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

The London Midland and Scottish Railway presents 1934-1947

The London Midland & Scottish railway embraced the medium of film like no other railway company in Britain in the period from 1934 till the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, in this period over thirty two sound and a number of silent films were produced. The company not only produced films, but also exhibited them to staff throughout the LMS system, which included places as far apart as Glasgow and Bristol. Later two cinema coaches were to be used to penetrate the more remote parts of the LMS system. These films where made for the employees of the LMS and the company were rewarded by attendances in the first autumn season of 1934 of 2,000 at Euston and 4,000 at Crewe . This compares well with the non-theatrical circuits promoted by Grierson.

Charles Potter one of the founding members of the LMS unit and later transferred on nationalisation to British Transport Films makes this point as to the reason for the creation of the LMS films service:-

After a most successful tour of the ‘Royal Scot’ film (compilation of newsreel footage of the ‘Royal Scot’s American tour screened in 1934), the LMS board authorised money to be spent on the production of a number of films to show the staff ‘The other man’s job’.

According to the LMS magazine the screening of these films had a double purpose in that staff were invited to bring customers of the railway to these showings and that this invitation should be considered as something of an honour by the customer:-

‘See your own railway on the screen’

There is a public contact side to the scheme, which may interest you. While the exhibitions are primarily intended for the staff, relatives and friends of employees may attend. Possibly you know a good customer of the LMS who would like to see the films when they are shown in your district, and who would perhaps be gratified at receiving an invitation to a private staff affair.

Through various traffic promotional initiatives including the ‘quota scheme’ (LMS Railway not film) staff were encourage to go out and get traffic for their railway, the rewards for these endeavours was the presentation of shields and cups to the district or department of the LMS that had made most improvements in traffic receipts. The presentation of these shields and cups also made good news stories for the subsequent Events newsreel style films that started in 1936. Therefore, the invitation to customers is very relevant to the purpose of the screenings, unfortunately it is not recorded the ratio of customers and staff.

The LMS magazine goes on in a later issue to give an update on the progress of the tour and a further plea to now ‘bring your friends’:-

‘From the films front’

Indeed, although educational in character, they (films) have at the same time been so constructed as to be of a high entertainment standard. Bring your friends to the LMS films when they are shown in your district’.

The creator of the unit was Bill Brundell who was responsible for scripting, writing commentaries and direction; with him was also John Shearman writing and direction Shearman like Potter later joined British Transport Films and Ralph Beck cameraman. Much of the photography and editing was contracted out to ‘Topical Press Agency’.

Before looking at the films themselves it is worth looking at the way the films came to be screened to their intended audience and for this I use the words of Charles Potter who organised these screenings from his unpublished autobiography ‘The Reluctant Railwayman’:-

In addition to the departmental films, a film magazine ‘events of the year’ was produced, showing the principal activities of the year, in which the then chairman, Sir Josiah Stamp (later Lord Stamp), invariably figured quite often. Making these epics was one thing; the showing or exhibition (as it was then called) of them was another.

The first programme of five 35 mm sound films (black & white of course) with a total running time of 90 minutes was ready during the summer of 1936. It was decided that as many of the staff as possible, together with there families, should see these films.

I was despatched to the provinces to locate and book the best possible halls in about 120 different centres served by the LMS railway. There were to be two shows each evening, 6 pm and 8 pm: local dignitaries and press were to be invited, and a small reception held afterwards in a room adjoining the hall.

The LMS magazine of 1934 stated that the screening of films, first took place in 1934 and not 1936 as stated above, this is further reinforced by the fact that a series of silent films of major cities served by the LMS had been made within the period 1934 and 1935, including ‘A Day Out in Liverpool made in 1935. The above also illustrates another purpose for the screening of LMS sponsored films, apart from the intended aim of showing films to the LMS’s staff and customers, the opportunity was also taken to get the railway further local editorial publicity by inviting the local press and influence local opinion formers as well, this it might be argued was a shrewd and effective way of exploiting film.

Charles Potter then goes onto to recount the logistics of the tour, which must be the 1934 tour:-

In September 1936 we were ready, an old 1st class London & North Western Railway composite brake vehicle No. 280000 having been converted. We had a toilet, a day compartment, a sleeping compartment, a small workshop, and the brake van for the gear. Our equipment consisted of a 35 mm Simplex Arc projector, complete with a transformer and mercury arc rectifier (it took four men to lift it), an iron house, non-sync, and screens of varying sizes. A projectionist, Joe Hall, was hired from Frank Brockliss Ltd., a Wardour Street firm, and we were off.

Making all the contacts, speaking to the press, and being responsible for the success of each screening was my mission in life. Our tour commenced at Abergavenny in mid September 1936 and finished at Wick in April 1937.We had a complete train timetable for the tour, and one evening during mid-September 1936 we slipped out of Euston attached to the end of a main line train, for South Wales, via Stafford and Craven Arms. We always arrived at the place of showing during the morning of the day of screening.

