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Locomotion Pictures: The Best of British Transport Films on Blu-ray

  The British Transport Films department was established after the United Kingdom's railway service was nationalised, and like many a business of the day, it was decided a filming unit was necessary to promote the service and the stories of Britain itself. In 1949, a thirty-person team of filmmakers set out across the country and began capturing a way of life that would be familiar to the population until the late nineteen-eighties when it was finally disbanded. Countless short works were produced in those decades initially under the tutelage of pioneering head man Edgar Anstey, and so the British Film Institute have collated a number of them on Blu-ray, fully restored, in a box set.

First up in this collection is from 1952: Farmer Moving South (A Winter's Journey). This detailed the actual journey of a Yorkshire farmer who had been forced through circumstances to move this entire livestock and agricultural equipment down to Sussex on what would turn out to be the coldest night of the year in December. Fortunately, the rail service is operating like clockwork, and eases the trouble of this great upheaval for him and his family, a lesson you imagine was the reason for the film in the first place. But with narration from AG Street in obviously scripted discussion with a railwayman involved, it was a reassuring, even cosy, watch.

Train Time, also from 1952, was designed to be reassuring as well, in that it illustrated to audiences how the railway network actually operated, conveying how complicated it was to run, yet pointing out that no matter how many problems the days (and nights) brought up, the staff were more than capable of coping and ensuring things went as smoothly as possible. The technology we see here, ranging from the most basic of steam trains to the most up-to-date of electronics, may be well outdated now, but must have looked the bee's knees back then, and the imagery of the trains puffing their way through the countryside is indelible. Real people "play" themselves, slightly stiltedly, and equally amusing are the regular references to broccoli.

This is York hailed from 1953, another short with the cutting edge of technology in mind as it used the Northern city as a microcosm of the nationalised network as a whole, centring on the main station which was the base of operations for the region. We ostensibly heard the thoughts of the man in charge in narration accompanied by what was evidently his pride and joy, the electronic board that showed where every train was and what it was doing, with a series of lines and small lightbulbs. Local colour included young trainspotters, the misty, autumnal landscape of the city with the Minster on the horizon, and a hint that the road network would be a threat to the rail one.

Elizabethan Express, from 1954, told the story of the titular train which travelled from London's King's Cross Station to Edinburgh's Waverley Station, demonstrating how the staff went about keeping the engine running successfully, from the drivers to the waiters in the buffet car, not to mention the men who maintain the tracks themselves and ensure the diner's meals don't end up in their laps. That was the innovation for this film: humour, as it was told entirely in rhyme, including limericks, which proved controversial in its day for its supposed irreverence, when in fact that was the very reason it became one of the most popular BTF efforts of the fifties. It still entertains today, with its breeziness, mixture of accents (courtesy of co-narrator Howard Marion Crawford), and that scenery flying by.

Another BTF piece that was highly popular with bookings was Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, from 1955 which over the course of a sprightly ten minutes essayed the predicament of a train and wagons caught in the snow of the title in the Westmoreland hills. Again, two narrators were used, one of them Deryck Guyler who would go on to be a successful stalwart of seventies sitcoms like Please, Sir! and Sykes, employing a canny Northern style to a script that again, saw fit to include pithy humour to great effect. Simply watching the problem solving it took to free a train that had been caught for four days was compelling enough to make you want to see more, but brevity was the soul of wit in this case.

Tourism was a matter close to the BTF's heart, since many Brits and foreign visitors relied upon the trains to take them to places of interest, be those natural or manmade. With that in mind, they produced a selection of films to highlight various locations around the nation in the hope this would engender an enthusiasm in the audience to set off on the railways to various holiday destinations, and Any Man's Kingdom from 1956 did so for Northumberland, in colour, a recent innovation for the department that in searing hues brought the region to life. Actor Stephen Murray richly intoned the wonderful narration, which was evocative of both the present and the past, making you feel as if you were genuinely learning something, and would learn more by setting out for there.

With cities and locations outside of London perhaps not being as recognisable to outsiders as they were to locals, the BTF directors would often use accents from various regions to delineate where in the land we were looking at. Such was the case with Fully Fitted Freight in 1957, which sought to link parts of the country by pointing out to a fictional "Mrs Smith" where all her shopping came from, and how reliant it was on the railways that carried, say, cider from the South of England to Glasgow in the North. Along the way we were privy to the thoughts of the men who worked on these lines, from their idle contemplations of what the destinations conjured in their minds to the practicalities, uniting us in our consumerism.

