Around twenty minutes from the end of Penny Woolcock’s magnificent documentary From The Sea To The Land Beyond, archive footage shows holidaying Brits in the 1970s and early 1980s as they check in at airports and take advantage of affordable flights to sunnier climes like Spain’s Costa del Sol. As this intrepid bunch of flare-wearing, moustache-twirling explorers excitedly sets off for the brave new world of package holidays the film abruptly cuts back to the British seaside resorts they have left behind. Largely deserted save for the flocks of giant mutant seagulls reared on a diet of fish and chips, the coastline suddenly looks sad and tired, a shadow of its former self. The tourists have deserted the very holiday destinations that were built up on their own doorsteps, lured away en masse by the promise of a glug of cheap sangria, a flash of a flamenco dancer’s leg, a plate of overcooked paella and the many, many bargain straw donkeys for sale. How could they?

This is a story of gradual decline. Woolcock’s film makes use of decades of fascinating footage from the British Film Institute’s archive, artfully telling the story of Britain’s coastline from the beginning of the 20th Century to the end. It opens with footage of crowds in Blackpool, the grand dame of English seaside towns, as people take advantage of the relatively-new, post-industrial revolution concept of leisure time. Holidaying visitors peer inquisitively into the camera, following it as the lens pans across the crowds rather than it following them, as is the case nowadays. The film ends, amusingly, with footage of Blackpool in the year 2000 as high winds and heavy rain batter the drunken stag and hen party revellers and the hardy few holidaymakers that remain. Some speak of their dismay at the way the town has changed. These two bookends do show a slightly different town across a period of 100 years, and while much has inevitably changed, much has also stayed the same.

This documentary is packed with interesting archive film, which details in parts the growth of seaside resorts and the rise and subsequent (slight) decline in the coast’s importance as a base for industry. It celebrates the rich history of shipbuilding, the emigration of Britons (with footage of the Cunard mail steamer Lucania leaving for America), the successive waves of immigration of the 20th Century, the important role of the coast in relation to both World Wars, the beauty pageants played out in front of crowds of thousands at Butlin’s holiday resorts, the regeneration of London’s docklands in the 1980s, and much more. It even finds time to show egg collecting on the faces of cliffs.

All of this is imaginatively stitched together by Woolcock and Editor Alex Fry, and scored superbly by the band British Sea Power, who had collaborated with the filmmakers on a live soundtrack when the film was first screened to the public at Sheffield DocFest. The band’s haunting anthems about the sea and powerful instrumentals sit perfectly with the footage – a brilliantly realised marriage of sound and image that perfectly complement each other. The music benefits from being played alongside the images, and vice versa. Thankfully the images and the music are allowed to speak for themselves, and there is no narration getting in the way.

Richly detailing the recent social and economic history of Britain’s coast, as well as celebrating its beauty and reflecting upon its harshness, this is a valuable historical document as well as a thoroughly entertaining film. Woolcock, Fry, British Sea Power, the BFI and the producers have certainly done the footage justice, and kudos must be given to all the unsung cameramen that made it all in so many different locations over so many years. An intelligent, enlightening and moving film, From The Sea To The Land Beyond has been shown on TV in the UK a couple of times in the past year, but deserves to be seen by a wider international audience.

The Basics:

Directed by: Penny Woolcock
Certificate: U
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Year: 2012