After an absence of almost four years, the British Transport Films Collection returns…
Between 1949 and 1985 the British Transport Film Unit put its name to more than 700 shorts and documentaries. In the process it became one of the shining lights of British non-fiction filmmaking, its productions marked by a certain class and quality. Thanks to production head Edgar Anstey (who had previously worked with John Grierson and the GPO Film Unit) there were strong links to the documentary movement of the thirties, although it also served as a breeding ground for some of British cinema’s most notable talents: Johns Krish and Schlesinger were among those to make key early works with the BTF, whilst future Academy Award-winning cinematographer David Watkin spent a number of years with the Unit prior to shooting the likes of Chariots of Fire and Out of Africa and forging working relationships with Richard Lester and Ken Russell. Speaking of awards, the BTF garnered plenty of them too: an Oscar for its naturalist documentary Wild Wings; a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Schlesinger’s Terminus; numerous BAFTAs; and a host of nods from within the documentary industry.
Unsurprisingly the BTF’s prolific output has proven itself attractive to DVD compilers and there have been plenty of compilations on a variety of labels over the past decade and a bit. The main players, however, have been the British Film Institute who also now house the majority of that output in their National Archive. (The remainder being held by the London Transport Museum.) In the days before DVD they issued a series of BTF collections onto VHS in the late nineties before switching format in 2005. Over the next three-and-a-half years nine volumes, each containing an average of 14 films, emerged until things went quiet in December 2008. To coincide with release number nine, the BFI also issued a boxed-set containing all of the releases to date, suggesting, perhaps, that the series had come to a close.
In the interim the BFI have been focusing their documentary attentions elsewhere. They completed their survey of the GPO Film Unit and embarked on a series devoted to the Central Office of Information (COI). They released volumes dedicated to Krish, the National Coal Board Film Unit and Molly Dineen. They presented decade-spanning surveys on subjects as diverse as British folk customs, the British boozer and shipbuilding in the UK. And they mounted the massive Shadows of Progress project, charting the post-war documentary movement through an exhaustive boxed-set and its attendant, even more comprehensive book. The latter crossed over into BTF territory on occasion, but otherwise it’s been a long wait for volume ten.
London on the Move is one of a number of capital-themed BFI releases put out this year to coincide with the Olympic summer. We’ve also seen a new collection, this time dedicated to the Children’s Film Foundation, instigated with London Tales. Plus there was Wonderful London, a lovely compilation of silent-era travelogues, and we have Julien Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon on the horizon with a release due at the end of October. As all of this London talk no doubt suggests, this latest BTF release has involved licensing titles from the London Transport Museum and thus opened the doors to some of the Unit’s best-loved works yet to appear on a BFI disc as well as a number of welcome obscurities. John Krish’s The Elephant Will Never Forget – arguably the most popular and widely seen of the London Transport films – doesn’t feature, but then that has already appeared on two previous BFI releases (and on Blu-ray) so it’s hardly a major omission. We do find such key titles as Overhaul, Under Night Streets and …All That Mighty Heart…, however, plus a wide-ranging collection of travelogues, days-in-the-life, cute animations, history lessons, training films and newsreels. In other words, all we’ve come to expect from the British Transport Films Collection.
The cover-all-bases approach works as well as it ever has. London on the Move is never once allowed to become dull as it flits from black and white to colour, from a chirpy account of how lost property is handled to a proud demonstration of the transport system’s high technological and design standards circa 1970. Of course, nostalgia plays a major factor throughout as we get to glimpse the capital across the decades. The films on this volume all date between 1951 and 1983, though the two ‘history lesson’ pieces take us back even further: Moving London relates the modernisation of London Transport from its creation in 1933 up to the present day; Omnibus 150, as the title suggests, has a bigger anniversary to celebrate and so begins its mini-narrative in 1829. Elsewhere the historical dimensions are more immediate, as in the lyrics to the song that runs through The Nine Road and its talk of “pretty dolly birds”. Mention should also be made of the exceptional photography in many of these films – another key facet of the BTF’s qualities – and their ability to bring the past to life. The likes of Overhaul (in colour) and Under Night Streets (in black and white), both made during the late fifties, look as good as any of their contemporaneous features.
