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British Transport Films: Volume 11 - Experiment Under London DVD

Various (Documentary), 1961-69

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Film Details

Directed by Various (Documentary)

Produced in 1961-69

Main Language - English

Countries & Regions - British Film

MovieMail's Review

Six films documenting the construction of the Underground Victoria Line, 1962-69. It's a fascinating look at an engineering project in a largely pre-computerised age, writes Graeme Hobbs.

Detailing the construction of the underground Victoria Line from Victoria to Walthamstow between September 1962 and March 1969 (roughly between Love Me Do and John and Yoko's bed-in in Beatles money), the six films in this volume - an initial technical report into the mechanics of tunnelling technology (Experiment Under London) and five subsequent progress reports (Over and Under, Down and Along, Problems and Progress, Equip and Complete and London's Victoria Line) - offer a fascinating glimpse into a major construction project. Edward Williams' jaunty flute and vibraphone theme jogs us along the journey.

From the pneumatic drilling of the the first cobble in Oxford Circus in September 1962 to a cobalt head-scarfed Queen buying a 5d ticket for her ride from Walthamstow to Victoria (which also bought her a ride in the driver's cab), the films pay testament to both engineering ingenuity and the sheer back-breaking manpower needed to complete the job. Challenges included setting an umbrella road casing in Oxford Circus to allow construction underneath, rebuilding stations, freezing 500 cubic yards of water-bearing sand and gravel in summer to make it fit for drilling or simply hacking away at the London clay with picks and shovels where it was not cost effective for a mechanical shield to be used to cut the way through. The films also provide a good look at engineering projects in the age before everyday computer usage, from hand-sketched plans and routes marked with drawing pins and red string to scale models made out of cardboard, balsa wood and drinking straws. Not that this had any effect on the accuracy of the job, tunnelling 23 miles at 2 inches a minute for 24 hours a day and ending up just 1 1/2 inches out of alignment.

Signs of the times come with the relaxed approach to welfare at work that would have a modern-day health and safety officer twitching uncontollably: a crane dangling a length of swaying steel pipe across the road as taxis are held at bay and pedestrians take a chance, men digging holes in the middle of Oxford Circus with their workings demarcated only by a couple of metal railings and a bit of 4x2, and the numerous people looking on from a few feet away as a digger sinks holes and pulls out spoil with a 3 foot drill bit. As for hard hats, there are a few, but cloth caps, corduroy caps and even plastic bags hold sway. Meanwhile, numerous innovations are introduced such as automatic train operation and ticket barriers, illuminated advertising, fluorescent lighting, double-glazing and even nudge-free elbow room for passengers (imagine that). There are also scenes of fitting out Lots Road power station ('The Chelsea Monster') - looking rather different than it does in its shadow-filled appearance at the climax of Anthony Asquith's 1928 silent film, Underground.

The volume also includes a substantial bonus film in the shape of A Hundred Years Underground, made to to mark the centenary of Underground Transport in London ('and that means the world'). A 40-minute potted history of the Underground, it journeys from the innovations in tunelling that came with the construction of the London sewers in the late 1850s, through war and its aftermath, the advent of electricity underground, the allure of 'Metro-Land', the creation of London Transport from competing companies, the growth of the suburbs, war again and the use of the underground once more as a shelter, postwar austerity and the Coronation to the introduction of cctv. Along the way, various people recall their experience of the underground: a plastic-macked John Betjeman talks of the personalities of the lines - the City and South London smelling of 'feet, or rather like a changing room', the Metropolitan with its promise of the Middlesex countryside - while Henry Moore talks of his wartime drawings of Londoners sheltering at night in the tube stations.

As ever with BTF productions, it's the care in the small details as well as large that characterise the films' craftsmanship - consistently impressive photography of work below ground, nearly always in tight and challenging spaces, a 'scotch mist' scene of a man fetching a skip from an air-lock, the glint of Edward Williams' score matching the glint of rails in sunlight as they are hoisted below ground.

Graeme Hobbs on 25th July 2013
Author of 300 reviews

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Film Description

Marking London Undergroundís 150th anniversary, Experiment Under London - Volume 11 in the BFI's British Transport Films series - contains six films documenting the construction of the Undergroundís Victoria Line, produced by the BTF Unit for London Transport.

During Autumn 1962, engineering work began on the first new underground railway to be built under Central London in over sixty years. Made between 1961 and 1969, the films show, in meticulous detail, the mammoth undertaking of building the Victoria Line, one of the most complex civil engineering projects that London had ever seen.

After the initial film showing the proposals and the tunnelling technology that will be used, the subsequent films are Cine-gazette style reports that not only show the technical engineering achievements but also the human endeavour required from the workforce and the cooperation of the public.

Contains: Experiment Under London (1961): experimental excavations in preparations for the new Victoria Line underground.

The Victoria Line Report No.1: Over and Under (1965): the chief civil engineer for LT's new underground line from Victoria to Walthamstow describes the work in progress from early 1963 to mid 1964 at Oxford Circus.

Report No. 2: Down and Along (1965): modern techniques of tunnelling, the use of a mechanical digging shield in a running tunnel, and the digging by hand of vast underground caverns for junctions and cross-overs.

Report No. 3: Problems and Progress (1967): the difficulties met by the designers and contractors, particularly at Kings Cross and Oxford Circus; the diversion work at Finsbury Park and the problem of accurate track laying.

Report No. 4: Equip and Complete (1968): installing model escalators, testing new rolling stock and automatic train control, installing power supply and the operation of the Walthamstow-Highbury section.

Report No. 5: London's Victoria Line (1966): the design, construction and completion of the new line showing the various phases and engineering techniques involved.

DVD Details

Certificate: E

Publisher: BFI

Length: 167 mins

Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Format: DVD Colour

Region: 2

Released: 19th August 2013

Cat No: BFIVD975

DVD Extras

  • 2 discs
  • A Hundred Years Underground (1963): the story of London Underground from its inception to modern times with contributions from distinguished Londoners including a young John Betjeman, singer Jessie Matthews, Lord Morrison of Lambeth and sculptor Henry Moore
  • The Queen Opening the Victoria Line (1969): mute rushes of the official opening ceremony
  • Illustrated booklet with film notes.

Film Stills

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