The British Transport Films Collection Volume Seven: The Age of the Train Review
Now reaching a remarkable seventh volume – remarkable in terms of its success given the niche subject – the latest two-disc edition in the BFI’s British Transport Film series of releases turns its attentions predominantly to the unit’s final years. The focus is mostly on the seventies’ and eighties’ output, indeed the very last of the BTF’s literally hundreds of productions since its inception in 1950, The Stone Carriers (1982), is amongst those included. In subject terms it is the period of modernisation, the Intercity 125 and the advanced passenger train – the titular “age of the train” – that takes centre stage. Yet for the Unit itself this was hardly a golden period: the final years saw a marked shift towards internal productions and a concentration on safety issues, plus a downgrade from 35mm to 16mm.
This may suggest, then, that the titles selected for this particular volume are somehow lacking in the qualities found in the BTF’s earlier acknowledged classics, the likes of Farmer Moving South (1952), Terminus (1961) or Elizabethan Express (1954). But it is closer to the truth to realise that the charms lie elsewhere. Certainly, many of the personnel responsible for these standouts from the fifties and early sixties remained until the Unit’s latter days. Scan the credits of Motorsport Tries Motorail (1969), Discover Britain By Train (1978) or Centenary Express (1980) and you’ll spot the by now familiar names of James Ritchie, Ronald Craigen and John Legard. In other words, the filmic qualities remain much the same even if electric transport hardly matches up to steam in cinematic terms.
Moreover, the sense of nostalgia – in contrast to that provided by this earlier period – is of a different kind. Here it is represented by Sir Jimmy Saville and a cardiganed Peter Purves, by the hideous concrete architecture of Hudson House and the once-gleaming modernity of Euston Station – which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Jacques Tati’s Playtime and is treated to numerous gliding tracking shots. Continuing the cinematic allusions we’re also treated to gigantic computer modules straight out of paranoid Cold War science fictions, and then there are the scores, moving away from the Vaughan Williams of the earlier titles and heading towards modernist jazz and the progressive realm of flutes, organs and acoustic guitars.
It is perhaps safe to say, as a result, that this particular volume lacks the wider appeal of, say, the BFI’s second collection of BTF films – which assembled various Technicolor travelogues – or the previous release containing, amongst others, their award-winning wildlife docs. This isn’t a dig, merely an acknowledgement that The Art of the Train is more squarely aimed at the aficionado. Certainly, in programming terms Steve Foxon has once more done an excellent job in balancing the overall content - safety films, schools’ programming, internal educational pieces, internationally-aimed examples of promotion all rub shoulders, and the list goes on – and it’s well worth stating that those present are as important in the BTF’s overall output as their more acknowledged works. But this would, ultimately, be the wrong place for the newcomer to start in sampling the Unit’s gargantuan library of titles.
However, there is one film included here that makes this DVD an essential purchase – and the reason why I’ve avoided discussing particular titles so as to ensure its pride of place. Put simply, John Krish’s The Finishing Line (1973) is one of the most striking pieces of cinema I’ve seen in quite a while. True, it’s an educational safety short aimed at a schools’ audience (ie, not the most attractive of prospects), but it also taps into that dark vein of horror so prevalent in the best British literature, cinema and television. Essentially, we have a record of a school’s sports day, albeit one with a difference. Coming from the mind of a young boy, it imagines the whole thing as taking place on a railway line with each event affected accordingly. Thus we have the nines and under fence-breaking competition followed by a dash across the tracks, the 12s and over stone-throwing contest, and so on. Of course, the intention isn’t to actively encourage such games, but rather the complete reverse. And so here comes the crux: fatalities.
The power of The Finishing Line is that it scares the living daylights out of you. Nothing is shied away from; playing on the rails and its consequences are treated so matter-of-factly that they come across as utterly terrifying. It’s easy to appreciate the macabre edge, and from an adult perspective we might detect a certain sense of mischief to this incredibly dark set-up, but the overriding sensation is that of a film working absolutely perfectly. The graphic nature, played completely straight by mostly amateurs hired locally, must have dissuaded an entire generation or two from even thinking of setting foot on a railway line during the seventies and eighties (the period in which it received its televisual and schools’ showings), and rightly so. Gym shorts and blood prove a potent combination.
Needless to say, we’re far removed from the worlds of Terminus or Geoffrey Jones’ trio of justly celebrated contributions to the BTF library. And of course, this can only be applauded. Yet again we’re shown that British Transport Films shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as “for trainspotters only” or some other derogatory remark. At their very best they provide some genuine classics of British cinema and as a whole represent a key area in British documentary filmmaking. It is time once more to sign off one of these reviews with the continued hope that the BFI’s DVD packages don’t stop here. This particular volume’s focus on the latter years of the Unit may perhaps suggest otherwise, but fingers crossed...
The two main pleasures of this ongoing series, aside from the films themselves, have always been the programming and the presentations. The former has allowed for an array of titles per set (two discs and an average length of 20-minutes per short has provided ample screen-time per volume), whereas the latter quality has remained consistently high throughout. The particular collection provides two stunning looking black and white shorts – if only all films of the period could look so good on disc – although the colour titles, given their mostly 16mm origins, don’t quite live up to the glories seen on earlier 35mm productions seen on previous discs. Certainly, the fault shouldn’t lie with the BFI themselves, who once again do a fine job – simply note that scratches and grain may feature a little prominently than has been the case. (I’ll refer to my review of volume two here to demonstrate how the BFI’s efforts have outdone other labels in their BTF presentations.) As for the soundtracks, each is present in its original mono and comes across much as you’d expect: no bells and whistles, just clarity from both score and dialogue/narration. As has always been the case, optional subtitles are not available, though this proves understandable as these volumes are only likely to find genuine success within a domestic market.
My only quibble is the lack of additional material. Steven Foxon provides a booklet offering a brief introduction and notes for each title, but I’m sure it would be appreciated – especially as we’ve now reached volume seven – some input from the Unit’s surviving filmmakers themselves, thereby providing some personal recollection into their productions. You could argue that the discs have been maximised by the sheer number of films each holds, but for volume eight perhaps?
The North Eastern Goes Forward (uncredited, 1962)
Right Time Means Right Time (John Rowdon, 1969)
Motorsport Tries Motorail (Nick Nicholls, 1969)
Discovering Railways (David C. Lochner, 1977)
Current Affairs on the Midland (uncredited, 1980)
Railways Conserve the Environment – Rail Report 11 (David C. Lochner, 1970)
Discover Britain By Train (David C. Lochner, 1978)
Old Sam the Signalman (uncredited, 1982)
Journey Inter-City (Lionel Cole et al, 1972)
Power to Stop (Bill Mason, 1979)
Inter-City 125 (Nick Nicholls, 1976)
A New Age for Railways (John Adams, 1979)
The Stone Carriers (David C. Lochner, 1982)
The Finishing Line (John Krish, 1976)
Robbie (Ronald Dunkley, 1979)
Centenary Express (Allen Bendig, 1980)
Sir Peter Parker Talks to Jimmy Saville (uncredited, 1982)