If highlights are to be made then two names deserve a mention. The first is the already noted Watkin, who shot Under Night Streets and …All That Mighty Heart…. The former takes us through the underground once the hustle and bustle has died down and follows various workers as they go about their business. We get to see track maintenance in action, an inspector on his rail-straddling bicycle, the ‘fluffers’ who ensure that all fire hazards are carefully removed piece-by-piece. It’s all fascinating stuff and aided immensely by the chatty, friendly voice-over, but it’s the monochrome photography that really stands out and draws the viewer in. …All That Mighty Heart…, on the other hand, was captured by Watkin over the course of a decade. All sorts of material – of school kids, dustmen, a blonde housewife who almost misses her bus – is brought together to create a mini-city symphony; a day in the life of London as told through its traffic flow. Needless to say, editor John Legard and director R.K. Neilson Baxter deserve recognition here, though once again it’s Watkin’s eye for detail that shines through.
The other stand-out contribution comes from composer Edward Williams. With the exception of a couple of Children’s Film Foundation titles (including Krish’s An Unearthly Stranger), Williams worked almost solely in documentaries and as such doesn’t have the same name recognition as many of his contemporaries. As well as more than 20 films for the BTF (including a number of naturalist shorts such as Journey into Spring and Between the Tides) he also scored David Attenborough’s Life on Earth series and Jack Howell’s Oscar-winning documentary on Dylan Thomas. Impressively Williams always maintained a high standard no matter what the subject matter or the commissioning body. Indeed, his contribution to One for One is outstanding. Essentially this is just a 24-minute piece on Chiswick Works and the refurbishment of London buses. You could argue that it doesn’t really need Williams’ wonderfully evocative choral accompaniment – full of mood and drama – but there it is and it adds to the film immensely. In fact its presence sums up the BTF ethos quite nicely. The Unit could have communicated many of its films’ ideas without the exceptional craftsmanship and the across-the-board high quality and high standards, and yet the decision to do so makes them just as inviting today. Much more than a collection of travelogues, training films and public information items, they also represent some exceptional cinema.
London on the Move continues in much the same manner as previous volumes in the BTF collection, albeit with some slight tweaks. The major one is that this particular release comes in an Amaray case as opposed to the gatefold sleeve favoured for volumes one to nine. The booklet also remains much the same although Stephen Edwards now provides the accompanying notes and Patrick Russell the introductory essay whereas Steven Foxon had fulfilled these duties on previous discs. As for the presentation quality, this ranges from the flawed to the very good. Some demonstrate signs of age and come with slightly crackly soundtracks, others look exceptional. As you would expect the most popular and widely-seen works tend to be in a slightly worse condition than those which have barely seen the light of day since production. Thus …All That Mighty Heart… is among those to contend with the crackle whereas a staff training film such as Power Signal Lineman (shot, incidentally, by the great Walter Lassally) is in much better shape. All films come in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and with their original mono soundtracks. As with previous BTF releases from the BFI there are no English subtitles, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise.
Alongside the booklet we also find another addition in the shape of Moving Millions from 1947. Made at a time before the BTF existed, this 16-minute short offers up a rare glimpse of another unit taking on the subject of London Transport. In this instance it was the Crown Film Unit (under commission from the COI) who were responsible though there’s little discernible difference from future BTF efforts. Crown (formerly known as the GPO Film Unit prior to World War II) were similarly concerned with high production values whilst producer John Taylor would later direct a number of classic shorts for the BTF, including Farmer Going South (which can be found on volume three), Holiday (volume two) and Wild Wings (volume five).
…All That Mighty Heart… (1963, d. R.K. Neilson Baxter)
Our Canteens (1951)
One for One (1964, d. Richard Kilburn)
The Nine Road (1975, d. Richard Bigham)
Cine Gazette No.14: Do You Remember? (1955, d. Tony Thompson)
London on the Move (1970, d. Nick Nichols)
BONUS SHORT: Moving Millions (1947, d. Noel Arthur)
Under Night Streets (1958, d. Ralph Keene)
Power Signal Lineman (1953)
Omnibus 150 (1979, d. C. David Lochner)
Cine Gazette No. 10 (1951, d. Michael Clarke)
Moving London (1983, d. Rob Lansdown)
AFC: Automatic Fare Collection and You (1969, d. Bob Privett)
Overhaul (1957, d. Tony Thompson)
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