THE Town That Thread Built is a social history documentary that tells the story of the multinational giant J&P Coats, and its roots in Scotland’s biggest town, Paisley.
The company dominated the thread industry for well over a century, employing thousands worldwide, from its Renfrewshire base. But the decision to cease manufacturing in Scotland was made 25 years ago.
The film – made by Scottish indie, TVI Vision – will be broadcast on BBC TWO Scotland at 9pm on Wednesday June 7.
Here, executive producer, Maurice Smith, of TVI Vision, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the programme?
Ewan Angus commissioned for BBC Scotland, and was also their executive.
Explain the thinking behind the programme’s ‘look and feel’.
Paisley is one of those places that people take for granted. They think of it mainly as a former industrial town that has struggled economically. All that is true, but it is also home to some really notable architecture, and some great memories.
We decided to use those strong images – the mill buildings, churches, observatory and so on – as the basis of much of the filming. The mill buildings meant so much to the people that worked in them. Their pride imbues each contribution. The director, Sarah Howitt, also had an excellent idea that involved projecting archive film ‘live’ on the walls of some of these buildings, to great effect.
This is a social history with three key elements: the filmed reminiscences of former J&P Coats’ employees, the physical environment of Paisley and a lot of remarkable archive film of the town and the industry.
The look and feel all comes from pulling together those elements in a way that complements the narrative, which is delivered by a former part-time ‘mill girl’, Phyllis Logan (better known as an actress of course!).
What kit and software?
Our main camera was the trusty Canon C300. There are also some interesting shots that Sarah captured with a DJI Osmo hand-held. Our camera people included Steven Mochrie, Fraser Rice, Laura Kingwell and in America, Jim Frances. Sound included Dougie Fairgrieve and Robbie Elder.
The edit was done at TVI Vision with the brilliant Angela Slaven, using Avid Media Composer.
The online and grade were completed at The Hive in Glasgow by Guido Schneider. The dub was completed by John Devine at the Hive. Music production came from Kenny Inglis, and graphics were provided by Nicole Anderson.
What were the main production challenges?
The main challenge was getting the right balance of contributors, I think.
Anybody who knows anything about the history of J&P Coats and Paisley thinks they must know everything. But you have to strive to tell the history of the place through the eyes of people with differing experiences.
Assistant producer, Louise Arthur, and researcher, Wendy Smith, sought out shop-floor workers – the ‘mill girls’ – as well as managers, local historians and others with particular memories.
Everybody in Paisley seems to have a Coats’ story. People are immensely proud of their town and ‘their’ industry, and many remain sad at its demise.
Even though Coats are no longer headquartered in Scotland, the company were helpful in terms of contributing some archive film, a gesture which I think was an acknowledgment of their debt to Paisley.
We also had an unplanned detour to Rhode Island, filming a former Coats mill at Pawtucket, which remains almost entirely intact. Brian Coats, descendant of the company founders and a company historian, travelled east from his home in California to share the experience.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
This project brought home to me the sheer impact of the industry on Paisley.
Like many Scots, I knew something about the town and its relationship with J&P Coats.
My good friend, John Morton, was born in Peru, where his dad was a Coats manager, and the company used to pay for his schooling back in Scotland and pay to fly him to and from Latin America. It was one of the great paternalistic corporations, in its day.
I had not realised that the industry’s roots in Renfrewshire stretch back so far before the Industrial Revolution. Coats was truly multinational – the third biggest company in the world at one stage.
I enjoyed working again with Sarah Howitt, who directed The Bridge: Fifty Years Across the Forth for us three years ago. That won a BAFTA Scotland award, and we’re very proud of it. Sarah is a producer / director who cares deeply about her work, and I admire that.
Angela Slaven was also a pleasure to work with, and my fellow executive producer, Colin Cameron, was as incisive as ever.
The best stories are those with a beginning, middle and an end. I believe that, at TVI, we are excelling at social history. Whatever the subject, a good story is one that centres on people and their experiences.