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On the Right Track: Best of British Transport Films Vol. 2

  Although the British Transport Films unit has long been closed down, its legacy and its documentaries survive, as here, on the second volume of Blu-rays collecting its best and most significant productions. Just as before on the first volume, they depict a Britain that was practical in its post-war setting, but not above the odd moment of whimsy and eccentricity, but most of all they show how vital the transport network is to keeping the nation going, something that became so relevant as the twenty-first century progressed.

The Wealth of the World: Transport (1950) was one of the first films they produced, part of a four episode block to try out the capabilities of the new unit. It emphasises that the commercial railways were not succeeding from their inception, therefore had to be taken over by an authority that could be trusted to, well, get the trains running on time, and get all the cargo and people to their destination with the minimum of fuss. It doesn't say it will be easy, but it does imply you mess with this at your peril.

But the unit really got itself established with Berth 24 later the same year, a near-three-quarter-hour piece that follows the journey of a typical cargo ship, the SS Bravo, on its travels from Hull to Gothenburg. Here it is the workers who get the most focus, given narration to let us into their worlds (no vox pops to camera) as we watch them load and unload anything from porcelain toilets to a prize bull, learning such nuggets along the way that the dollar sign on the packaging was adopted by the Americans for their currency because they thought it meant wealth. Also, you know the workers mean business because their jackets come off. Meanwhile a friendly Swede is a satisfied passenger up above.

We alight in Southampton for Ocean Terminal (1952), where ships would dock to and from their voyages across the Atlantic, offering the filmmakers ample opportunity to show a variety of workers and passengers as they use the services. Somewhat ambitiously, the credits claim this is based on Le Voyage by Baudelaire, thanks to one bookish passenger reading from it, but there was a very "eyes to the horizon" mood to the whole piece, no matter its indulgences into humour.

Bridge of Song (1955) serves up imagery of industry in the countryside around Britain, so far so familiar, but did so with the addition of song, supposedly traditional tunes seemingly crooned by a Welsh male voice choir (or equivalent). It certainly gives what could be unforgiving views of steelworks and London buses a lift, though the tune applied to the latter may be funny in a manner not intended by filmmakers.

There's a lot to unpack in A Day of One's Own (1956) where the voice of prolific character actress Marianne Stone guides the typical British housewife and homemaker through the opportunity for a little "me time" as our subject leaves the kids with a friend and the laundry far behind her so she can wander the countryside in heels and gather some branches to bring home at the end of the day (?). We are also given a view of women around the country who whether part of the Women's Institute or simply lonely and needing a friend can use buses, railways and ferries to connect and unwind. It's a nice idea, but may look patronising to modern eyes.

Link Span (1956) details the cross Channel ferries, be they carrying passengers or cargo, and makes it look incredibly easy just to get in your car and travel back and forth to Europe; perhaps it was back then. There are also night train journeys for freight and slumbering folks to reach their destinations, and a crash course in the correct forms of French to use once you get abroad, though presumably the reference to the Folies Bergere was a joke.

Holiday (1957) is of course a classic short, included on BFI releases before, but always a pleasure to see, significantly the first colour film in this collection as it recreates a day at the pleasure beaches of Blackpool and Morecambe to the infectiously jolly sounds of Chris Barber and his trad jazz band. This genuinely does relay the appeal, with hardly any narration, so mostly visuals, of these destinations for holidaymakers of the fifties before package tours became affordable, and whether lazing on the beach or visiting the sights, there's an innocence about the fun everyone is having that is redolent of a lost age, making it perfect nostalgia even if you don't go back that far.

The England of Elizabeth (1957) also makes excellent use of colour to reproduce the paintings and landscapes of Elizabethan England, offering a short history lesson on the era when Queen Elizabeth I took the throne, with all the celebrities and perils that accompanied her. The idea was for viewers to be more interested in the past and use the transport system to go and investigate what there was to see of themselves, and this made a good case for that being worthwhile. You could imagine this being shown in schools, with the projector.

Oscar-nominated Journey into Spring, also from 1957, is next, making great use of Patrick Carey's expert wildlife photography to render the British countryside, specifically the part of Hampshire recorded by the Reverend Gilbert White two centuries previous, as rich and exciting as any exotic rainforest. Also in brilliant colour, this captures birds, fish, mammals and insects, even the occasional newt or slow worm, and creates a sense that the audience should take advantage of the wealth of flora and fauna available to them either on their doorsteps or a train or bus journey away. Some of the footage is of the shyest animals in the country, an even more impressive achievement to collect it on film so delicately and attractively.

Then, from 1959, an eccentricity that nonetheless contains a serious message. I Am a Litter Basket is just over five minutes long, but packs a punch as railway station bins stage a revolt to persuade the public to place their litter inside them and not on the ground or the street. It is narrated by a Scottish receptacle, who laments that he goes hungry as the station staff have to brush up tons of discarded wrappers, unfinished food and waste paper every day, when the alternative - use the litter bins! - could help the environment in making the city a lot cleaner. It is bemusing (or alarming) to see the baskets roaming around, but the point is well delivered.

