By M.A. Joe Antony, SJ
I still remember the last scene of this film. Whenever I listen to inspiring hymns I recall the powerful, touching scene: A tear drop slowly emerges from the left eye of the Queen and travels down her smooth cheek. That drop of tear proves to her and to us, the viewers, that nothing is wrong with the Queen, that the strong, stoic woman is as human as the rest of us.
You must have heard of the much-acclaimed drama series called ‘The Crown’ released by Netflix in November 2016. ‘The Crown’ highlights major events in the life of Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of England. It starts from her wedding in 1947 and goes on to depict major events in her life till the first decade of this century. It sincerely tries to be true to what really happened but, at the same time, does not hesitate to take creative liberties for the sake of dramatic effect. Brilliantly written and masterfully directed, the series has managed to rope in a number of actors with extraordinary talent. It is not a surprise, therefore, that ‘The Crown’ won for Netflix seven Emmy awards in September 2021, including the awards for the Outstanding Drama Series, writing and directing.
‘The Crown’ has had four seasons so far, with each season featuring 6 – 10 episodes. Season 3, released by Netflix on 17 November 2019, had ten episodes and covered the period between 1964 and 1977. The film whose story I want to share with you is the third episode in Season 3. It is called ‘Aberfan’.
Aberfan is the name of a mining village in South Wales, U.K., struck by a heart-rending disaster in the year 1966. It was home to about 8,000 miners and their families. It had a chapel called Bethania Chapel. A school called Pentglas Junior School had 240 students, most of whom were the children of miners. Close to the school was a ‘spoil tip’ – called ‘tip 7’ in the film. It was a massive pile of accumulated coal waste that is routinely removed during mining. Quite a few perceptive people were concerned that this giant pile of coal waste stood so close to the school. Many years earlier the local Council had contacted the National Coal Board, which ran the mine, and expressed their concern.
In 1963 an engineer, after visiting the site, wrote to the National Coal Board, saying, “I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain.” But the National Coal Board not merely ignored these complaints and warnings but went on to threaten to close the mine and thus deprive the locals of their livelihood.
As the film begins, you see what happened on the day prior to the tragedy. It is raining heavily and parents, holding umbrellas, try to shepherd their children to the Pentglas Junior School.
As the film begins, you see what happened on the day prior to the tragedy. It is raining heavily and parents, holding umbrellas, try to shepherd their children to the Pentglas Junior School. When the classes get over, the class teacher asks the boys and girls in his class to memorize the hymn, ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ as they have to sing it the next day at the school assembly. After the assembly the school would close for half-term holidays. You see some children singing the song enthusiastically on their way home and to their parents later that evening. “All things bright and beautiful/ All creatures great and small/ All things wise and wonderful/ “’Twas God that made them all…”
Early in the morning the next day the workers who go for repairs notice that tip 7 is beginning to slide and run to warn the supervisor.
In spite of the continuing rain, classes begin at Pentglas Junior School. When the teacher reads out the names of students, they respond, saying, ‘Sir!” An enthusiastic boy, instead of saying, ‘Sir!’, starts singing, ‘All things bright and beautiful…’ While other children laugh, the teacher tells him to wait and sing it at the school assembly to be convened in minutes.
Hearing a rumble, the class teacher looks out the window and sees the coal tip sliding down at great speed. He shouts to the students to take shelter beneath their desks, but he keeps standing, probably paralyzed by shock and fear, staring at the 30 foot tsunami of sludge, as it races down the hill at a speed of more than 80 miles per hour and crashes into his class room.
He shouts to the students to take shelter beneath their desks, but he keeps standing, probably paralyzed by shock and fear, staring at the 30 foot tsunami of sludge.
The Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Wilson, is speaking at a function to inaugurate a ‘hyper market’ and his wife interrupts him and whispers the shocking news of the calamity. He asks to be excused and leaves. His office requests the Queen to lend him a plane to rush to Wales. When he reaches the school in Aberfan, he sees the miners who used to dig for coal now digging for their children buried in the sludge. The bodies of children who perished in the disaster are brought to the makeshift morgue at the Bethania Chapel. Nurses and volunteers search the pockets and bags of the dead children for something that could help their parents identify their children’s bodies.
The country gasps when the final count is revealed: 144 died, of whom 116 were children aged between 7 and 11. Among the 28 adults who were killed, there were 5 teachers. Twenty three men and women were in houses near the school engulfed by the coal sludge.
The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, on his return to London, tries to persuade the Queen to go to Aberfan and comfort the grieving families. The Queen replies, “One of the most unfortunate things about being a Sovereign is that you paralyze any situation you walk into. The very last thing that emergency and relief workers need is for the Queen to turn up.” Wilson says he doesn’t agree. “Children have died. The community is devastated.”
The Queen, still unconvinced, asks, “Precisely what will you have me do?”
“Put on a show? The Crown doesn’t do that”
“I didn’t say ‘Put on a show.’ I said, ‘Comfort people.’”
Wilson is not able to persuade the Queen to visit Aberfan. But Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband and Duke of Edinborough, rushes to Aberfan and attends the agonizing funeral service and the burial. People gathered at the cemetery, looking at the little coffins and fighting their tears, sing a hymn. It moves Prince Philip to tears. On his return to the palace the Queen asks him if he wept. “I might have wept, yes,” he replies. “Anyone who heard that hymn would not have just wept. He’d have been broken into a thousand tiny pieces.”
In a candid conversation with Wilson, she reveals that she is unable to weep. “After the Blitz, when I visited hospitals I saw that my parents – the King and the Queen – wept. I couldn’t. When I had my first child, I didn’t weep. When my grandmother, Queen Mary, whom I loved, died, I didn’t cry.”
Finally the pressure mounts and the Queen relents and visits Aberfan. She lays a wreath at the cemetery (See picture above) and meets a few of the grieving families. But she does not weep. On her flight back home, she asks her secretary about the hymn the people of Aberfan sang on the day most children were buried – the hymn that made her husband weep. He assures her he would get a record of the hymn.
Back in the palace, when the night has fallen, when everything is quiet and she is all alone, she plays the record and listens intently to the hymn:
“Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last.
Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, oh, leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing…
That is when the miracle happens. A tear drop slowly emerges from the left eye of the Queen and travels down her smooth cheek.
What made the miracle possible is, obviously, music. Music, when it combines with sorrow and love, can melt the hardened sadness into tears. The famous English poet, P.B. Shelley said, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
M.A. Joe Antony, SJ, is Editor of the online magazine, INI (https://inimagazine.org). Former editor of The New Leader and Jivan, he now resides at St Joseph’s College, Trichy, teaching, writing and directing retreats and seminars. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org