The British Transport Films Collection Volume Three: Running a Railway Review
The third of the BFI’s two-disc British Transport Film compilations, Running a Railway perhaps deserves a higher level of recognition over the previous releases and for one simple reason: it contains John Schlesinger’s 1961 classic short, Terminus. The film which kick started a wavering career for its director (highs: Billy Liar and Midnight Cowboy; lows: Honky Tonk Freeway and The Next Best Thing), this is a title which has been made available on DVD previously courtesy of DDVideo, but arrives here with the better presentation and better companions. However, before discussing the other thirteen films present, Terminus deserves some words of its own. It is, after all, one of the BTF unit’s most famous productions.
Dubbed “a day in the life of a terminal”, Terminus is effectively a character study, of the terminal itself and all those who pass through it. Heavily influenced by the Free Cinema movement which had recently come to an end, this is a film which effortlessly documents its time and place. There’s a certain swagger which complements the standard BTF level of solid professionalism as well as a liberal tone. Schlesinger’s camera is as interested by the everyday passengers as it is the Arthur Lowe-types who operate behind the scenes. Thus we find families and nuns, casual drinkers and wayward youths, police and their prisoners, even a number of black faces – not a common occurrence in a BTF production of this time. Furthermore, Schlesinger takes this cross-section of society and effectively lets them speak for themselves. There’s no voice-over or forced drama here, just pockets of humour and pathos which emerge from within the day-to-day activities. Most famous, of course, are the scenes of the lost child, soberly handled and revealing themselves with minimal fuss. Indeed, it’s this lightness of touch which makes Terminus a film to return to time and again – as said, its presence is more than enough to ensure that Running a Railway becomes a worthy purchase.
Any yet to say as much isn’t meant as a slur on the other films contained herein. Once again we find a superb curatorial job on Steve Foxon’s behalf, the results (as with volumes one and two in the BFI’s series) being another eclectic blend which covers many angles. Thematically we’re dealing with titles which were produced to either to promote/heighten the public’s awareness of new developments on the railway or to educate their own workers and as such the majority of them are more pointedly in the vein of public service announcements than those found on previous volumes. Yet there’s also a great of diversity – and quality – on display: amongst others we find classics such as Farmer Moving South and Wires Across the Border (both of which are held in as high an esteem as Terminus amongst enthusiasts, and rightly so), the Doctor Who-style antics of living rubbish in I Am a Litter Basket, and further fantastical touches in the multiple-personality tropes of The Third Sam.
Moreover, the presence of so many soberly narrated, blatantly educational efforts shouldn’t be seen as off-putting. For a start a number of them are incredibly rare and have been little seen since their initial screenings, especially those which were made for ‘in house’ purposes, as it were. Secondly, the filmmakers behind these shorts clearly saw little difference between these drier films and those made for a much wider consumption. Across the board we find solid, no-nonsense filmmaking and the results are a pleasure to watch. Making Tracks, for example, is a superb piece of pure documentary practice: a problem arises, a solution is put into place, all of which is told with the bare minimum of fuss. Of course, we also find certain inadvertent delights smuggling themselves in – the casual chauvinism amongst the civil engineers in Groundwork for Progress (clearly there is little room for women in this easily defined male world of either lab coat and spectacles or hard hat and regional accent); the quaintness of Modelling for the Future’s plans for a Channel Tunnel from 1961 – bur what stands out is the overall level quality and the wealth of talent behind these films. Listen to the bombastic score which accompanies Fully Fitted Freight or the manner in which Farmer Moving South conjures up so much atmosphere with just snow, steam and black and white photography – in both cases it’s immediately clear that we’re in the presence of excellent filmmaking. Indeed, over the course of the BFI volumes released so far it’s become almost overtly discernible that the British Transport Films imprint is a genuine mark of quality. And for that reason alone we can only hope that these volumes continue to appear at regular intervals.
For further information and regularly updated news on the BTF unit please visit the British Transport Films website.
As with the previous BFI volumes it really is quite startling how good many of these films look. The colour films burst from the screen with superb levels of richness, whilst the black and white efforts look equally luminous – the contrast levels, especially when dealing with the snow and steam of Farmer Moving South, say, or Fully Fitted Freight, really do look magnificent. Furthermore, we should be impressed even further given the rarity of many of these efforts; after all, they were made in some instances simply to educate a select few. As for the mastering on the BFI’s part, again there are few, if any, faults to notice. The films come in their original aspect ratios and beyond the occasional expected scratch and blemish demonstrate no visual flaws. Likewise, the soundtracks remain sharp and unhindered by technical flaws. Whether it’s a score by Ron Grainer or a voice-over by Maurice Denham, there are no major problems relating to any of these works.
Sadly, however, extras are few. Certainly, the value is there given that we’re finding fourteen films split over two discs for a perfectly reasonable price. Plus Steve Foxon has contributed brief notes in the form of a 12-page booklet. Yet at some point it would be nice to see these BTF volumes garnished with the occasional commentary or interview by some of their surviving participants. As the chat with the late Geoffrey Jones on the Rhythm of Film compilation showed, such contributions could prove invaluable.
Operation London Bridge (1975)
Wires Across the Border (1974)
Groundwork for Progress (1959)
Making Tracks (1956)
E for Experimental (1975)
Modelling for the Future (1961)
Britannia - a Bridge (1975)
Fully Fitted Freight (1957)
Farmer Moving South (1952)
I Am a Litter Basket (1959)
The Third Sam (1962)
People Like Us (1962)
A Future on Rail (1957)
Last updated: 19/04/2018 05:00:30