Black Five Review
Fitting in snugly amongst their British Transport Films compilations and collector’s edition of the 1936 classic Night Mail, the BFI’s latest rail related release is timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the end of steam travel in Britain. Black Five brings together three shorts by Paul Barnes – the title effort plus The Painter and the Engines and King George V - which, in a complimentary fashion, perfectly encapsulate this end of an era. Made between 1967 and 1970 they follow artist David Shepherd as he captures the engines on canvas during their last weeks of service (The Painter and the Engine), record the thoughts and recollections of those men who served on them (Black Five), and look forward to their afterlife as nostalgic “steam specials” (King George V).
Much like Shepherd, Barnes is a fan and each short serves as a kind of cinematic love letter. Yet the love on display - explicit in the manner these engines are filmed – is tainted with the bittersweet. Though a distant memory now perhaps, the fact that this was very much the end is forever apparent. Unlike the British Transport Films efforts (which, having been produced between 1950 and 1982, also necessarily captured this period) there’s no link on the inside, as it were, and as such no requirement for the promotional/positive spin. In its place we find complete and uncensored honesty. The voices which comprise the soundtracks to both Black Five and King George V repeatedly mourn the loss of steam: “I want them back, but progress is progress”; “no romance”; “I’ve tried to come to terms with it”; and so on.
Stylistically Barnes is a quiet filmmaker, though his technique differs slightly over the three shorts. The Painter and the Engines, for example, is the punchiest in editing terms, yet all of them possess the same melancholy edge. The films seemingly can’t resist the urge to pour love over the engines and plumes of steam: sound and image combining to a seductive mix. Even Black Five, whose set-up would suggest a vérité approach akin to Michael Grigsby’s ‘Free Cinema’ effort Enginemen, keeps the human participants mostly offscreen so as to favour the more obvious subject. Importantly, Barnes knows when to, effectively, slip away: reducing the soundtracks to the near silence of wind and birdsong thereby letting the visuals overtake all else.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been immersed in rail cinema of late – the aforementioned BFI discs, BBC4’s recent screening of quota quickie The Last Journey - and because fond memories of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and Brief Encounter (filmed at Carnforth Station, just as Black Five was) prevail, but there is something quite special about the way in which British filmmakers capture(d) their own rail network. Perhaps it’s simply a case of this being the closest we’ll have to the American road movie – our tracks once the equivalent to their open spaces, both possessing some vague idea of escape. Consider Radio On, the quintessential British road movie (unless Genevieve is more your cup of tea) and a deeply pessimistic work whose only sign of optimism comes when its protagonist boards a train in the final moments.
All three shorts have been remastered for this particular release and the results are most apparent on King George V. Superb clarity and colour combine with a near faultless soundtrack to create an exceptional presentation. The other two shorts fare less well with their age apparent in the wear seen on the prints and heard on the soundtracks. Nonetheless they both demonstrate an admirable crispness and given Barnes involvement (he contributes reminiscences to the accompanying booklet) he’s no doubt happy with the results. For the record, all three shorts appear in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios and with original mono soundtracks.
As for extras, both The Painter and the Engines and King George V should be classified as such (and note that neither found a place on the BFI’s previous VHS release of Black Five, released ten years ago on the 30th anniversary) plus there’s the illustrated booklet. Alongside Barnes’ notes we also find full credits for each of the films, Steve Foxon contributing contextualising pieces for each and stills from the films’ production, all spread over 12 pages. Additionally, English hard of hearing subtitles are available for each short.