The Best of the British Transport Films (BFI Bluray 70th anniversary release, 2019)
Railway buffs and fans of homegrown documentary film have something to celebrate in the release of this pristine Bluray set assembling some of the best British Transport Films. I was initially sceptical about the extent to which new technology could improve old film stock, but these misgivings were completely ill-founded. Each of the films on this collection, whether black-and-white or colour, has a gem-like clarity, and this is particularly true of Schlesinger’s extraordinary Terminus, of which more later.
One especially interesting aspect of these films is that they were used for training staff in the myriad tasks involved in keeping the railways running. Throughout, there is an emphasis on the value and dignity of labour —both skilled and unskilled— and the debt owed by the unsuspecting traveller to the legions of working men and women involved in carrying out exhausting and sometimes back-breaking work behind the scenes. This is well demonstrated by Wires Over the Border from 1974, which shows the incredible, stoical effort involved in electrifying the West Coast main line from Crewe to Glasgow—“grit and determination” indeed, as the booklet notes observe admiringly. The jaw-dropping Snowdrift at Bleath Gill (1955) chronicles the heroic task of freeing a frozen-in goods train from a snowdrift in the Pennines. Logistical work is the focus of Train Time, which opens with the problem of how to get huge quantities of fresh broccoli from the South-West to all those “hungry Londoners.” The key role played by the railways in keeping everything moving, and the country as a whole functioning, is illustrated by the film's shots of bespectacled boffins grappling with timetables, ordering up extra rolling stock from Wales and ensuring enough capacity to still meet travellers’ needs. The notes comment that “The film’s deepest theme is the interdependence not just of railway managers, staff and trains but of society itself —with agriculture, shipping, coal and steel all part of the picture. This is an inclusive vision, but also one in which proper hierarchies are respected.” In Fully Fitted Freight, an exciting and inspiring look at freight trains and their workers set partly in the massive goods depot of Bristol Temple Meads, the pride in the railways is palpable (“he comes of a train-shunting family,” says the narrator). The film evokes a massive transport network moving the things needed and wanted by consumers “across the green tablecloth of England,” in a metaphor both boastful and touchingly domestic.
Anyone familiar with John Betjeman would have a sneaking suspicion, looking at the title of Railways For Ever! (1970), that he might have been involved somehow. That suspicion would be correct. Narrated in Betjeman’s trademark vulnerable, sentimental and slightly lugubrious style, this heartwarming film commemorates the 1968 changeover from steam to electric in mainline operations. Crowds of young trainspotters gather with their cameras to capture the last steam train as it chugs across the Pennines, in scenes reminiscent of Londoners’ affectionate farewell to the last tram in John Krish’s The Elephant Will Never Forget (not included on this collection but also made under the BTF umbrella).
Elizabethan Express, 1954, is a splendid tribute to the summer express service (only six hours!) from Kings Cross to Waverley, with delightful music by Clifton Parker and footage of the workers fitting the insides of the Gresley locomotives used on the route. The dining car, with its white linen and silver service, is particularly impressive. As with many of the films, this one gives the viewer an impression of the different personalities involved in keeping the service running. The cinematography is worth a special mention: it is challenging to capture smooth footage from the window of a train, and the moment when majestic Durham whirls into view makes the heart skip a beat, so that sixty-five years later, we share the thrill felt by the passenger in this superb POV shot. Blue Pullman (1960) similarly celebrates the train as a moving domestic interior, proudly drawing attention to all the features that made this new model, at the time, hyper-modern.
Any Man’s Kingdom, a portrait of this reviewer’s favourite county made in 1956 and only very incidentally about transport, comfortingly shows that some aspects of Northumbria have not changed. We see travellers taking a boat from Seahouses to visit the arctic terns, puffins and guillemots on the Inner Farne Islands, or perigrinating to marvel at the remains of the monastery on Lindisfarne. There is something very touching about watching groups of young tourists, the girls in those impractically full New Look skirts, poring solemnly over Hadrian’s Wall. As the booklet notes remark, the county is such a big subject that it is especially hard for a documentary film-maker to do it justice: “It offers such a variety of scenery and history, such a rich fullness of life to its residents and visitors, that choice of subject matter is more than usually difficult.” With a loving commentary and delightful colour-film footage, which even captures the Chillingham wild cattle herd at the time, it is a glorious tribute to a dramatic and beautiful county.
At the other extreme, The Scene from Melbury House (1972) is a charming, impressionistic collage of seventies slice-of-life footage captured throughout the year and in all weathers from the roof of a building in Marylebone, to a soundtrack played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and based upon Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony. An important leitmotiv is the demolition of pre-war slum housing, which crumbles like a sandcastle when the wrecking ball touches it. Horse Guards trot by, some showing a surprising amount of daylight, and an incredibly long Oriental carpet runner is rolled out along a crosswalk and then rolled up again from the other side (apparently the only way to contend with its weight in the delivery process, but rather unhygienic). In another slightly hallucinatory image, a group of nuns in full habit sit knitting happily in a garden. On a day of sun, Londoners make the most of the weather: one woman puts out laundry on her minuscule balcony space and then sits next to it to soak up the warmth, but, as in the rest of the film, this footage is taken from a distance and is never at all intrusive. As the day goes down to dark, those otherworldly neon green seventies lights flicker in the windows of skyscrapers.
It is Schlesinger’s docudrama Terminus (1961) that is the highlight of this collection, however. The director’s instinct for the oddity, sometimes verging on bizarreness, of the human being is already fully developed here, and the film is instantly recognisable as a creation of the mastermind behind the later Billy Liar. Waterloo Station had a totemic significance even before The Kinks, and Schlesinger’s study of this massive transport node reveals it as a rapidly beating heart pumping out travellers and goods to every extremity of the country. The film is a monument to fatigue, hard work, grottiness, and the almost angelic patience of London transport workers in dealing with the bewildered (incidentally, it also rather undermines Betjeman’s rhapsodising about the essentially relaxing nature of rail travel). The sequence that shows assorted travellers studying the departure boards is particularly delightful. They inspect them with varying degrees of suspicion and scepticism, and, in the case of one woman, with a gaze that roams about pensively, as if the boards contain a particularly complicated philosophical proposition. Although the film is a work of unmistakable genius, it is rendered less than perfect by a horrific instance of child cruelty: the lost-child storyline was staged with a small Schlesinger relative (Peggy Ashcroft’s great-nephew, in fact), who seems to have really believed that his mother had disappeared. It is hard to watch the despair and terror that overwhelm him until he is rescued by kindly railway personnel and distracted by being sat in front of a manual typewriter.
This set suggests a number of reasons why trains have had such a central place in English culture. For one thing, as suggested by Betjeman, going on a train journey has a built-in meaning, giving us a sense of progress and even importance as we get from A to B. More significantly, the rail network as depicted in these films provided a cosy feeling of interconnectedness and national, specifically British integration that probably reached its peak in the late 1960s: South Wales sent coal all over the country, Somerset sent stout winter boots to Scotland. As the breathless collage of images in Locomotion (1975) reminds us, the steam engine represented the flowering of the industrial revolution and manufacturing preeminence, and was a focus of intense patriotic identification. It is also instructive to remember that, although most people probably did not enjoy it quite as much as Betjeman, rail travel also once represented pleasure (those immaculate dining cars) and excitement. These films are not simply propaganda. They capture a deep-seated love for trains that inspired rail workers, film-makers and audience.--Isabel Taylor