The British Transport Films Collection Volume Eight: Points and Aspects Review
As the BFI’s two-disc sets compiling the best of the British Transport Films’ output build up in numbers (volume nine, incidentally, is due in December) the content has become necessarily more obscure. The previous volume took in, primarily, the Unit’s 1970s productions thus encompassing made-for-schools educational programming and appearances from Peter Purves and Jimmy Saville – a far cry from the beautiful black and white classics such as Elizabethan Express (1954) and Snowdrift at Bleath Gill (1955, both available on volume one). In this instance the two discs demonstrate a distinctive split: the first focuses on the BTF’s in-house productions, i.e. their staff training films; the second touches on various themes that the Unit either covered too readily or not enough to prompt individual DVD collections. As such volume eight is a mixed bag, but also pleasingly diverse, whilst the sheer amount of rarities makes it especially intriguing. Furthermore the insight this collection allows into the obscurer areas goes some way to demonstrating just how far-reaching the quality of the BTF’s output could be – much the same personnel worked on the films featured here as they did the more widely-praised and widely-seen productions; there really was no distinction in their eyes, simply an overall professionalism.
The said, the staff training films such as those featured on disc one did come with lower production values. The soundtracks were often voice-over only so as to save on the expense of synchronised sound, whilst The Signal Engineers (1962), ostensibly a colour production, utilised black and white film for its night sequences as a means of further cutting down on unnecessary costs. The fact that many of these shorts weren’t intended for widespread consumption also means that concessions to general audiences are few: the main reason for the films was, of course, the delivery of information to staff and so it is that the correct forms – type, colour, who signs what, etc. – and much more besides are conveyed concretely and in full detail to the obvious effect on duration. Thirty minutes is the average length, and yet there’s still the usual BTF pleasure of seeing a job carried out with almost idealised efficiency and minimal fuss.
Perhaps sensing that an entire disc (approximately two and a half hours worth) of such films could potentially wear the viewer down, especially in a single sitting, there is a considerable range on display plus a handful of titles that would appear to have been made with more generalised audiences in mind. Only the two Day to Day Track Maintenance titles (both 1952) and Single Line Working come across as exclusively staff-intended; the other three shorts are far more readily accessible. (Not to demean the staff films, however – as said they’re as professionally put together as any other BTF production.) Mishap (1958) demonstrates how safety measures are undertaken during a mishap, in this case a derailment (the use of the word ‘mishap’ is telling when ‘accident’ or ‘emergency’ would be equally applicable – sign of the BTF’s propensity to be benign rather than stirring any emotions?). Spick and Span (1962) takes a look at how railway cleanliness is maintained. And The Signal Engineers - tellingly the only short on disc one for which any kind of credits exist – follows apprentice engineers and culminates with a massive night-time job being undertaken.
The range of subjects on the first disc is nothing compared to that on the second, however. During its 30-plus years of existence the BTF produced over 700 titles and as a result a great deal of subjects and themes were understandably covered. The aim of disc two is to demonstrate, even though it effectively houses only 1% of this output(!), just some of these which fell outside of the norm, as well as finding space for further rarities. The British Road Services, for example, are taken into account on The Long Night Haul (1957), made to mark their tenth anniversary. As such it works as a key introductory title, taking in the BRS’ history and development, and far more wide-ranging that such BTF “road haulage” shorts as Giant Load (1958) and Take the High Road (1962, both featured on volume five), though these type of productions are also represented by the inclusion of 1962’s Measured for Transport, a piece that’s none-too-dissimilar to Dodging the Column (1952, also available on volume five) despite covering both rail and road haulage. Both shorts also employ the usual BTF tactic of giving voice to all the participants, whether it be the Queen’s English of the men in charge or the everyday fella with the broad accent.
Elsewhere the disc finds space for a one-off such as Care of St. Christopher’s (1959), an insight into the “orphans of the railway”, those whose parents have been injured or killed working on the rail or simply put in the kind of hours that mean raising children are a practical impossibility. Interestingly this particular short opts for a female voice-over and a gentle acoustic soundtrack by Fitzroy Coleman, thereby emphasising the overall utopian view the BTF is propagating (indeed, Care of St. Christopher’s must surely rank as one of the Unit’s most propagandist efforts).
Though they’ve been treated to two previous volumes (number two, See Britain by Train, and number six, The Art of Travel), disc two is more than happy to include a pair of travelogues amongst the various other helpings. Channel Islands (1952) is most likely earning its inclusion owing to its rare nature as otherwise it’s an admittedly unexceptional piece. Scotland for Sport (1958), meanwhile, comes with a self-evident angle that perhaps prevented it from appearing on either of those earlier discs. It takes in skiing, fishing, canoeing (bare-chested only, it would appear, with bobble hats optional), mountaineering and the like with a continual eye on the landscapes and a final assertion that this is for everyone and only a train journey away.
The remaining pair of titles, Under the Wires (1965) and Points and Aspects (1974) cover the electrification of the rail network. The crowd-pleasing BTF effort on this subject was Wires Across the Border (1974), which found a place on volume three. In contrast these two shorts take a much more detailed look at the process, Under the Wires covering the Liverpool and Manchester to London stretch, whilst Points and Aspects follows the journey into Scotland. The fact that the latter was made specifically for various cabling and signalling companies demonstrates just how technical these films can be, but as complementary pieces to Wires Across the Border they work especially well. Meanwhile Under the Wires opens with a terrific example of retro animation.
There’s no change from the template laid out by previous volumes and so it is that Points and Aspects houses all of its shorts over two dual-layered discs and transfers each to a very high standard. Original Academy ratios and mono soundtracks are adhered to, though, as has always been case, hard-of-hearing subtitles are conspicuous by their absence. Given the rare nature of many of these films and the fact that few prints would been made, the overall picture quality perhaps falls a little below the standard maintained elsewhere. Care of St. Christopher’s, for example, is conspicuously grainy throughout, whilst the colours of Channel Islands look as though they could benefit from a good clean. That said, none of this ever proves detrimental to the viewing experience and it’s safe to assume that we are seeing each title in as best a condition as could be hoped for. As with previous volumes the set also comes with an accompanying 8-page booklet in which the series’ programmer Steve Foxon provides contextualising introduction and notes for each film.
Single Line Working (1958)
Day to Day Track Maintenance Part 1 (1952)
Day to Day Track Maintenance Part 2 (1952)
The Signal Engineers (1962)
Spick and Span (1962)
The Long Night Haul (1957)
Care of St. Christopher’s (1959)
Measured for Transport (1962)
Channel Islands (1952)
Under the Wires (1965)
Points and Aspects (1974)
Scotland for Sport (1958)