Wales in 1957 was the setting for Every Valley, which picked out a portrait of life in said valley, located in South Wales, from dawn to dusk - past dusk, in fact. A hymn to its inhabitants, who not coincidentally are seen and heard singing hymns, we see coal miners, glove makers, glass manufacturers and more, including the people who run the transport, naturally. Among them, Glyn the Ticket (!), who you will not be surprised to learn is a bus conductor. That transport angle was introduced subtly, establishing the community first, then showing how integral the trains and buses are to keeping it going, extending even to the ships at the end of the railway line. The only thing that undercuts it is the unfortunate repeated line in the singing: "Oh we like sheep!"

A Future on Rail from 1957 looks a little comical too as it sings the virtues of newfangled innovations in rail transport like mechanism and electrical improvements, using clips from previous, even fairly recent, BTF productions to illustrate the out of date stuff, then adding new clips of, say, a train driver apparently feeling a lot better about his freshly added boons, though not looking appreciably different from before, it has to be said. Perhaps he was smiling on the inside. The jaunty narration sounds like a parody, especially the jokes that make no sense all these years later.

The Oscar-nominated Between the Tides was released in 1958, a stunning Technicolor natural history documentary focused on a shoreline in South-West England, running through a plethora of creatures from the sea-dwellers like crabs, barnacles, anemones and wrasse to the birds that feed on them. If this was a try at making British flora and fauna every bit as exotic and exciting as that of warmer climes, it completely succeeded, and you can imagine many trips to the seaside were booked as a result in the late fifties. It was unsentimental but respectful, and the photography was among the finest the genre could deliver at the time.

1960's A Letter from Wales was yet another touristy short, this time with actor Donald Houston, one of the country's most recognisable Welshmen thanks to his popular roles in film and television of the day, reminiscing about his homeland as he sends a letter back there via the Night Mail from London's Paddington Station. Those parts are in black and white, but the scenes from Wales are in glorious colour: the highest station in Great Britain at the top of Mount Snowdon, the many bridges and lakes, a slate quarry, the dolphins to be seen off the coast, and so on. The effect is nostalgic, but also making the point that this is all still there, ready to be visited by rail.

We had been to Wales, so obviously we had to visit Scotland too, the same year with They Take the High Road as narrator John Rae tells us of the transport workers who drive the cargo (mostly cement, it appears) from the Scottish hills and mountains to its destination across the country. When we join this particular team, they have been together for a couple of years, living in the same confined space and away from their families for all that time, save the occasional trip home at weekends, a state of affairs you can imagine for oil workers later on, but seems incredible from a modern perspective. The mix of the rural and the industrial is well conveyed in this one, the trucks and vans rumbling along precarious hilltop roads.

Also from 1960, though only because it had taken a year to make, was Blue Pullman, as the title suggested a colour view of the latest business class train which after some teething troubles was pressed into service to transport the businessmen of the nation to and from work in the utmost luxury and comfort (though we see a few businesswomen too). At first, the locomotive is tested to the highest standards and then, when all is deemed of the correct standards, we see it in action, racing through the countryside to St Pancras in London, and keeping the passengers fed and watered along the way (with endless cups of tea, fried eggs, bacon and tomato - not forgetting the cornflakes). Though the real-life experience was more fraught with issues, this film is reassuring - and included a train driver in a bowler hat.

In 1961 arrived perhaps the most famous and celebrated BTF film of them all, Terminus, directed as effectively his debut by John Schlesinger who would soon be a major part of the British New Wave with films like Billy Liar and Darling. It depicted a day (and night) in the life of London's Waterloo Station, some of it staged for his cameras, others genuine fly on the wall documentary, taking in tearful goodbyes, missed trains, lost property and the denizens of the place as they passed through. Some of it was humorous, such as the lady who lost an umbrella - cut to a stack of umbrellas just like the one she's claiming - other scenes instructional, as the Jamaican immigrants arrive for a new life, other parts were sadder, like the little boy (called Matthew Perry, funnily enough) who has been separated from his mother, or the bag lady raiding the bins for morsels to eat. Interestingly, Schlesinger did not present an operation running smoothly like clockwork, as there are cancelled trains and timetables confusions, but somehow it all draws together by the end and another day has been marked.

