The British Transport Films Collection Volume Nine: Just the Ticket Review
Quite impressively, the BFI’s series of two-disc sets devoted to the output of the British Transport Films unit now reaches its ninth volume. There are no signs of slowing down either with further releases planned for the near future and, more importantly, no slip in the overall quality. Whilst many of the unit’s outstanding titles have now been featured throughout these volumes, this particular set nonetheless stands out as one of the best yet. Primarily this may be owing to the lack of an overall theme. Previous discs have sampled the travelogues, for example, or focussed on a particular era in rail travel, though here we get more of an overall blend. Indeed, Just the Ticket may have set the template for future releases: a mixture of all kinds of BTF production and from all the stages of their 35-year existence. Thus we find their very first in-house production rubbing shoulders with a training film from the 1970s and evocative travelogues mingling with more irreverent takes on various transport-related topics. As a result we also gain a fairly good understanding of what the BTF’s output provided overall; not just a bunch of documentary shorts of interest to the rail enthusiast, but a far more wide-ranging prospect that shifted subtly over the years as non-fiction methods changed and audiences expected something a little different.
In this respect Just the Ticket could be seen as a return to the method of the first volume in the series, On and Off the Rails, which offered a similarly diverse overview. However, that set’s primary aim was introductory, whereas here you get the impression that programmer Steve Foxon is allowing us to peak more easily into some of the obscurer areas. And it makes sense nine volumes down the line to do as much: those who have followed the BFI discs over the past few years, and therefore sat through over a hundred titles, will no doubt be in possession of a pretty good understanding of what the BTF were able to achieve and the overall high standard of those results. As such Just the Ticket provides a confirmation of these qualities (a place for one of those wistfully nostalgic travelogues, such as England’s North Country, or a charmingly simple documentary rendering a potentially dry subject both accessible and entertaining, in this case They Had an Idea) and the confidence to cast a light on perhaps less immediate areas, for example a look at how British Rail was addressing the issue of disability in the early eighties or a surfeit of training films from across the decades. Had On and Off the Rails dived in with such titles then perhaps it wouldn’t have done its job quite so well; a few years down the line, however, and I was more than ready to sample such offerings.
In admitting as much, I am perhaps also acknowledging that Just the Ticket is of primary interest for academic reasons. This isn’t to deny the entertainment value - Berth 24 is a terrific piece of documentary filmmaker in any context and should appeal to those who eagerly lapped up the BFI’s Land of Promise set; Manhandling has a wonderfully quaint irreverence as it jazzes up a training piece on how to correctly lift heavy items with Joan Rhodes, a song-and-dance number and some slapdash attempts at humour; The Peak District combines colour travelogue and Robert Shaw to excellent effect – though what interested me was seeing how various standard BTF productions (as well as training films and travelogues, there’s also the information documentary, the considered essay, the blatant piece of promotion) shifted in styles and tones over that 35-year period.
If we take Berth 24 as a starting point, much like the set itself does, then we can see perfectly what the method of the early productions was. Made in 1950, this particular short (though quite epic for a short, being 40-minutes in length) demonstrates many of the traits we saw develop over that Land of Promise set. At this early stage in their existence the BTF had a much wider remit in terms of transport to cover. Indeed, the railway is only a player with centre stage taken up by the SS Bravo as we follow its ‘turnaround’, i.e. the unloading of import cargo and the loading of export goods. Shot in black and white it offers a visual style quite beautiful in its simplicity, one that does much of the talking given that the narration is sparse and told in verse (a holdover from the GPO Film Unit’s method, most famously employed in Night Mail). Intermingling with both is the multi-voiced practice of allowing the various crew members and other staff to offer their own thoughts and impressions. Though clearly scripted we get a mixture of ranks, classes and outlook thus building to an overall picture, the end result being a classic piece of documentary filmmaking.
However, as we progress through the discs (both opt for a roughly chronological approach, as per most of the volumes, with each disc beginning in the 1950s and moving gradually forwards towards the end of the seventies or early eighties) we see this obviously constructed method of presentation give way to a simpler means of communication. Give Your Car a Holiday from 1967 is more content to simply sit back and record. The people onscreen become just that; no longer do we have names or voices, merely subjects for the narrator to address more sparingly as it sets about more promotional objectives. Similarly Just the Ticket (also 1967), from which the set takes its name: brisk, unfussy, a more straightforward presentation with only the verse narration remaining from the earlier method of production. Only occasionally do we find a return to the style of Berth 24, as is the case with 1964’s Lost Stolen Damaged (somewhat spuriously abbreviated to LSD during the opening and closing titles). A serious but ultimately really quite absorbing piece, here we find a return to the multi-voice technique combined with John Rowden’s considered narration and various dramatised moments. The latter are particularly interesting given how they resemble a proto-Crimewatch, the subject of Lost Stolen Damaged being, as the title suggests, how British Rail approaches crime.
