Bygone Britain, By Train
Cropped screenshots from The Heart Is Highland (1952); and, right, Cyclists Special (1955)
The travelogue shorts made for British Transport Films in the 1950s and early 60s, as indirect
promotion for the newly nationalised [1948-] railway network, were the first time much of contemporary
Britain was shown onscreen in colour.
This was a practice first undertaken
by a prewar film, Night Mail (1936), made by the GPO film unit, whose final reel had
a poetic text by WH Auden (“This
is the Night Mail crossing the Border/ Bringing the cheque and the postal order”)
and music by Benjamin Britten, with the commentary spoken by alternating narrators. It was a
considerable success at home and abroad.
unit had been formed in May 1949 under Edgar Anstey, a protégé of documentary pioneer
Many of the c700 BTF films followed in the prewar ‘industrial documentary’ mode established by Grierson and were shot in black and white, showing the workaday world of the railway network. There were some ironies here. This aspect came up with one of BTF's biggest successes, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1952), a film about London's tram system being closed down, which had to be made by writer-director John Krish behind Anstey’s back. The BFI website summarises: “Krish … argued intently with British Transport Films' head Edgar Anstey that a proper film could be made out of this record shooting. Anstey refused, claiming it was not in the remit of the unit to reflect on the passing of old transport. Krish was told BTF's remit was to look to the future and celebrate new technology, not to make sentimental films about the past.” Despite the film's success, Krish was sacked, ending a promising BTF career. Leaving aside the irony of the view that steam trains were modern tech while electric trams were passé, it shows that Anstey's focus or remit was entirely contemporary - though today the films have a nostalgic interest as a record of the past.
Below, Technology, old and new. Left: The Elephant Will Never Forget (1952). Right, Elizabethan Express (1954), showing the then state-of-the-art passenger express train, successor to the Flying Scotsman, on its London-Edinburgh run.
the most famous of the workaday-world docus is probably the award-winning 33-minute Terminus
(1961), directed by John Schlesinger, supposedly an unscripted "fly-on-the-wall" look
at a day in London’s Waterloo station; its main plot incidents (such as the 'lost' child)
were in fact staged, Schlesinger going on to a career directing dramas.
British Transport Films continued production into the early 80s, but the abandonment in the 60s of the full cinema programme with travelogue, cartoon, newsreel etc meant much more limited distribution. Cars were also increasingly replacing train travel to visit holiday destinations. Though these films have since been largely overlooked by film historians a number of BTF shorts were shown in Channel 4's 1990 ‘Going Loco’ season, introducing them to a new generation, and a selection of BTF titles has since been issued by the British Film Institute, on nine DVD sets.
|Above: Screenshots from
a pair of BTF travelogues written by Norman Prouting, who also wrote The Lake District
(1954), North To Wales [listed in selection below], Every Valley (1957), and
A Letter for Wales. Left - Round The Island (1956): This 25-minute docu about
the Isle of Wight has two alternating narrators, with countryman Ralph Wightman speaking Prouting’s
commentary about the heritage of the land, and yachtsman and designer Uffa Fox narrating the scenes
of the Cowes annual round-the-island yachting regatta. Above right: Yorkshire Sands (1955):
This lighthearted look at northeast coast holiday resorts has a sparse voiceover largely written
in rhyming couplets, read by actor Robert Shaw.
|Left: John Betjeman Goes By Train (1962) - Commentary by future poet laureate John Betjeman, a fan of the railway network, on a trip up a Norfolk branch line, made by BTF for BBC East Anglia tv.||
The major BTF films have all now
been released on DVD, on 9 discs, by the BFI. The 'See Britain By Train' compilation [right]
has 12 of these films on 2 discs, while 'The Art of Travel' compilation [mouse over image to
view cover] has 13 films on 2 discs. Most of the films discussed on this page are on these DVDs.
The BTF films reflected the ‘postwar recovery’ storyline which followed on the earlier
‘postwar adjustment’ cycle of social-problem pictures made from late WW2 on. The
implicit message was that in this not so brave new postwar world of rationing and all-round austerity,
there might not be much personal wealth or freedom to go round, but you could at least escape
your grey workaday city routine on the weekend – just get on a train to the seaside or
into the country. Today the films have a nostalgic historical interest - the sights we see represent
a society that largely no longer exists. The railway network shown was soon to be a victim of
Dr Beeching’s budget cuts, with some of the branch lines shown axed in the mid-60s.
Perhaps the relevant poem here is A. E. Housman’s Land Of Lost Content:
Below is a selection of a dozen BTF films showing different regions of Britain. There are also hundreds of b&w industrial documentary shorts, and many of these have been released, aimed at the steam-railway enthusiasts market. However it is the colour travelogues we are concerned with here. I’ve included script credits since the lyrical voiceover script is what I think makes the films work – though using poetry or verse is a style no longer used for documentary. The travelogue films for obvious reasons focused on holiday destinations in England, Scotland and Wales, and the titles below mostly reflect this. Only one is in black and white, Snowdrift At Bleath Gill, where colour would not make much difference anyway as it was shot amidst a snowbound landscape. A few BTF shorts ran over 20 mins but the titles listed below mostly run between 10 and 20 minutes each.
| Coasts Of Clyde
Scripted by Jack House, and narrated by Bernard Braden, as a Canadian visiting to renew his Scottish roots, this explores the connection between the railway network and the coastal steamers which sailed the Clyde estuary. He heads ‘doon the watter’ - the Glasgow pronunciation of the phrase for taking the coastal steamer down the River Clyde from Glasgow out into the Firth of Clyde for a healthy day out away from the smoke and grime of the city. (For the people of Glasgow, the availability of these trips was an important part of improving the quality of life there during its industrial heyday.) Braden takes the steamer from Wemyss Bay station, to Largs, Dunoon, the Cowal Highland Games, Rothesay, the Kyles Of Bute, Arrochar, Loch Lomond, and eventually arrives on the Isle of Arran, from where his grandmother had sailed for Canada.