Under the River (1959) is a document of the creation of a remarkable feat of Victorian engineering, the Severn Tunnel, the longest underwater tunnel ever constructed in the nineteenth century. Using illustrations, diagrams and clips of how the location looks now, we get a comprehensive rundown of the problems the project faced and how it overcame them, mostly thanks to the genius of its architect, Thomas Andrew Walker. Every setback was solved with brainpower and engineering – and manpower, including "the most famous diver of the day". The short was made to commemorate the passing of the machinery that had been designed to keep the tunnel open, replaced by electric pumps.

Snow (1963) is one of the BTF most celebrated shorts, and it really is short, just under ten minutes, but what a lot it packs in. With a simple remit - record the problems British Rail has with the cold weather, and contrast that with the comfort of the passengers in the carriages - it collected footage from around the country and edited it together in a superb montage of ever-increasing speed, the imagery matched with the equally experimental instrumental rock track churning away on the soundtrack. The results are riveting, and unsurprisingly it was one of the most seen of the unit's output across the world, gaining an Oscar nomination among its plaudits.

Dr Richard Beeching remains a divisive figure in the history of the British railways, but if you want to hear him put his side of the story then you could do worse than watch Reshaping Britain's Railways (1963) where he explains his plans for streamlining the service. Most of that focus went on his closing of the least used stations, reasoning that bus routes were better for those locations, and cheaper too as the railway service was haemorrhaging money at an alarming rate, but emotions got the better of practicalities and Beeching became a hate figure. Hero or villain? You can make up your mind by seeing him, somewhat uncharismatically, it had to be said, relaying his plans with the help of the all-important maps and graphs.

Thirty Million Letters was also from 1963 and detailed the day to day of the postal service and the machinations of what was involved in getting all that post from one place to another. We see rural areas like the Scottish islands and more metropolitan regions where most of the business takes place, all in what was intended as an update of the classic thirties short Night Mail. This might not have caught on in the same way, but has worth and some neat clips of the processes the Post Office used to keep the service running, rain or shine.

Glasgow Belongs to Me (1966) was one of the unit's advertisements for a particular city, presenting its history from a small riverside encampment through to the trade boom where locals, Irish immigrants and refugees from the Highland Clearances assembled to create a not always harmonious community. Then we see it as 1966 would have it, obsessed with football, a drinking song (the title tune) on the soundtrack, and oddities like dancing the Twist in the outdoors, plus lots and lots of the architecture, here recorded in vivid colour, and a couple of mild comedy bits with a taxi driver and a formerly clueless visitor.

Contact with the Heart of England (1967) begins with a talk to camera so dry from Mr HC Johnson of the British Railways Board, he makes Dr Beeching look like Bruce Forsyth, but he is soon dispensed with to illustrate the improvements the service is enjoying as British Rail looks forward to a bright new future (well, they couldn't get it right every time). With a selection of passengers all enjoying a trip on a train, the picture explodes into full colour to emphasise how exciting this brave new world of rail travel will be. It's a corny trick, but surprisingly effective.

The Site in the Sea (1970) is notable for being one of the few BTF shorts directed by a woman, Gloria Sachs, something of a pioneer and this effort, which took the entirety of the construction of Port Talbot harbour to film, proved her worth with its no-nonsense, just the facts style. There are plenty of shots of the construction and the behind the scenes work on the project, and interestingly there's a point where they mentioned how problematic it was to build and tempers frayed, but in the main it was heavy machinery and heavier rocks being utilised to create somewhere huge ships could dock, at the time to assist the steel industry in the Welsh town.

The Intercity 125 high speed train was a matter of great pride to British Rail in the seventies and was all over their advertising as the fastest method of getting from A to B, assuming you were in that much of a hurry, so E for Experimental (1975) told the story of the design and manufacture of the transport. Although the version we see is very much the prototype, it looks similar enough to what it ended up as that you can be impressed at its credentials, pored over with great fascination by this piece as everything is taken into account to render it the finest result possible. It is very factual, however, so probably intended for corporate demonstrations rather than supporting features.

Well, there is something they didn't take into account with the 125's efficiency, and that is human error, so Promises Promises... was made to wag the finger at British Rail staff who allowed the trains to run late, thus breaking the promise of the timetable. A chapter of accidents ensues from forgotten parcels to an unlatched carriage door, all of which serve to leave one train over a quarter of an hour late, so presumably any staff who could relate were left shamefaced and vowing to do better by the time the credits rolled.

Lastly, and staying with the 125, is a five-minuter from 1982 called Intercity 1250 that adopts the London to Brighton in Four Minutes approach to depict a journey (London's Kings Cross to Peterborough) at 1250 miles an hour. Luckily that didn't happen in real life, they simply sped up the footage, interspersed with shots of passengers relaxing as the world whips by outside their windows. This was one of the final BTF films before the unit was disbanded and private firms took over to make corporate videos, so a last gasp of a style that was soon to be obsolete. At least they went out entertaining themselves - and us.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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