mon 22/04/2024

Blu-ray: The Best of British Transport Films | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The Best of British Transport Films

Blu-ray: The Best of British Transport Films

Improbably enjoyable celebration of UK transport infrastructure

Waterloo Sunset: John Schlesinger's 'Terminus'

The British Transport Commission was created in 1948 by the Atlee government, an ambitious attempt to organise rail, road and water transport under a single unwieldy umbrella (for a time it was the world’s largest employer, with a staff of over 900,000). British Transport Films was set up a year later, the biggest industrial film unit in the UK.

It was run by renowned documentary maker Edgar Anstey and survived until the late 1980s, its intention to promote the virtues of a newly nationalised transport network. The BTF’s output included travelogues and training materials, the more popular shorts intended for cinema and club audiences. Several high-profile names feature in the credits of the 21 films collected in this 70th anniversary set from the BFI: John Betjeman pops up, of course, and John Schlesinger’s 1961 directorial debut came courtesy of the BTF.

There’s an overused LP Hartley quote about the past being a foreign country where things were done differently, and while there’s a lot here which may mystify younger audiences, viewers of a certain age (as well as those who are simply fascinated by social history) will be enthralled. Schlesinger’s award-winning Terminus is an impressionistic portrait of 24 hours at Waterloo Station: there’s no narration, the mixture of fictional and real footage brilliantly woven together. You’ll still bump into wazzocks quaffing champagne and stockbrokers heading to Hampshire, though the class divisions were sharper then. Terminus is worth watching alongside James Ritchie’s 1960 Blue Pullman, showcasing a luxury train aimed at affluent business travellers. You marvel at the opulence, and at the food, but would you really want to travel to Manchester with this lot? Technically it’s superb, though, Ritchie’s blend of interior and exterior footage gleaming in this restored print.

Blu-ray: The Best of British Transport FilmsSocial differences are less extreme by the time we get to 1978’s Overture: One-Two-Five, meant for cinema audiences and showcasing a beige new world of open-plan seating and alarming dress sense. David Gow’s soundtrack adds to the fun, while Wilfred Joseph’s Coplandesque score to 1966’s Rail lends coherence to a bipartite snapshot of railways present and future. A scene-stealing John Betjeman bids farewell to the last mainline steam service in Railways for Ever!

Several of the earlier shorts are noticeably less train-centric. They Take the High Road is an evocative look at lorry driving in the Highlands, and there’s an Oscar-nominated natural history film called Between the Tides. Every Valley and Any Man’s Kingdom are unsentimental portraits of life in the Welsh Valleys and Northumberland respectively: the BTF’s geographical brief was wide.

The pick of the set, though, is The Scene from Melbury House, a 1972 compendium of sequences captured by trainee camera operators perched on the roof of the BTF’s head office in Marylebone. Nuns, sunbathers, schoolchildren and drinkers feature prominently, all presumably unaware they’re being spied on, and there’s a tantalising glimpse of Battersea Power Station when it was a working building rather than a luxury housing development. The BFI’s newly scanned prints look and sound magnificent. Bonus features include audio-only introductions to several of the shorts and a 1967 talk by the affable Anstey, reflecting on the parallels between filmmaking and train travel. An enchanting anthology, and not just for nerds.

John Schlesinger’s award-winning 'Terminus' is an impressionistic portrait of 24 hours at Waterloo Station


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