Directed by: Various (Documentary)
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 167 mins
Region: Region 0
Released: 19 August 2013
Cat No: BFIVD975
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British Transport Films: Volume 11 - Experiment Under London
Collection of five documentaries, together known as ’The Victoria Line Reports’, produced between 1961 and 1968 by British Transport... Read More
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.