I shall always remember waking up in a siding in Abergavenny station, looking out of the window and seeing a mystified Station Master inspecting the coach, with the Sugar Loaf Mountain as his backcloth .At 2pm, a flat horse-drawn dray arrived, and we unloaded and made for the Town Hall. We set up during the afternoon, had an early tea and went back to the hall at 5.30 pm. Television was more or less non-existent in those days, and at 5.30 pm there was a long queue for the 6 pm show.

The great moment came – 6 pm 15th September 1936, and with a full house (about 600 people, complete with the Mayor and civic dignitaries); I introduced the films from the stage, and with the lights down we hit the screen with a picture 8ft x 6ft strung on a bamboo frame. This then, was the first occasion the railways put on a sound non-theatrical film show. At 7.30 pm the first show was over; a few drinks in the Mayor’s Parlour, interviews with the local press, and then on with the 8 pm screening. We were similarly successful, with a full house, finishing at 9.30 pm. A hurried dismantling, and at 10pm a horse and cart arrived for the gear; back to the coach at the station, equipment safely loaded, and for us, a fish and chip supper and off to bed. During the night, on to Swansea, and then the same routine for the next six months- two shows a night, in a different place each night of the week.

As has been illustrated above the schedule was quite punishing bearing in mind that the LMS railway system covered all three constituents of the British union. The exhibition of films in the above way continued until 1938 where the tours stopped as the next tour would have started at the outbreak of the war. Film production continued into 1939. The LMS film unit and the LMS magazine closed down for the war in 1939.

It is not until 1936 that the LMS magazine run an article about the unit, an article on production was written by Bill Brundell, however this article makes no reference as to why the LMS started to use film as a medium of communication, instead Brundell concentrates on the way films are scripted and produced.

A further article describing the fitting out of two fifty two seat cinema coaches for the screening of instructional films is also included in the same issue, as well as the programme of places to be visited on the current tour.

Therefore the LMS appears to be developing its use of film to include the important aspect of staff training.

At this point some background knowledge of the film contractors who undertook the bulk of the work for the LMS is appropriate. The Topical Press Agency, Commercial and Educational Films Dept’. Rachael Low gives a brief description of the company that made 90% of the LMS’s film output.

Another firm associated with a press agency, in this case the Topical Press Agency, was the Commercial and Educational film company with its small studio at Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. During the thirties it made topical and magazine films and publicity films, including a number for the London Midland & Scottish Railway, and prospered to such an extent that by 1939 it was using Highbury Studios as well as its own. The anonymous people who produced these films would hardly have been regarded as filmmakers at all by for example, the mainstream documentary elite, and Harry Watt is slightly scathing about an LMS railway film director who actually appeared wearing a bowler hat. Yet the films, unimaginative and without social conscious social significance, are clear and interesting and show a firm and workmanlike attention to their own purpose.

With reference to the ‘mainstream documentary elite’ not regarding the makers of LMS films as filmmakers seems to be reinforced by the fact that in Sight and Sound between the years of 1934 and 1936 no mention of the LMS production unit can be found. Moreover, the Southern Railway commissioned three films between 1935 and 1936 and all get a mention in Sight and Sound as they are made by mainstream documentary filmmakers including Marion Grierson and J.B.Holmes. Looking at 6207 a Study in Steel the above observations by Rachael Low may be justified, however looking at Anytown 1936 or Sentinels of Safety 1936 both these films could stand alongside the legendary Night Mail 1936.

David Watkin who worked with John Oliver whilst at British Transport Films provides an explanation to the identity of the LMS railway film director who wore the bowler hat, so derided by Harry Watt.

Oliver of the Topical Press Agency. The first time anyone set eyes on him they were in for a mild surprise, because Mr Oliver always wore a wing collar, a frock coat green with age, and a bowler hat. The sight of this quiet little man standing behind a film camera thus attired would astonish almost anyone and it certainly did me on the day of the opening of the Liverpool Street to Shenfield electrification. It was the only time I ever saw an Akeley in use. The Akeley was a shallow drum shaped object with a crank handle in the middle of it of it, and looked very much like the one of Mrs Beeton’s patent knife-cleaners. This one, with a bowler hat attached to it, flashed past me, sticking out of one of the carriage windows of the first train as it sped away from the platform. There were half a dozen cameras at the event but the next day in rushes Oliver’s material stood far out beyond the rest – it was simply beautiful.

aA photograph of Oliver appears in the LMS magazine September 1936, Oliver is unaccredited but is seen in the foreground with the Akeley much as described by David Watkin.

