To coincide with tonight’s Nation on Film British Transport Films documentary on BBC4, Anthony Nield takes a look back at volume five in the BFI’s series of BTF compilations.
The BFI’s two-disc sets compiling the best of the British Transport Film Unit’s output are due to reach their conclusion on December 1st with the release of volume nine, entitled Just the Ticket. We’ve been giving plenty of coverage the various volumes on this site since the very first in 2005 (which built upon earlier VHS packages from the late nineties), but one that slipped through the cracks was this particular set, Off the Beaten Track. Timed to coincide with a new Nation on Film documentary screening on BBC4, the following review will serve as both a look at volume five and a introductory overview of the collection as a whole. (Incidentally, December 1st also sees the release of a mammoth eighteen-disc boxed-set housing all nine volumes.) Partially this is owing to coincidence – the need to cover this set; the interest the BBC4 doc will hopefully generate; the forthcoming boxed-set – but also because, for my money, Off the Beaten Track is the perfect introduction to the unit, despite being the fifth in the series. As such I’ve opted for a disjointed, chaptered approach which should demonstrate both these short films’ wide-ranging appeal and, indeed, the quality of the sets themselves.
Each of the BFI volumes has been put together by historian and archive consultant Steve Foxon, arranging the films into thematic collections. Thus, following volume one’s introductory overview, we’ve had sets concentrating on unit’s travelogues, their training films and so on, as well as particular eras of rail travel – the end of steam, etc. For this volume, as the Off the Beaten Track collective title suggests, it is non-rail subjects which come under the spotlight, though it appears that Foxon couldn’t resist just the one inclusion, namely the John Betjeman fronted Railways For Ever!. Furthermore, this pair of discs demonstrates just how diverse the output within this remit could be. Here we sample some of the unit’s famed wildlife documentaries, day-in-the-life tales of transport depots, wonderfully simple demonstrations of men at work getting complex jobs done with minimum fuss, even an art lecture on the history of British churches.
2. Not Just About Trains and Railways!
Indeed, the BTF was never simply about creating an archive of gems for the railway enthusiast (or trainspotter, if you will). That description is true to an extent, yet it shouldn’t preclude the interest of ‘non-believers’. The titles on this volume demonstrate where else their subjects could lie, whether it be the arts documentary or those of the natural history variety, and as such Off the Beaten Track could prove to be the best way in for the sceptical. The recent Land of Promise boxed-set from the BFI, a four-disc package highlighting gems of the British documentary movement from the 1930s and 40s, introduced many to the rich delights of this nation’s non-fiction filmmaking and the BTF’s contribution deserves to rank alongside it. (Indeed, their very first effort, 1950’s Transport was included on said boxed-set.) The skill and talent of those behind the camera, the historical interest (cinematically and in the much wider sense of the word), and the sheer fact that the likes of Giant Load or Between the Tides (both 1958) are just a plain joy to watch should all go a long way to enticing the newcomer.
To back up this claim it’s worth noting that the unit was garlanded with numerous awards and nominations during its 30-plus years of existence. And not simply within the niche sectors either as two of this set’s films demonstrate. Journey into Spring (1957) – the BTF’s first key natural history short – was feted internationally and earned itself an Oscar nomination, whilst Wild Wings (1965) went one step further and bagged the 1966 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. That it too belongs amongst the unit’s wildlife docs – being an insight into the workings and everyday activities of the Slimbrigde wildfowl centre in the Cotswolds – proves just how popular this particular wing (no pun intended) of their output was. However, this shouldn’t go against the rest of their work: such well known titles as Terminus (1961, available on volume three) took a top prize at Venice as just one of its accolades, whilst Geoffrey Jones’ Snow (1963, due for inclusion on volume nine) similarly picked up an Oscar nod.