The Third Sam from 1962 enjoyed something of a coup by securing the services of Stanley Holloway to perform one of his trademark monologues in rhyme; if this wasn't quite The Lion and Albert, it was pleasing all the same, and gave a little pep to what could have been a dry, industrial educational film. The Sam of the title was a driver who learns how to handle the latest technology, and when the train breaks down it takes three sides of his personality to work it out: the apathetic Sam, the Sam who is terrified by the problem, and the right one, the Sam who level-headedly approaches it and succeeds in solving with the minimum of fuss. A humorous item the filmmakers found an ideal solution for production, just as their protagonist did.

Rail, from 1966, was another of the service's award winners, effectively split into two sections: where we have been and where we are going. The old days of steam were passing, and the new frontiers of electricity were being introduced, both of which this piece reflected. Creatively shot and edited by Geoffrey Jones, and scored to a mini-symphony by Wilfred Josephs, it was a thrilling race down the history of the railway, the old steam trains and their accompanying machinery making way for the high tech (for the time) developments that would continue into the future. Without one word spoken, its message was clear as a bell - in addition, it was our first sight of the British Rail "two arrows" logo, incorporated into the action via simple animation.

Sir John Betjeman, who was Poet Laureate in his latter years, was a famous advocate of train travel, so the BTF offered him the opportunity to express himself in Railways For Ever! This 1970 film showed footage of the last steam train in service on British tracks, from August 1968, across the Pennines, as Sir John looked forward to the bright future of the service with its up-to-date convenience in electric power the main selling point (the up-to-date lavatory convenience another he mentions, pointedly). He took the time to criticise road transport, sing an old music hall song, and relate in rhyme of his passion for trains; as a tribute, it was thoroughly charming and oh-so terribly British, just like the man himself.

The Scene from Melbury House was released (though not to cinemas) in 1972, but represented a collection of footage captured by the BTF's trainees, where they would be instructed to venture up on the roof of their building and practice filming whatever they could see from that vantage point. Perhaps inevitably, the theme of change is palpable, not only the changing of the seasons (it begins at Christmas and moves into summer) but the changing of the city of London, and by extension Britain, as well. From the candid shots we can see children playing, firefighters training, sunbathers, pedestrians, nuns, traffic wardens - all of human life is here (including a bare naked lady - she must have been delighted), speaking volumes without a hint of narration and scored to Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Wires Over the Border in 1974 detailed the successful electrification of the West Coast Line, a project begun at the other side of the country in 1966. British Rail was justifiably pleased with this achievement and this item was meant to commemorate it, with special emphasis on the men from all strata of the organisation who made it possible. We see the scientists with their slide rules and computers down to the actual workers, out in often dreadful weather conditions, who put those wires in place from Crewe to Glasgow, and are never allowed to forget how much effort it took to bring this success off. Good to see something impressive succeed in a decade that is much maligned for British industry, anyway.

Locomotion in 1975 was intended to commemorate the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Britain's first ever regular rail service, so Geoffrey Jones was given his pick of the BTF archive to serve up nothing less than the entire history of the railway system in a brisk quarter hour. It's a short that quickly becomes hypnotic as the music (performed by Steeleye Span and given an electronic treatment) gradually speeds up and increases in pitch, to emulate the sound of a train on the tracks, as the barrage of images from vintage paintings right up to shots of the latest transport speeding along are genuinely captivating. A very creative use of existing material.

The final significant release from BTF was 1978's Overture: One-Two-Five, which highlighted British Rail's latest innovation, the Intercity 125, the fastest train service available up to that time, which travelled between cities and promised to get passengers to their destination as quickly, and in as much comfort, as possible. Again, no narration was used, but we saw the trains being constructed, then used by the satisfied public (no mention made of British Rail being the butt of jokes throughout the seventies), all to the strains of the titular overture by David Gow. As from then on the unit was wound down until its disbanding about ten years later, this was a celebratory, but maybe a little poignant end to a great run of films that recorded and lauded a British way of life.

[The BFI's Best of The British Transport Films 70th Anniversary Blu-ray set (2 discs) includes vintage filmed and audio introductions to some of the films as extras, plus a very informative booklet that came in handy when writing this article. Needless to say, it is a must for railway enthusiasts, but absorbing for the casual viewer as well.]
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018