Where to begin with British Transport Films

A beginner’s path through the planes, trains and automobiles of the British Transport Films collections.

22 May 2019

By David Parkinson

Night Mail (1936)

Why this might not seem so easy

How difficult can it be to produce a crash course, as it were, on British Transport Films? The clue’s in the name, right? Trains and boats and planes. With a few trucks, trams and buses thrown in for good measure. It should be pretty straightforward. But the unit founded 70 years ago this month did much more than churn out steam-shrouded nostalgia for trainiacs. What’s more, BTF proved remarkably prolific, making around 700 films between 1950 and 1986. The 12 volumes in the BFI’s British Transport Film collection contain 170 films alone, while there are 21 titles on the Blu-ray Best of compilation marking BTF’s 70th anniversary. 

It might simplify things if there was such a thing as a standard BTF film. But there isn’t. When the British Transport Commission set up a film unit under Edgar Anstey, its primary aim was to keep the sector’s 900,000 staff and millions of customers abreast of the latest developments following the nationalisation of much of the nation’s transport network. Having been schooled under John Grierson at the GPO and Crown film units, however, Anstey was loathe to produce industrials, travelogues and training films that merely ticked boxes on a civil servant’s clipboard, especially after questions had been asked in parliament about BTF and the newly minted National Coal Board Film Unit being little more than propaganda arms for Clement Attlee’s Labour government.

There were plenty of precedents for Anstey to follow, dating back to Kineto’s Scenes on the Cornish Riviera (1904), which had been made at the behest of the Great Western Railway. Moreover, the London Midland and Scottish Railway had established its own film unit in 1934, two years before Anstey had contributed to the script of the greatest transport film ever made, Basil Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936). But, while he invited Paul Le Saux and Norman Prouting respectively to pen some verses for Tony Thompson’s Elizabethan Express (1954) and Michael Clarke’s Every Valley (1957), Anstey was keen to break away from the British Documentary Movement rubric that had informed BTF’s first offering, J.B. Holmes’s Berth 24 (1950), a functional, but elongated account of a day in the life of Hull docks that could easily have been made around the time its producer had been making his name with Arthur Elton (now the head of the Shell Film Unit) on Housing Problems (1935). In encouraging his directors to experiment, Anstey ensured the quality and quirkiness of the BTF brand. But he also made it next to impossible to pin down.

The best place to start – Train Time

While it functioned as an in-house production unit to keep staff informed and motivated, BTF also had a PR remit to encourage ordinary people in city centres, suburbia and the sticks to avail themselves of the various forms of public transport and convince them that their taxes were being well spent on the equipment and techniques required to provide a modern and reliable service. Realising that the hard sell wouldn’t work, Anstey commissioned films like John Shearman’s Train Time (1952), which reassured viewers that the railways were in safe hands in not just getting passengers from A to B, but also in playing a vital role in every aspect of daily life. 

Who knew that the Cornish broccoli crop could cause such chaos? But, as narrator Frank Duncan explains, controllers across the nation were in constant communication to ensure that everything from coal and commuters to fresh produce and tinplate reached their destinations on time. Nimbly edited by Stewart McAllister to the propulsive thrum of Edward Williams’s score, Ronald Craigen’s crisp monochrome imagery creates an impression of organisational precision in capturing the bustle on station platforms, the chatter in control rooms and the sleek majesty of locomotives steaming through evocative town and country settings.

Train Time (1952)

The sense that everything was running like clockwork because of the calibre of the employees is a common theme of BTF shorts, whether they are dealing with long-distance livestock (Farmer Moving South, 1952), a seasonal emergency (Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, 1955), time-sensitive merchandise (Fully Fitted Freight, 1957) or 20,000 tons of cement (They Take the High Road, 1960). But Anstey was keen to move with the cinematic, as well as the transportational times and it’s fascinating to compare the styles employed in two records of station life, J.B. Holmes’s delightfully orthodox This Is York (1953) and John Schlesinger’s BAFTA-winning Terminus (1961), which brings some Free Cinema pizzazz to a snapshot of Waterloo that also won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival.

What to watch next

The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953)

Although not averse to innovation, Anstey could be a stickler for the rules and a strict taskmaster, as John Krish discovered when he was fired for a deeply personal reflection on the passing of the last London tram in The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953). Ironically, Anstey asked Poet Laureate John Betjeman to bid adieu to steam in Railways for Ever! (1970), which renewed accusations that BTF peddled the kind of cosy bourgeois nostalgia that had characterised Charles Crichton’s Ealing comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).

Yet, while the unit’s famous travelogues celebrated the nation’s history and its natural beauty, items like Tony Thompson’s Any Man’s Kingdom (1956) and A Letter For Wales (1960) had a sincerity that went beyond sentimental patriotism. By contrast, John Taylor’s Holiday (1957) was a joyous salute to Blackpool’s Kiss Me Kwik culture that not only possessed a Free Cinema frisson, but also evoked the spirit of Len Lye and Norman McLaren in its thrilling use of light, colour and the music of Chris Barber’s jazz band. Photographed on 16mm Kodachrome stock by David Watkin using a camera hidden in a cardboard box, the action has an unguarded spontaneity that is linked together with a wit and zip by editor Ralph Sheldon that anticipates the exhilarating ingenuity of Geoffrey Jones’s BTF masterpieces, Snow (1963), Rail (1967) and Locomotion (1975).

Anstey himself directed the Eastmancolor marvel, The Scene From Melbury House (1972), which pieced together disparate images taken from BTF’s Marylebone headquarters. This was hardly the work of a diehard company man, as Anstey is sometimes portrayed. He might have personally scripted Reshaping British Railways (1963), which sought to put a positive spin on the Beeching Report on the streamlining of the network, but films like James Ritchie’s Blue Pullman (1960) and David C. Lochner’s Wires Over the Border (1974) and Overture: One-Two-Five (1978) reflected BTF’s commitment to the introduction of diesel engines, electrification and the InterCity 125 service. But Anstey also encouraged producer Ian Ferguson to commission Ralph Keene’s sublime natural history films, Journey Into Spring and Between the Tides (both 1958), which earned BTF its first Oscar nominations before Anstey won the Best Live-Action Short award with Patrick Carey and John Taylor’s Wild Wings (1966), which showcased Peter Scott’s bird sanctuary at Slimbridge.

Where not to start

The Finishing Line (1977)

As they were designed to appeal to a mass audience, the shorts produced by British Transport Films were very much products of their time. So were staff instructionals like Manhandling (1962), which was produced for BTF by Tara Films and dressed vaudeville strong woman Joan Rhodes in a skimpy outfit to demonstrate safe lifting techniques. Returning to the fold in 1977, John Krish created another controversy with The Finishing Line, a trauma-inducing infomercial about the dangers of vandalising or trespassing on railway lines that dispatched competitors in a school sports day in various gruesome ways. However, the ultimate BTF no-no is Sir Peter Parker and Jimmy Savile (1982), an internal morale booster that sees the BR chairman explaining the rationale behind the ‘Age of the Train’ advertising campaign that was fronted by the disgraced DJ.

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