As with the GPO Film Unit – itself subject to series of two-disc sets from the BFI – the BTF Unit was a fertile ground for filmmaking and musical talent. Whilst it may not be able to compete with the likes of W.H. Auden, Humphrey Jennings, Benjamin Britten, Alberto Cavalcanti, Len Lye, John Grierson and so on, it did attract some notable figures. Volume five houses shorts with commentaries from Laurie Lee and John Betjeman, music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and, of course, the ever present Edgar Anstey, a name that featured prominently on the Land of Promise set (key film pre-BTF: Housing Problems, 1935) before becoming Producer in Charge of British Transport Films at its inception in 1949. Other figures of the GPO era appeared alongside Anstey (he served there briefly) on the unit’s credits over the years, such as Jennings associate Stewart McAllister (a fine editor and co-director of the classic Listen to Britain, 1942), whilst key figures and future directors such John Schlesinger and Jack West got their earliest breaks courtesy of the BTF. Furthermore these volumes should go some way to introducing the likes of James Ritchie, Ronald Craigen, Geoffrey Jones and John Krish into the common vocabulary of documentary discussion.
The little heading here may sum up just why the above listed have never quite earned the recognition they deserve. Only on rare occasions do the BTF shorts scream out their presence – for the most part they are sober, superbly made examples of documentary filmmaking and nothing more. A title such as Link Span (1956) – about ferry crossings between the UK and the continent – gets by on just voice-over, music, editing and photography; there’s no need for bells and whistles. So too Journey into Spring and Dodging the Column (1952), and so on. This lack of an immediate hook may put some off, but surely this is the hook. Those working behind the camera weren’t out to make calling cards that would further their career in the industry (though some, such as Schlesinger, managed just that), but were focussed simply on the job in hand. And so full attention is paid, without fuss, in bringing these subjects to screen. This lack of self-consciousness is terrifically endearing and perhaps even innocent, in a way. Combine it with the era caught on camera and you can understand why it’s so easy to get nostalgic when making your way through this volume or indeed any other.
Admittedly the BTF never had a Len Lye or Humphrey Jennings figure, though Geoffrey Jones had a wonderfully cinematic eye and as a result earned his own BFI disc, The Rhythm of Film, independent of these volumes. However, experimentation still found its occasional place, even in such simple concepts as the speeded-up train-POV of Let’s Go to Birmingham (1962, available on volume four). On Off the Beaten Track, to demonstrate, we find a rare showing for The Scene from Melbury House (1972), a training exercise from apprentice camera operators (they would use up the ends of film stock capturing everyday footage from atop the roof of BTF HQ) edited into shape via a Ralph Vaughan Williams score so as to give an unexpected, sometime poetic glimpse at 1970s London, and the electronic score to Between the Tides providing a wonderful retro-futuristic charm. As said, maybe not enough to compete with the avant-garde but hopefully evidence that these films aren’t as dry as they may first appear. (Incidentally, Ian Breakwell – another who’s been treated to an individual disc from the BFI – spent a year in residence at the unit in the early 1970s resulting in 1975’s non-BTF short, The Journey.)
7. The Incidentals
Here I could list numerous other elements which help create the overall quality of these titles, but I’d like to highlight one that always raises a smile: the innocent, pre-PC casual misogyny the narrators occasionally let slip. I recall one instance on another volume, though I forgot the name of the particular film, in which the English Channel (and its fog) is described as being “as fickle as a woman”. Volume five’s highpoint comes in Wild Wings when describing how geese are ringed: apparently it’s “a bit like knitting, a fiddly business – women are much better at it than men”.
Previous reviews of volumes two and six are the place to go for screengrabs and comparisons with other discs housing BTF films so I’ll direct you there for a demonstration of just how good these shorts look on DVD. Starting out in black and white, naturally, before moving into Technicolor, it was only during the downsizing of the seventies that saw the unit take a backwards step to 16mm production. Otherwise these films were always beautifully produced and, more to the point, come across just as well on disc. Sit through Take the High Road (1960), for example, and not only will you marvel at the truly wonderful condition it’s in – just look at those reds! – but you’ll also lament the fact that we’re not in a situation where all films from the era are presented on disc so well. And this for a short documentary subject on admittedly niche interest – surely another reason for these DVDs to be investigated…
Ocean Terminal (1952)
Dodging the Column (1952)
Link Span (1956)
Eden Valley (1957)
Journey into Spring (1957)
Between the Tides (1958)
Giant Load (1958)
They Take the High Road (1960)
Wild Highlands (1961)
Wild Wings (1965)
An Artist Looks at Churches (1959)
Railways For Ever! (1970)
The Scene from Melbury House (1972)
Age of Invention (1975)
The Seaspeed Express (1980)
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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