This is a jolly, now-quaint, 15-minute look, with continuous narration (no writer credits given), at the cycling clubs which flourished postwar, putting their ten-speed Raleigh bikes on trains for a day out exploring some provincial destination, in this case a Cyclists Touring Club excursion by train to Warwickshire, cycling relatively car-free roads to Kenilworth Castle etc.
This time we’re heading down south from London a short hop to the various attractions of Sussex’s coast and countryside – Brighton, Rye, the Sussex Downs, the Weald etc. Commentary by actor Peter Halliday, who portrays himself notionally making the trip. It ends with verses from Hilaire Belloc’s ‘The South Country’.
Heart Is Highland (1952)
The eastern Highlands are the locale here. Scripted and spoken by Edinburgh writer Moray McLaren (1901–1971), the commentary is framed by an ‘expat’ oriented verse from The Canadian Boat Song: “From the lone shieling of the misty island / Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas;/ Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, / And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides.” A local coach takes people from the railway into the Grampians, where once-inaccessible mountainous land is being made useful by modernisation – new roads, hydroelectric dams, Forestry Commission plantations and skiing opportunities to supplement the more traditional hillwalking activities. Historic heritage is being maintained in preserved castles like Glamis. Inverness’s daily newspaper coverage is linked to modern cattle ‘ranching’, Caledonian Canal shipping, and whisky manufacture.
|Heart Of England (1954)
The narrator takes the viewer on a tour of the Cotswolds region he grew up in as a lad, to ‘tempt you to it.’ As scripted by John Moore, the structure is partly seasonal, with scenes of nature and farming. Interpolated with this are references to the historic heritage of each of the towns we visit on the 'Heart Of England' tourist-region map – Tewkesbury, Stratford and 'Shakespeare Country', Cheltenham, the Vale Of Evesham etc.
Scotland’s far northwest is the destination here. The West Highland railway line up the NW coast is seen but the setting is largely the area beyond the rail network. A small single-decker charter coach takes a group from Edinburgh north and then west. With commentary by Alastair M. Dunnett, this 20 minute excursion seems to be a reworking of the 1953 film Scottish Highlands. We cross Rannoch Moor, Glencoe, the Great Glen containing Loch Ness, and take the ferry to Skye.
This 18-minute film set over a single day and evening at Blackpool was shot not in 35mm Technicolor but on Kodachrome 16mm reversal stock, with cameraman David Watkin (who would go on to shoot films like Out Of Africa, here on his first assignment) using a hidden camera to catch holidaymakers unaware. The Kodachrome photography by Watkin is superior to the usual 'Prints By Technicolor'. The commentary, spoken by Robert Shaw, is sparse, initially in rhyming couplets (there's no writer credit), the soundtrack being mainly jazz pieces played by the Chris Barber band, giving the film a more modern feel.
In this 15-min short written by Cyril Ray, the narrator recalls how he was once told by his doctor to have a day out on the Lancashire coast where the sea breeze will blow away any malaise. He visits Blackpool, Morecambe, and Southport to discover their attractions.
You can compare the traditional narrated approach here, with that of Holiday [see above], also shot by cameraman David Watkin the same year.
|North To The
The Yorkshire Dales - 'from which no traveller wishes to return' – get their turn in the BTF spotlight here.
Edward Woods’s commentary, spoken by Robert Shaw, covers Bronte Country, Brimham Rocks, limestone caves, ruined castles and abbeys etc.
To Wales (1956)
(Not to be confused with A Letter For Wales (1960), also written by Prouting, which has a similar setup.)
At Bleath Gill (1955)
The High Pennines are the setting in this famous documentary. Shot during a lesser-known snowy winter (compared to those of 1947, 1963* and 1978), this is not a travelogue per se but an industrial docu, in this case with scenic interest. It focuses on the work of track clearance crews, in this case on a branch line (since closed) in the Pennines to free a freight train snowbound for 4 days in the Westmorland hills. It has a commentary written by Paul le Saux, spoken as is usual in BTF films by alternate narrators.
*Below: BTF’s award-winning non-narrated docu Snow, made during the 1963 blizzards, uses some flash cuts of footage from the 1955 film, intercut with colour footage of wintry conditions in the present day i.e. the late-steam/ early diesel-train era.
Devon and then Cornwall get their turn here via a train bound for the Cornish Riviera, i.e. the southwest coast. Two narrators, one speaking with a Devon countryman’s accent, alternately speak Paul le Saux’s commentary based on a script by Cecilia Ohocks. This is one of the longer BTF films, running 25 mins; the main focus is on Devon – Dartmoor, Clovelly etc; the shorter Cornish section lacks a strong finale; as well as scenes of fishing ports, it evokes Arthurian myth to accompany shots of St Michael’s Mount and megaliths.
[c] Storylines In Review 2019