After discussing British Transport Films with colleagues recently, I was struck by their general opinion that they must be all about trains. Many of them of course are – British Railways was BTF's biggest customer from the early 1950s to the time of the Unit's closure in 1986 – but this is by no means the whole picture of the Unit’s activities, and this is demonstrated very well in the latest 2-disc collection of British Transport Films from the BFI, the fifth volume in the series, entitled Off the Beaten Track, which includes among its fifteen films three Oscar-nominated natural history films, of which one was a winner of the award.
So what was an industrial film unit established to promote British transport systems doing making films that initially seem unrelated to this business? Well, in addition to the films made to promote public awareness, understanding and even admiration of the means of their transport, the unit, under the stewardship of Edgar Anstey, realised that it could also produce films that showed people some of the places to which they could travel, thus indirectly promoting the transport systems but broadening the remit and the appeal of the films themselves. It was an inspired idea that led to some of the Unit’s best-loved and most widely-seen productions. By 1969, over 60 travelogues and nature films were listed in that year’s BTF film catalogue.
Of the fifteen films, made between 1952-80, collected in this latest volume, nature is a recurrent theme. Included are the two glorious Technicolor natural history films, Journey into Spring (1957) and Between the Tides (1958). The former, with a commentary written by Laurie Lee, is a lovely pastoral film that celebrates springtime in the Hampshire parish of Selborne, home of the famous 18th century naturalist and country parson Gilbert White. Filmed at ‘the tilting turn of the year’, it promotes ‘an unchanged England that waits just outside the suburbs for anyone who wants to discover it’. Beginning with the bare leaves of early March, the film is a celebration of the seething, spawning, hatching abundance of Spring, with piping moorhens and spawning frogs, sprightly grey wagtails and swimming hedgehogs, carpets of wood anemones and a seething ants’ nest, melodious skylarks and raucous rooks, flitting sand martins and restless moles and even footage of a cuckoo chick, ‘trembling with greed’ in a hedge sparrow’s nest as it rapidly outgrows its host parent. Some of the commentary may provoke wry reflection with the conviction of its assertions, as with ‘you will find at this time in an acre of English countryside more wild flowers growing than anywhere else on earth, preserved by that same casual affection which has preserved our wild birds,’ but overall this is a lovely film with footage now more associated with a David Attenborough documentary. A Bafta winner for Best documentary of 1958, it was also Oscar-nominated the following year.
That year, 1959, also saw the creation of the film Between the Tides, which, again in Technicolor, investigated the magical world of limpets, periwinkles, sea anemones, dog whelks, sandhoppers and turnstones of the western coasts, a world that is revealed when the tide goes out. The commentary, here written by James Burns Singer and read, as with Journey into Spring, by Stephen Murray, again turns up some lovely phrases, as in ‘a lumpsucker hovers nearby; it is as tame as butter’ but is a little more reflective; ‘there’s life everywhere,’ says the narrator, ‘and the tracks we make are shared and crossed by the paths of others who know this world better than we do.’ The filming is again highly accomplished, whether it is of a ‘summer snowstorm’ of gannets or sea hares browsing on sea lettuce and emitting a jet of purple poison as a deterrent to potential attackers. Other scenes, such as those with crabs, tubeworms, prawns and an octopus, feature electronic effects for accompaniment and find their nearest equivalent in the off-kilter nature films of Jean Painlevé. Between the Tides was also nominated for an Oscar, in 1960, but though it didn’t win this, the film garnered special awards at festival around the world, including first prizes at Venice, Bologna and Cork.
The elusive Oscar finally did come in 1967, when Wild Wings, a film about the Wildfowl trust at Slimbridge narrated by Peter Scott, won ‘Best Live Action Short’. It’s a film that introduces some of the 122 varietes of grebes, ducks, pochard, geese and teals held at the Trust, along with the activities of hatching and rearing, netting and ringing, all set to some lovely musical accompaniment by Edward Williams – the most prolific composer of music for British Transport Films.
