Darlington.


Tyne Television presents... The Way We Live. Footage shot from the front of a train as it moves into Darlington Station opens the film. Music plays, drawing on folk conventions. Industrial buildings, steam trains and freight trains are seen passing along the tracks from elevated and track-side positions. Workers are seen leaving the railway, "another day is done." One cycles home from work. Others are clocking on to start the day. Trains are built and repaired in an industrial warehouse. Wheels are lifted and moved by a pulley system. A worker welds while wearing a mask. A crane lifts an engine. "But the age of steam is over, and the new age is begun. It's race is almost run..." plays melancholically over a tracking shot following a worker walking through the warehouse. "As steam makes way for Diesel... will we need you there old timer, will you be working still."

Further footage shot from the front of a train follows, reaching a group of repairmen. They check the level of the rails, test keys and chairs (rail fastenings that fix rails to railroad sleepers) and travel in a truck that moves along the track. The signal is changed by the station master as they pass through his station. "The iron road is a hard road and we keep it in good order." The repairmen stand to the side the track to allow a train to pass before getting back to work.

Their shift over, men are seen with their flowers in a greenhouse, "tinkering" in a shed and closing their eyes to go to sleep. Trains turn on large circular turntables. A worker wakes at 5 am. "Your Loco's waiting for you!" While some clock off in the evening, some have a long night of work ahead of them. Steam and Diesel trains travel in and out of the station. A railway worker's wife puts out dinner for her husband returning from work. Some go to the pub after work. Men and women play dominoes and nurse pints of bitter. Others go to the pictures or dancing in the evening. The worker, now home, sits down for his tea. "Spare a thought for the lads on nights."

A driver shovels coal into the steam engine's furnace. "back aches and bones shaking... keep it rolling." "Swing your steal plated shovel... and that's the knack." The driver peers through the darkness to look for the signal. "through the night you keep em rolling." "Work is never ending... eleven quid a week earners, we're the boys who keep em rolling." As morning approaches, a train enters a station as saxophone music plays. Footage shot from the front of a steam train passes diesel trains, indicating that steam has had it's day now diesels roll along the iron road. Miners watch from the side of the railway as the train passes through heavily industrial areas. The credits roll over folk music and further footage shot from the front of a steam train.

Contextual information

Lewenhak began making sung documentaries while at Tyne-Tees TV between 1959 and 1961. As Head of Features he ran childrens programmes, newsreels and political programmes that were often critical of the poor conditions in which people had been living in the area since the 1930s. He stopped making television in 1968 after leaving ATV, taking up a post at Nottingham College of Education and later at Glasgow Educational Television, the University of Birmingham and Visnews International Training.

The Way We Live was heavily influenced by the popular and critically acclaimed Radio Ballads, produced for the BBC between 1958 and 1964 by Charles Parker using music and song to tell the stories of workers. Radio Ballads are described by Parker as "a form of narrative documentary in which the story is told entirely in the words of the actual participants themselves as recorded in real life... and in songs which are based upon these recordings, and which utilise traditional or 'folk-song' modes of expression." The programmes dispensed with narrators or interviewers, whose voices were edited out, leaving the interviewee to tell his or her own story. Rich layers of sound, improvised jazz, composed folk songs, field recordings and sound effects were integral to the programme, in an attempt to produce works that re-create the direct experiences of the subjects. Parker writes of working between fiction and reality; "My essential business is still with illusions and I am not so arrogant as to assume that the tape recorder empowers me to purvey the "reality" direct." Instead, the programmes produced a remarkable and imaginative recreation of experience, drawing upon oral traditions, folk culture, popular theatre and its turn towards drama and ritual, away from social realism. The first Radio Ballad, produced in 1958, was The Ballad of John Axon, about the steam-locomotive driver John Axon who died at work in 1957. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, who also provided the songs in The Way We Live (1958), wrote songs inspired by the stories of Axon's widow and workmates in Stockport. Songs in the folk tradition also feature heavily in Road Across the Tamar, in which song is interspersed with narration to tell the story of bridge building and the history of water transport between Devon and Cornwall from the perspective of local workers.

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