Stocker's Copper

Reviewed by Ruth Kenyon

Stocker's Copper (BBC 1972)

Screened as part of 'The Single TV Play (2)'
at the British Film Institute on
Friday17th April 2003 @ 4.00pm

The Story

Stocker's Copper is set in Cornwall during the 1913 strike by the china clay workers. Its story centres on the man-to-man relationship which develops between Manuel Stocker (Bryan Marshall) one of the striking miners, and Herbert Griffith (Gareth Thomas) a policeman from the Glamorgan force who are sent to control the strike.

Stocker and his wife (Jane Lapotaire) and two children live in a two-up-two-down terraced house in the village which they rent from the mine owner. They have garden full of vegetables which are helping to sustain them through the strike and a friendly pig in an enclosure by the fence which will become bacon before the winter sets in. The strike seems to be a relaxed affair, the strikers have a friendly agreement with the local police, and we see the local P.C. working on the flowerbeds in front of the station as the police from Glamorgan march in.

Herbert Griffith is one of these men. He was once a steel worker who knew hard times and was accepted for the force and given special training in dealing with striking miners. He has dealt with a number of incidents, even going to help out the Metropolitan Police at one point and he tells of one job which ended with him needing twelve stitches in his head when someone threw a chamber pot. Stocker finds this man standing in his kitchen when he returns from the picket line one day. Griffith has been billeted with the family for the price of 12 shillings a week.

At first there is quite naturally a feeling of distrust between Stocker and the copper. It is his wife Alice who is the voice of reason in the beginning and who invites Griffith from his banishment in the parlour into the kitchen to drink cider with her husband on the first night. As the time goes on however we watch an uneasy alliance build between the two men as they discover they are not so different after all, they are of a similar age and from mining backgrounds. One day Griffith returns from a Rugby match with his fellows (to begin with not much policing work is being done in the village) to find Stocker and his wife working in the garden. He pitches in to help; says he loves to work a garden himself, and after doing an afternoon's graft is thanked with a mug of cider. The relationship starts to build from here and we later see this further develop when he meets the family while they are blackberry picking and shares his cigarettes with Stocker and talks of his life as a steel worker and how he became a policeman.

This relationship takes an interesting turn later that evening when Griffith has returned from drinking with his police colleagues. Stocker is out with his striking mates doing mischief, as we will later discover. Stocker's wife Alice is in the kitchen alone with the children in bed when Griffith arrives back from his night on the tiles.

The mine owner has laid on a supply of free drink which the police had imbibed in freely, and the drunk young man sits and talks to Stocker's wife as she tries to feed him bread and cheese to sop up the alcohol. He is very effusive and emotional saying how thankful he is her and her husband, they have taken him in, looked after him and fed him like one of their own. He then hangs his head and with tears on his cheeks moves towards her. Were it not for the explosion which rings out as he approaches her the Welshman and Mrs Stocker would have been in an embrace by the end of the evening. Whether this was to comfort him or as she is attracted to him I am not sure. She is however brought back to her senses by the sound and goes upstairs to await her husband chastened by what she has just almost done.

The following morning Alice is undoubtedly in a bad mood. The explosion the night before was caused by some of the striking miners, including her husband, blowing up the cottage of some of the black leg miners who are still working despite the strike. When the Minister, who up until now has supported the strike calls the villagers together into the Churchyard to lecture them, Stocker walks out disgusted and returns home to drink. Griffith wakes up from his night's sleep and pours water from the water butt in the garden over his head and then gets involved in horseplay (literally) with the Stocker children and their father. The two men run races in the garden carrying them on their backs, Alice sees this and takes the children to visit relations leaving the drunkards to drink further. As they get drunker they get friendlier and wrestle in the garden as the rains starts and then retire to the house to change their mud covered clothing and drink further cider.

No matter far Stocker and his copper have got in building a relationship the inevitable disaster is always around the corner, the one we have been worrying about since the story started, finally it catches up with them. More black leg miners arrive in the village, brought in from elsewhere and the local miners go to picket. All would have gone well if the Superintendent of the visiting police had not read the Riot Act - the act of parliament which was created to prevent riots happening and has found its way into speech because of that. The fact that the visiting police do such a thing incenses the locals - they won't have their peaceful protest upset - and so a fight begins. Of course the poor miners are no match for the trained police, who in putting down the "riot" injure the local men severely. We are shown the aftermath - with faces bloodied, bodies broken and the strikers in pain both mentally and physically. The Minister from the chapel, so supportive of their efforts up to now, wanders about the huddled victims of this violence unable to even think of how to comfort them.

We are then given a sort of epilogue to finish the tale and from it we realise that the relationship between the two men was doomed from the start - how COULD a strike-breaking policeman and a striker ever been friends?

Griffith, leaving the house of the Stockers to return to Wales, his job there done, turns and speaks to the camera. He has no regrets he says, the miners knew what they were facing with the visiting police and they should not be surprised at the outcome.

When we got the order to charge, we charged. That's all there was to it.


We're not brutes, mind, just anyone asking for trouble, they've only got themselves to blame. No good complaining afterwards, there's nothing personal.

Then we hear of the strikers, who returned to work six weeks later with no improvement of their conditions or pay. Stocker is seen working in the mine while his wife toils in the garden behind their house. Nothing has changed for them.