One of the notable aspects of this collection of films is the quality of the prose and the measured articulacy of its narration. The finest example of this comes in Ian Ferguson’s Wild Highlands from 1961, a film about wild life on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Stephen Murray again takes the narration duties, with his eloquent, poetic commentary written by Harry Green. ‘These are empty places, spare as the wind’ he says as he evokes a world of ‘blaeberry, sedge and bent, water, rock and the soughing of wind, in all seasons the wind out of the south-west, a salt wind in a lonely place.’ This is a film of spring in raven country, as ‘wind-blown, ragged-arsed, horizon-giddy, the graceless raven homes to the cliff above the corrie.’ Time and again choice phrases catch the spirit of the place: ‘the otter rejoices, putting the water in stitches for his own delight’, ‘the seals on their loch island sidle and bob on a full gut’ while the nest of an eider duck is beautifully described as ‘a long feather-bedding in a wilderness of short shrift’. These words are complemented by precious footage of wild cats, ospreys and fighting red deer stags. The film is a fine northern counterpart to Journey into Spring.
So much for the natural history films on the collection. The movement of awkward objects forms another theme in the set, with the films Dodging the Column (1952) and Giant Load (1958) – the former showing the difficulty of transporting a 132 ft column 500 miles north by road at a speed of 40 miles a day, the latter the difficulty of transporting a 168 ton transformer across the country.
Other films include An Artist Looks at Churches, in which the artist John Piper giving an appreciation of the decoration and adornment in and on churches, taking in the extraordinary 12th church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire and moving through the centuries up to the 20th and works by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
There’s a celebration of the hovercraft in the 1980 film Seaspeed Express, which will bring back memories for anyone who sailed – or rather flew – in the craft, and a film that praises the dedication of the lorry drivers who spent two years driving tricky mountain roads to deliver cement to a Scottish hydro-electric project in the film They Take the High Road. There’s a film all about Southampton Docks, Ocean Terminal, inspired in part by Baudelaire’s poem Le Voyage, which has footage of the QEII and the Queen Mary, and, staying with the sea, a film about cross-channel ferries from 1956, Link Span, which manages to conjure up romance and excitement in the journey from Dover to Boulogne – feelings that you would be hard pressed to find today on that journey. Commencing from Dover at 8 in the morning, we are shown the cars with their ‘engines already beginning to throb to a livelier continental beat’. Continuing the theme of beautifully descriptive commentaries – here written by Stanley Goulder and spoken by Michael Goodliffe – we are then told of the passengers testing out their sea legs and ‘nosing about the ship like puppies in a new kennel’. When the scene moves to the night boat, the magic starts, and we see the passengers, snug in their bunks, listening to ‘a muffled orchestration of shunting and securing and jacking-up; a strange symphony, half-heard, half-dreamed, of buffers and chains and hollow echoings’, with the soundtrack itself reflecting the words.
There is also a real curio in the collection, in the shape of The Scene from Melbury House (1972), in which BTF’s apprentice cameramen used scrap lengths of film to record daily life as seen from the roof of their headquarters in London's Marylebone. It’s certainly one of the Unit’s strangest productions, with touches of voyeurism and sly wit (as in a sequence of four shots which commences with someone ironing in the nude in their house followed by a very upright Post Office Tower, then a shot of two priests walking down a street and finally a shot of a pub, The Globe in Lissom Grove. The connections I’m sure don’t need spelling out.) It also features some very beautiful images indeed, as in the final scene when a tower block is lit by the golden fire of the evening sun.
And trains? Yes, there's a film about those too, Railways for Ever!, in which John Betjeman celebrates ‘steam, steam, beautiful steam’ in familiar cosy doggerel: ‘Euston’s Greek portico was built to be/the gateway to Midlands industry/to this great hall the merchants there would come/and wait until the train was called for Brum.’
Anyone who has bought a previous volume of British transport films will know that the best strategy is to simply put the disc in the player, press play and enjoy the unexpected variety of the selection of films, and that is exactly what I recommend here. Previous volumes in the series have also featured a diversity in their programming, and if you are interested in travelogues, I would recommend volume 2, See Britain by Train, which also features the infectiously happy film Holiday, from 1957, in which the variety of summer seaside life at Blackpool is set to music from Chris Barber and his Jazz Band. Again, an unexpected film from a consistently inventive Film Unit.