The British Transport Films Collection Volume One: On and Off the Rails Review

For those in the know, various British Transport Films have already been available on DVD. Though not always the easiest to track down, they have appeared on discs as the main event, others as special features, and yet more have been nestled in amongst various short subjects. The particular release from the BFI, the first volume in a projected series of discs, is perhaps the most important to date, however, as its collection of fourteen films offers something approaching an overview of the kind of work the BTF unit produced. Though split, as the title suggests, into two distinct sections, On the Rails and Off the Rails (one per disc), there is a far more comprehensive cross-section going on. Between the years of 1949 and 1986, the unit produced over 700 titles and filmstrips and whilst these two discs’ comparatively paltry number of shorts may strike some as a very tiny percentage, we do get a wide-ranging collection of topics. In addition to the well-regarded classics (Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, Elizabethan Express) – though it is perhaps questionable as to whether these have truly crossed over into the mainstream – we also find an instructional short, a rail report, a personal travelogue by John Betjeman, some pieces offering an historical education, as well as lighter, more audience friendly fare.

As such we shouldn’t expect On and Off the Rails to be some kind of “best of” compilation. If this were to be the case then one could easily question the absence of The Elephant Will Never Forget, Terminus, Farmer Moving South and anything by Geoffrey Jones or debate the lack of personal favourites (I’ve always had a soft spot for Giant Load, for example). As a primer, however, it cannot be faulted courtesy of this decision to try and cover as much ground as possible. Of course, all the films can’t expect to please all the people all of the time and there are going to be titles which may leave you cold. Personally speaking, Rail 150 and The Great Highway - titles which are likely to find an exclusive audience amongst railway enthusiasts – do nothing for me, but then I understand the reasons for their inclusion and as such would rather see them feature on the disc than not at all.

Of course, this does raise the question as to who exactly these discs are for and it should be noted, perhaps even stated, that On and Off the Rails is not merely for the railway enthusiast. Despite the prodigious number of titles produced by the BTF over its 37 years of existence, they were not simply thrown out as part of some production line with undue care and attention. After all this was a unit headed by Edgar Anstey, a man who, even prior to 1949, had been a key figure in the documentary movement, most notably as co-director of the excellent Housing Problems (currently available on disc as a special feature on the BFI’s release of Cathy Come Home). Moreover, it also employed such stalwarts as composer Clifton Parker, editor Stewart McAllister (best known for his films with Humphrey Jennings) and director of photography David Watkin, who would later go on to work for the likes of Sidney Lumet, Franco Zeffirelli and Ken Russell, as well as serving as its own film school. Look at the credits to these titles alone and you’ll see names such as James Ritchie cropping up in different roles over the years: director of photography in 1954, writer-director in 1960, producer during the seventies and eighties. In other words, these are professional films by professional filmmakers and should therefore be treated as such.

Indeed, amongst these fourteen offerings there is much to cherish on a purely cinematic level. The initial reveal of the snowbound engine in Snowdrift on Bleath Gill, for example, or the strange apparatus which opens Blue Pullman to the accompaniment of Parker’s splendid score have a terrific frisson which any feature film director would kill for. Likewise, many of these shorts are edited with such precision that had a sequence or two been inserted into some random British crime flick of the same era then they would no doubt be applauded for their wonderful use of montage. What’s especially pleasing in this respect is the fact that such qualities aren’t solely confined to those efforts made for public consumption. The seven-minute staff instructional film The Diesel Train Driver : An Introduction to the Diesel Train should be the dullest entry on the two discs (it certainly has the least exciting title), yet the sheer beauty of its black and white photography, not to mention its pleasingly no-nonsense approach, make it a sheer joy to behold.

That said, there is no in-house BTF style (as anyone who picks up the BFI’s Geoffrey Jones : The Rhythm of Film compilation alongside this release will immediately tell) and each of the shorts offer their own individual pleasures. There’s the good humoured account of a shoe factory’s annual outing in This Year – London (also available on the BFI’s People on Sunday disc), populated by workers whose “thirst for tea is stronger than their thirst for knowledge”. Or the sumptuous Technicolor glance at the luxury of the Blue Pullman in the film of the same name. Or John Betjeman’s infectious enthusiasm for the stations at Wolferton and Snettisham in John Betjeman Goes by Train. And the list goes on and on. In this respect making your way through the four hours plus worth of material never becomes a slog or appears repetitious; indeed, at times you wonder if the unit behind the early seventies borderline-kitsch of the Michael Aspel-narrated Cybernetica could be the same one who produced the quaint, but charming Train Time (interestingly, and surprisingly, the only short which openly courts with the approach of the GPO classic Night Mail).

And yet, collectively, there is a strong sense of unison. These are shorts seemingly populated solely by ordinary folk and “boffins” – and there’s a reverence of both. As the station master of This is York puts it: “you’ve got to get people working together” and this is what regularly happens. The films can be seen as a paean to the work ethic and collective triumph over adversity. Whether that be the building of the Severn Tunnel (in Under the River), the freeing of that previously mentioned snowbound engine from Snowdrift at Bleath Gill or the smooth running of a safe, efficient system (pretty much everything), the job always gets done and everyone goes home happy. Indeed, these are incredibly upbeat, uplifting even, films and for that alone prove tremendously inviting.

For further information and regularly updated news on the BTF unit please visit the British Transport Films website.

The Disc

Furthering the definitive nature of this release over previously available BTF efforts is the sheer quality of its presentation. All fourteen shorts come straight from the BFI’s National Film and Television Archive and as such look as good as could be expected. The black and white photography in particular is highly impressive with a wonderful sense of clarity and contrast (just look at the deep focus shots in The Great Highway). Alas, the colour photography, being more difficult to preserve, can’t always live up these qualities, but there is certainly nothing off-putting or remotely distracting about their presentation. Indeed, the damage and dirt levels are pleasingly minute with some titles being as clean as the day of their production. And the same is also true of their soundtracks. Each is presented in their original mono form and all sound as crisp as should be expected with no technical difficulties whatsoever. As for the extras, these amount solely to a booklet containing Steven Foxon’s typically informative film notes which place each title within its context and also provide a general introduction. However, given the fact that these two discs house fourteen efforts totalling over four hours of footage it would be churlish to complain about the lack of supplementary footage and as such this is a release which comes highly recommended.


Disc One
Blue Pullman (1960)
Elizabethan Express (1954)
Train Time (1952)
Rail 150 (1975)
The Diesel Train Driver : An Introduction to the Diesel Train (1959)
On Track for the Eighties : 13th Rail Report (1980)
Cybernetica (1972)

Disc Two
Under the River (1959)
Snowdrift at Bleath Gill (1955)
This Year - London (1951)
This is York (1953)
The Great Highway (1966)
A Day of One's Own (1956)
John Betjeman Goes by Train (1962)

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