There’s a similar shift in the travelogues too. Whereas The Peak District (1954) or Away for the Day (1952) mix colour photography, history lesson, sight seeing, gentle observation and the slightest hints of actually advertising how you may actually get to see these places (i.e. British Rail), the later films pretty much take only the first and the last. Go As You Please…. ….in Britain (1975), incidentally narrated by Maurice Denham, is as much about making its audience utilising the rail system as it is, say, capturing the Blackpool illuminations in wonderful Technicolor. Of course, that’s not to counter that one method is superior to the other, merely an observation that the BTF unit was continually shifting in just how it presented itself and, more pertinently, its financier.
Perhaps the most interesting change, however, comes in those films made primarily for British Rail staff themselves. The title of ‘training film’ may not seem the most enticing of genres (if you will), yet its worth remembering that these shorts had an already built-in audience and thus one that had to be satisfied. Train Driver from 1966 takes on operating procedures and comes with a very dry voice-over, yet also offers a fascinating glimpse of how staff were viewed at the time. It plays on the childhood nostalgia of steam travel and involves its audience in this manner, constantly reminding them that this is the job they dreamed about since their early years. In stark contrast when we come to It Takes All Sorts (1978) the workforce is treated perhaps as any other: it’s just a job, but you should do your best anyhow. Moreover, the attempt to connect with the audience is perhaps more overt. A look at platform staff and how they reflect British Rail insofar as they serve, in many instances, as the customer’s first point of contact, it takes an approach best described as proto-sitcom. As with every comedy pilot it introduces us to a diverse cast of characters (multi-ethnic, multi-generational) and puts them in various situations including, at one point, drag. Effectively our central protagonist is Fred, a grump mid-fifties type who gradually learns the errors of his misanthropic ways and becomes a much better employee for it. (He also gets a line of dialogue bleeped out early on, one that’s certainly abusive and possibly racist – it’s got me wondering, incidentally, whether the BFI themselves have done the act of censorship or whether it was inherent in the original cut.)
Of course, whether you approach Just the Ticket in the same fashion as I have or simply wish to indulge in its superb blend of entertainment and nostalgia, either way the above should demonstrate just how diverse this particular set is. On that criterion alone it undoubtedly stands out as one of the very best offerings in the series so far, and as noted will hopefully set the template for those volumes to come. Furthermore the fact that Just the Ticket does prove just as interesting when tackling some of the more obscure areas hopefully shows that there are plenty more riches with the BTF’s output waiting for rediscovery on a future set. And then there’s still The Elephant Will Never Forget, arguably the one major BTF classic yet to feature on a BFI collection and surely due for inclusion next time around…
Now at volume nine, we should know exactly what to expect from these BFI sets. The overall presentation is once again excellent with mostly clean prints and a combination of beautiful black and white and lively colour. As always, mono soundtracks and 1.33:1 aspect ratios are also correctly adhered to. The Peak District is the only title which stands out as being in a poorer condition, though as this would have been more widely shown than most of the other shorts such damage is understandable. Otherwise the vast majority look as good as when they would have first been screened. And of course, the fact that the BFI hold all of the British Transport Films in the NFTVA means that we’re undoubtedly seeing each and every one of them in the best possible condition. As with previous sets we also find the discs packaged with an eight-page booklet offering up a brief introduction by Steve Foxon as well as his notes – and credits – for each of the shorts. Once again there are no on-disc extras, though I’m sure many would be extremely grateful if the BFI were able secure the BBC’s recent Nation on Film documentary dedicated to the unit for a future collection.
Berth 24 (1950)
Peak District (1955)
Train Driver (1965)
Give Your Car a Holiday (1965)
Just the Ticket (1967)
England's North Country (1978)
Away for the Day (1952)
They Had an Idea (1953)
Lost, Stolen, Damaged (1964)
Go As You Please.... ....in Britain (1975)
It Takes all Sorts (1978)
Just Like the Rest of Us (1983)