British Transport Films Collection Volume 6: The Art Of Travel Review

North to the dales and down to sussex…

As well as releasing The Art Of Travel on DVD, the BFI could do much worse that bring it to Heathrow and project it to some very weary folk who would otherwise be called travellers but for the fact that they’ve not actually travelled anywhere. As they check in, pass gratefully through security and queue once again to buy a little plastic bag to put their small bottle of water in, thereby making the drink more expensive than liquid platinum, they might well decide to give it all up for a week on British soil if the BFI were suddenly to present them with any one of the thirteen short films in this set, which bring to mind when travel wasn’t a chore but a pleasure and that the holiday began when one left the house not then the heaving masses and surly security guards at the airport were left far behind. The colours burst from the screen, the sun shines and even London looks glorious.
Often captured in the style of a documentary, these films were produced by British Transport Films to, in the words of the accompanying booklet, “entice and encourage the audience into taking a trip.” These films do much to prick the audience’s curiosity into journeying through Britain on the railways. There is only the occasional sight of a train and rather than prompting the viewer with timetables and possible routes, The Art Of Travel implies that the advantage of a nationalised transport system is that just about anywhere in the country is within reach, be it the sands of the south coast of Sussex or the windswept mountains of Scotland. The gentle pace of each film brings audiences down through the years, on walks through gardens and along country lanes, all in search of the sometimes hidden corners of the country.

Beginning with North To The Dales, The Art Of Travel, with a narration by Robert Shaw, goes on a journey north to Yorkshire, showing the traditional means of making Wensleydale cheese but no matter how fondly the men and women of the county meet travellers, that’s one secret they don’t divulge. The film pauses to look at ruined abbeys and the castles of the north before going under the ground with potholers. Yorkshire is where we remain for Yorkshire Sands while Down To Sussex takes us to the Long Man of Wilmington and the Chanctonbury Ring, Glyndebourne and the Goodwood Races. Next, it’s to the opposite end of the country and The Land Of Robert Burns, an account of the life of the poet using scenes from the Scotland of 1956 and accompanied by music from the Saltire Singers and by the poetry of Burns himself.

The best films come, like that of Burns, with a sense of place and history. Journey Into History uses the art of Hogarth and the writings of Samuel Johnson – “He who is tired of London, is tired of life” – to bring the viewer to a very specific time in the capital, showing the viewer how wanton excess existed alongside poverty. An even more specific example comes with The Travolators, a nine-minute film on what were the first moving platforms in Europe at Bank station in London. Staying in London, London For A Day arrives in the city at daybreak and, spending a day at Buckingham Palace, Portobello Road, the Zoo and the Royal Parks, remains there until sunset, going from the silence that accompanies sunrise, through the bustle of tourists and back to the quiet streets of the evening.
Elsewhere, Midland Country, Lancashire Coast and The Beacons And Beyond, whilst having a sure sense of place, are perhaps not a good deal more than tourist films. Granted, all of these are tourist films but these simply feature beautiful shots of the countryside with little narrative. Although, there is much to enjoy in the last of these with the rather patronising tone adopted by the narrator to Wales and the Welsh. Oooh…they have their own language and everything. And only two hours from London! And you don’t need a passport! However, even then, there’s always something of interest in the films, even in Golfers In A Scottish Landscape, which does its very best to sound dreary and, for the most part is, but for its leads attempting to eat haggis and to mouth, “It’s good!” at one another in full view of the camera while being caught in the moment between swallowing and retching.

The best two films come on the second disc, the first of these being Journey To The Sea, a reminder to the viewer that the British Transport Commission ferried more than people and features the story of a driver making the journey from Preston to the Welsh coast with a new propeller. The second, A Desperate Case, is a comic feature from the point of view of a piece of luggage, inexpertly packed and improperly fastened. A warning to passengers to prepare their luggage properly, A Desperate Case does show the imagination within British Transport Films and is a novel solution to the problem of congestion. It’s gentle comedy but if there’s one word that best describes this set it’s gentle. The countryside looks beautiful, the pace is somewhat pedestrian and the people we meet have a cheeriness one doesn’t see on television any more but it makes for a fine advertisement for remaining in Britain for a holiday. The Art Of Travel may be from a time when it was a rare thing for British families to travel abroad but with air travel becoming as unpleasant a way to travel as one can imagine, it might be a portent for the future of travel, when staying at home might be the new getting away.

In an earlier review of these British Transport Films, Anthony Nield wrote that, “it really is quite startling how good many of these films look.” There’s really no other way to say it other than that these thirteen films are a mix of lovely black-and-white and some simply gorgeous colour filming. Bright and clear, the red of London buses, the green of Scottish golf courses and the blue of seaside skies all stand out with a sharpness and clarity that suggest the BFI were kind to these films on their way to DVD. All of these films come in their original aspect ratios of 4:3 but from a life of being sent out to film clubs, cinemas and even village halls, there is some occasional wear and tear on the prints. There’s nothing terrible about the state of any of them with only the very odd spot or scratch to pick out. There is some grain in the picture but given that these films date from 1952 at the earliest to 1979, I wouldn’t really haven’t expected anything else. It’s certainly not distracting and, in film of the wide open spaces of Scotland and Yorkshire, it adds something to the picture.
The DD2.0 soundtrack, which one assumes is dual mono, is generally good. The BFI seem to have restored the soundtrack but little of it tests the DVDs. The audio tracks are a mix of narration and music with the odd one having an ambient soundtrack but this two-disc set sounds fine with only a small amount of background noise. There are no subtitles.

There are no extras on this DVD release. There is, however, an eight-page booklet that accompanies the set with notes by Steven Foxon.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jan 03, 2008

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British Transport Films Collection Volume 6: The Art Of Travel Review | The Digital Fix