Directed by: Various (Documentary)
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 196 mins
Region: Region 0
Released: 24 February 2014
Cat No: BFIVD976
Screen ratio 1:1.33
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British Transport Films: Volume 12 - The Driving Force
Collection of documentary shorts produced by the British Transport Commission between 1955 and 1982. The films are: ’Bridge of Song’... Read More
The British Transport Films series takes to the tracks again with a twelfth volume that looks at revolution on the railways in the 1960s, when 15,000 steam engines were replaced by new diesel and electric locomotives.
The narrator's words in Speedrail to the South - a jaunty piece about how the South Western main line can at last be seen properly 'now the smoke has cleared' - set out the stall for the collection (and, incidentally, knock out the storyline of Brief Encounter at a stroke): 'the romance of steam - yes, for some romance, for others muck everywhere, in your eyes, your ears, your hair … electricity sweeps all that away, and sweeps on with travel fit for the 70s - clean, quiet, fast and frequent.' Although antithetical to the film's intent, it does show how charged and cinematically involving the experience of steam travel is, as glistening stokers shovel coal into fires and the driver is jerked and jolted about as he peers through a smut-grimed window. We cut from that to the calm, clean, motion-free environment of a diesel driver's cab.
The watchwords of The Good Way to Travel - an upbeat mid-sixties Rail Report set to the twang of an electric guitar - could stand for the collection as a whole: 'best', 'newest', 'most modern', 'most efficient', as BR looked at how to provide for 'the passenger's pleasure', and 'the travel patterns of today'. Some of the innovations - cash-ticket turntables for example - are still in use nearly 50 years on, while others such as 'The Directomat' - a concourse information machine dispensing tickets with answers to commonly asked questions, have long gone. As have the British Rail 'mini-holiday' dollies patrolling the seaside and offering a free instant photograph on production of a valid return ticket.
Granted these are promotional films painting a picture of travel at its rosiest, but it's interesting to see films from an era before railway travel was reduced solely to the bottom line, when passengers seemed to be courted and even valued. And what happened to all that those starched linen napkins and tablecloths that appear throughout as railway diners tuck in to sausages and coffee? We see being given a good wash and press at the British transport Commission Laundry at Willesden in Bridge of Song, which matches communal song to apposite locations, such as the laundry, a new lock at Newark and a continuous foundry. There's song of a different kind in Joe Brown at Clapham, which sees the chirpy cockney singer and ex-railwayman skiffling his way through a couple of cheerfully ragged railway songs in the company of his Bruvvers at the Museum of British Transport in Clapham, from where he gives a brief run-through of developments on the railway.
At the heart of the collection is The Driving Force, a benchmark production made for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in order to showcase Britain's 'progressive railway system' to the world. Lent drama and thrust by Derek Bourgeois's score, it's a film that mixes technical description of new engine systems with whimsy (chicks juxtaposed to commuters; a train seen in a sunbather's mirror), and has a virtuouso central sequence demonstrating the beauty of precision machine engineering, with its unexpected colours and extraordinary interlocking shapes.
An anti-highlight comes with Going Places Fast (1974), a fascinatingly grim, down-at-heel production made for the US tourist market. It must be one of the least attractive features BTF ever made - amazingly so given that its remit was to attract people to the country. Everything looks chilly and a bit grimy, as if filmed through a grey-brown '1970s Britain' filter. Shots of the country's diverse geographical and architectural wonders are largely foregone in favour of nondescript, windblown bits of track, disoriented tourists at a coach station, station rooves, white skies, Warwick castle obscured by a bridge, a hairy man trying to cross a road after coming out of a pub and later losing his footing in a stream in Brontë country, a close-up of a laminated Britrail pass and a businessman reading Playboy as 'a spot of relaxation' on the train. The final words of the film - 'have fun, enjoooy yourself' even have a Bela Lugosi twang to leave a sinister edge. One wonders how it went down. At least no-one could complain the country was mis-sold after arrival.
Partners in Prosperity does a far better job of promoting the country (in this case Scotland) as it addresses the theme of how to 'take a historic and beautiful country and give it faster and more efficient communication links, yet still preserve its beauty'.
Other films are Freight Flow, which looks at the growth and development of freightliner services, 'thrusting away at the very roots of industrial thought and practice' as they carry everything from apples and biscuits to oxygen bottles, cars, bricks, carpets and sellotape. A recruitement film for British Rail, The Future Works follows the training and apprenticieship of a young lad as he attends the Rail Works Training School in Swindon ('Morning lads'). White collar or blue overalls? Forging, welding, scientific research, technical drawing, fitting? 'What would you like to be?' he is asked at the end. Archeologists of computing will find much to enjoy in Creating a Diversion, which looks at what happened when the Selby coalfield required the East Coast Main Line to be moved. This being 1980, the engineers could draw upon time-saving computer modelling systems for their work, with mainframe IBM machines and rudimentary VDUs to the fore.
Finally, the volume goes out with a whizz in Inter-City 1250. Following in the wake of novelty films such as Let's Go to Birmingham (1962) (available on BTF Vol 4: Reshaping British Railways) and London-Brighton in Four Minutes (1966), it was made to promote the Inter-City 125 High Speed Train, and does the King's Cross to Peterborough run at a speed of 1250 miles an hour in just in 3 minutes and 10 seconds, while passengers chat and work, oblivious to their supersonic state.