Filmmakers mine rich seam of stories from the colliery that took on the Government

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The Independent Culture

When a foul rain is whipping in off the Rhigos Mountains, there is little to entice outsiders to Tower Colliery, an unprepossessing mass of winding gear and sheds at the top of the Cynon Valley in south Wales. Only the canteen's £1.50 fish, curry and chips appeals.

And the humour. They still laugh about pit legends like Dai "Eighteen Months''. He lost half of his ear in a mining accident "so he's only got an ear and a half".

But to writers, the draw of the place is irresistible. Tower's story has been turned into an opera, by Alun Hoddinott, and a cult French film, Jean-Michel Carré's Charbons Ardents ("Mad About Coalmining") in the past five years.

And next up is Tower - the film. Colin Welland completed the screenplay two weeks ago and casting should begin within a month. Three of Wales' finest - Catherine Zeta Jones, Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys - are among the names producer David Kelly is conjuring with.

Welland and Kelly want the film finished this year so it can coincide with the 10th anniversary of the legendary events that make Tower such a draw: its miners' fight to buy the pit after British Coal closed it down in April 1994.

Welland's central figure is Tyrone O'Sullivan, a pit electrician and NUM lodge secretary of 20 years' standing before he called a meeting of the workers in May 1994 and asked them for £2,000 apiece to help him buy back the pit. The request met with a deafening silence, then an almighty row, but only one man voted against. Eventually, it took £8,000 each from 239 miners to fight off rival bids for the pit. They went back as owners, every one of them a shareholder in a new company which remains the only wholly employee-owned mine in the world. Mine owners from Cuba to the former Eastern Bloc have travelled to see how it works.

The Tower, as Welland's film is likely to be called, will be no repeat of Brassed Off and The Full Monty - both box office hits about post-industrial struggle. They reduced the Yorkshire coal and steel communities of Grimethorpe and Sheffield to "pantomime buffoonery'' in Kelly's opinion.

"We don't want to compromise this story and get into packaged British eccentricities just to get finance from around the world,'' he said. "We could put in all sorts of storylines to pep it up but we don't want to move away from the real, astonishing story of people with very little training and very little hope taking on the forces of Government and the City and winning.''

The film weaves together the miners' memorable venture into the City to raise the money they needed for their mission back in the valleys, which was driven by a deep sense of history. The first flag of revolt here - white, but dipped in sheep's blood - was raised by miners and ironworkers in the Merthyr Rising of 1931.

Tower's first encounter with the City types came after the miners appointed PriceWaterhouse as advisers. The same accountants had sequestrated the union's funds in 1984, but the miners were convinced the firm were "friends with the Tories'' and could be useful to them.

There were a few accountants in "long black coats who never drank a pint,'' according to O'Sullivan, but his abiding memory is of a forceful young accountant, remembered only as "Fiona'', who did the work and remains cherished. Hers is the part lined up for Zeta Jones.

The film concludes with the miners' march through the colliery gates, but equally significant events have occurred in the ensuing 10 years.

The new owners introduced pension rights for the first time, an extra week's holiday a year, sickness and accident pay and better salaries (currently £365 a week for miners - high compared with other surviving collieries). Management earns a bit more but rises are at a flat rate to keep things in line with the miners. O'Sullivan has been decorated with an OBE (that's "old broken-down electrician'' according to his men) but he earns £35,000 a year and drives an X-reg Vauxhall Vectra. "That makes me the lowest-paid chairman in Europe,'' he says.

It's been no bed of roses. There were several walkouts over changing shift patterns in the first few years and last year's hot weather left the mine £3m down on turnover in six weeks and overtime was cut. The men have had no pay rise since April 2002. But the mine has stayed well in profit.

"If it had been British Coal, the lads would have been out on strike over pay,'' said Ken Davies, a miner for 21 years and now company secretary. "One of the benefits of this kind of enterprise is the ordinary workman knows the position. He's not afraid some boss in London is running off with his money.''

Though Liam Neeson has been touted as the man to play O'Sullivan, he rather fancies Nick Nolte. "The lads say it should be Robbie Coltrane,'' he says, patting his belly. "But that wouldn't be so bad. He's got some life in him too.''

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