The Exploiter and the Exploited : Railway Filmaking 1930 - 1949
by Paul Smith

The Great Western Railway

The third largest and most publicity minded of all four of the grouped companies was the Great Western Railway, the title remaining from Brunel's original company formed in 1835.

The Great Western Railway’s publicity department were renowned for taking any opportunity they could to get press attention including lavish decoration of stations were a royal visit was due to take place, as the monarchy then as now received a great deal of press attention, it was sensible the station looked good. On more traditional lines the railway published the usual holiday guides, but also books describing how the railway worked, about its locomotives, that was not all the GWR produced its own jigsaw puzzles as well.

The GWR did not have a film unit of its own preferring to bring in outside contractors. Six films were made in this period but the most spectacular of them all and probably of all the railway companies output during this period, was ‘Romance of a Railway’ 1935 production company unknown. Directed by Walter Creighton with Carl Harbard as Brunel and Donald Wolfit as Daniel Gooch.

According to John Huntley this film was never shown publicly but was seen at three private performances held at Paddington in July 1935, to commemorate the railways centenary. John Huntley gives this description to this mini feature film:-

The film records the main events connected with the history of the Great Western Railway from 1835 to 1935, including the 1833 Bristol meeting at which Robert Bright’s speech aroused great enthusiasm for the idea of the railway, the meeting at Bristol on July 30, 1835, which it was decided to form the company, the commissioning of Brunel as chief engineer, the opening of the Paddington to Maidenhead line in 1838, the building of the Severn Tunnel, the hectic days when Sir Daniel Gooch salvaged the company from financial crisis in the 1860s and the changing of the gauge from broad to standard in 1892. This is followed by a survey of the GWR as it was in 1935; the towns and cities served, the freight traffic, operating procedures and a detailed survey of Swindon locomotive works, including the building of a King. A final sequence gives a glimpse of the streamlined, bullet nosed 4-6-0 King class No 6014 King Henry VII.

In addition to the professional actors, members of the Great Western Railway amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society took part in the crowd scenes; in the gauge conversion scenes, permanent way men dressed up in clothes of their fathers to re enact the 1892 events.

AThe running time for this film was 40 minutes a little shorter than ‘The Final Journey’ mentioned earlier. What is interesting about the ‘Romance of a Railway’ is that the film is that the first half is made in the contemporary style of fiction films of the period, with Carl Hubbard playing Brunel as some kind of Victorian dandy, where as Donald Wolfitt does give fairly convincing portrayal of Sir Daniel Gooch. However, certain events like the protracted works on the Severn Tunnel are glossed over with Sir Daniel just walking through an opening, which is meant to depict the two ends of the tunnel being completed. The remainder of the looks at the GWR in contemporary documentary style similar to that of the LMS. compared to the exhibition arrangements of the LMS or Southern film units nothing is done with this film as far as exhibition is concerned, this film could have been a powerful proper gander tool. It would appear that the GWR’s famed publicity department still relied on the print media to promote its message.

The GWR’s other film output was mainly of the travelogue style of film and nothing of the magnitude of ‘Romance of a Railway’ was contemplated again the GWR’s last film being made during the war entitled ‘Women at War’ 1945 Directed by John Oliver of the Topical Press Agency, who as mentioned earlier produced most of the LMS output.

The London Midland and Scottish Railway
The London and North Eastern Railway
The Southern Railway Film Unit
The Great Western Railway

The Run-Up To Nationalisation

© Paul Smith - text must not be reproduced in whole or part without permission.