Part 2

I'm the daughter of a social historian with a family background of the working masses (one side of my family were cotton spinners in Manchester) who was brought up in the North East of England. I spent time as a child running about in Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham which recreates life in the North East at the end of the 19th century. Here as my father told visitors about the lives and social conditions of the locals I played amongst the recreations of the places they lived and worked. I think that gives me quite an interesting perspective on period drama such as Stocker's Copper. I also lived through the 1985 Miners Strike and personally saw what that did to the communities in the colliery villages and towns around the Northumberland coast where I grew up. I therefore think I can understand a little of what Stocker and his work mates and their families were going through...

That is all very interesting but am not going to talk about that here, about what I thought of the period setting , the house used for the Stockers' home and what I know about the steam train in the first few scenes. That would quite literally take a whole book. What I am going to talk about is the film I saw, the charismatic acting I witnessed and the wonderful characters who were portrayed on screen.

The story of the developing relationship Manuel Stocker and Herbert Griffith is a tragedy in any sense of the word, both personal and on a wider social level. From the time they meet they are doomed and learning more about them as the story develops only makes the painful denouement harder to take. How could a miner and a strike-breaking policeman ever be friends? True they come from similar backgrounds but their jobs put them a million spacials apart. The fact that they do not see this, that the ordinary decent working men begin a friendship that will end in disaster, makes the tragedy all the more marked.

The contrast between Stocker and Griffith is very interesting. Although they have similar backgrounds, working men who are drawn together by the shared experience of the privations it brings, Griffith stepped out of that life when he became a policeman. Gareth seemed to be playing Griffith as younger than Stocker (I'm not sure about the relative ages of the actors) that isn't really the point. What has really separated the two men, what makes them who they are, is the different reality of their lives now.

For me this creates another level of tragedy, the lack of understanding of the roles Stocker and Griffith's lives were making them have to play when otherwise. These men were both quite capable of being friends no matter what, drawn close to each other by their experiences and personalities. In a perfect world everyone should get on, its life that gets in the way and sours things. In Stocker's Copper we are reminded of this quite truthfully.

Stocker is a man who has a family to support and who is struggling daily for his and their existence. He has rent to pay, mouths to feed and backs to clothe. This is the reality of his life and that of his work mates and neighbours. Griffith is a man who has none of these things as part of his actuality. He is a single man, his job pays him well, gives him a status above the role in the steel trade he had originally and allows him to travel to many new places while doing it. He is still young in mind if not also in body (he thinks the clay spoil heaps are snow) and the job, and possibly the propaganda that comes with it, keeps him and his mind in this undeveloped state. Coming to Cornwall seems like a holiday to him, he thinks what he is doing here is fun

It's hard to think when there's beautiful country around you all the time. Back home, it's different. Everything's black. Black and clay. Houses, streets, even the countryside and about. It takes the colour out of things, that old coal. Coal dust. Around here, it's different all together. Them clay mountains- snow at first I thought when I first seen them. And palm trees down at the station it's a fairyland.

The policeman cannot see the tragedy coming and is surprised by the reaction of the village after the damage has been done. Stocker is the more mature, he can forecast what is coming, Griffith doesn't seem to think about it. This is shown earlier as the young policeman is standing in line grinning enthusiastcally at one of the local children while he showing off his truncheon drill. It may be fun to him but (according to my father who knows about this) those things could be lethal weapons - they were often packed with lead shot.

Gareth did a wonderful job as Herbert Griffith. He could put over the policeman's liveliness and enthusiasm with natural ease, but then those who know Gareth would understand that. He also uses his well known warmth and charm although due to this character's youthful age he's not developed knowing twinkle used in later performances, its more a rather nice wide eyed wonder a lot of the time. He's got quite a mind for words too as a lot of the background policing stories are delivered almost as monologue, and there are a lot of them.

What interested me was the way the story of Stocker's Copper, despite its taut subject and violence in its climax, managed to retain the innocence of a 1970s TV play. The story is about the relationship between Stocker and Griffith and although other parts of the play are there to fill in the story they are not allowed to get out of hand. The scene between Gareth and Jane Lapotaire (playing Stocker's wife), where Griffith is drunk and emotional and the two could have ended in a clinch but don't is beautiful in its under use. In a modern TV drama this would have been overplayed with the husband coming home to find them like that, or even a baby turning up out of the forbidden act that followed. That would have spoilt things. We do not have deaths and weeping women after the assembly of the miners is put down by the police either. It is all personal grief shown between people and not so wide ranging. Admittedly this event has affected the lives of these people in a critical way but they have a dignity that modern screen dramas could learn from.

And so I rest my case. In Stocker's Copper there is none of the sensationalism of modern TV affairs, it is a gentle drama telling a hard hitting story, something you wouldn't see on our screens in the year 2003. If you ever do get the chance to watch it please do, I'm not surprised Gareth got a BAFTA nomination for this, he earned it.

The Personal Appreciation

As a final comment, to register my own favourite part of the play, I can say that Gareth's best scene, for me, was where he is emotional and drunk and sheds tears; that was wonderful. It was done gently and quietly in a way that is believable and gave great dignity to the character he played.  He is, in my experience of his acting, a man of great contrast. On the one hand he is capable of almost being as over-the-top as Brian Blessed when he acts a rage, but his subtler moments are from a totally different end of the scale and all the better for that I think.

It was endearing to watch the concentration with which the young actor (he was only 27 when this was done) gave the moment creating the emotion to cry in that scene. The filming did not cut away  to allow him to prepare off camera, he had to just produce the tears there and then. I knew exactly what was coming and it was all the better because I did. Lovely it was too.

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