At this point it is worth taking a detailed look at the films themselves and how the style of filmmaking evolves from the fairly basic 6207 A Study in Steel 1935 or the silent film A Day in Liverpool 1935, to a more entertaining but none the less informative Sentinels of Safety 1936. A Day in Liverpool 1935 this film is silent in the classic tradition with title and inter-cards used for the narrative, the film has been released in 16mm although it is not known whether it was released in 35mm for a theatrical release, this would seem to indicate that the film was intended for the non theatrical circuit. Interesting this film is number 21in a series of films made by the LMS Publicity and Advertising department. This presumably means that there may be other films about other large cities served by the LMS as yet un-catalogued. The film itself takes the audience on a cinematic journey on the interesting sights of Liverpool which audiences of today find a fascinating historic record.

More importantly is the reaction of people to the camera, this is illustrated by a scene were men are unloading Bananas from a ship in the docks to a train using conveying equipment, one man just stares straight at the camera, whilst the activity goes on around him, he for a moment is totally oblivious to the work he should be performing. What is interesting is that this shot was not cut, as it quite unnerving as the man looks at the audience with a blank expression on his face, almost in defiance. This is not the only sequence where this occurs as another man on a bicycle almost falls off whilst trying to look at the camera. These two sequences are of interest as in subsequent LMS or GPO films of the period, this wonderment of the camera by its subject is not seen in either Night Mail 1936 or 6207 Study in Steel. These sequences may have been left in to act as an interest point for the subjects concerned, although it is clear from the content of the film that the films intended audience is for prospective passengers or business to use the port or visit the city as traffic promotion aid, This film captures in a way, the reality of filming people at work as opposed to working men ‘acting’ out the tasks they perform. Therefore, the argument might be made that all documentary film of this genre is acted as opposed to actuality.

6207 Study in Steel 1935 is presented mute of all sounds except for a 1930’s authorative commentary, which is unaccredited but seems to be Neal Arden who did commentaries for a number of LMS films. There is a little music at the end but that is all, the film takes as its subject the building of a locomotive at the LMS workshops at Crewe, at the beginning the commercial message is not lost and the importance of keeping and winning new traffic is again reinforced, for it is the haulage of passengers and freight that drives the need for the provision of new locomotives. In this way the men in the workshops are not working to provide locomotives for the sake of locomotives.

Through sequences of scenes that illustrate the building of the locomotive is gone through with explanatory commentary in laymen’s and with slightly amusing jokes laid over.

The film runs for forty minutes and really suffers from the lack of atmospheric sound of the obviously noisy processes being used to build this locomotive. Despite the good camera work the film fails to capture the atmosphere of what is taking place.

The above is not true of Sentinels of Safety 1936, The film starts as before with no music over the titles but starts up over the commentary this time the commentary is credited to Neal Arden.

Post sync dialogue between the signalman taking duty and the signalman being relived of duty which is both amusing and realistic, the film then describes with diagrams, commentary and live action the working of the signalling system employed on the LMS. In the live action sequences the signalmen in post sync sound describe the bell codes they are using and what they mean this gives added impetus to the film.

The film then takes as an example a LMS passenger express train ‘The Lakes Express’ and how the signalmen and the signalling system deal with this train. Some light relief is introduced to the film by the appearance of a cow that subsequently escapes onto the line, the train is cautioned and the cow is removed from the line by a herdsman and railwayman, then the herdsman admonishes the cow to camera for holding up ‘The Lakes Express’. All these added features make this film come to life, and give a more interesting slant ‘on the other mans job’ above all it makes the film human. It should be noted that Night Mail 1936 was shown to LMS audiences in the 1936 tour this might be one of the factors that account for such a different film from 6207 Study in Steel.

An LMS film that reinforces the economic importance of transport both passenger and goods is Anytown 1936 this film examines and explains the economics of supply and demand and how transport ensures that the system is kept working by the provision of trains for Anytown’s industries and people. The LMS renamed Rochdale station, Anytown and used Rochdale as a the town location, using many exteriors and industrial interiors.

There is some studio work but most of the film is shot on location, this film along with Industrial Britain or Spare Time illustrates the way people lived in this period, the film has a purpose but also concentrates on the people and the messe en scene they live within. Especially strong images are shown of the routine of work, and this time sounds are augmented by ‘machine music’ to emphasise the subservience of working man to machine in the factories and mills, although one doubts, if any political motive was involved.

Another illustration of social history in a factory town is the ‘Wakes Week’ were the impression given by the film is that everyone in the town has gone on holiday, this is done by showing people packing, boarding trains then at there destination enjoying a wide variety of pastimes, however, intercut with these images are images of Anytown completely desolate, street scenes with no people just closed shops and dormant factories. Anytown runs for 20 minutes and is packed with life and makes another interesting contrast to 6207 Study in Steel. However, Rachael Low gives her impression of an another LMS training film Engine Shed 1938:-

Engine Shed for example; is a one reel film of do’s and don’ts for railway staff and wastes no time in sugaring the pill. The upper class, positive, authoritarian voice of the commentator exhorts staff not to waste the company’s money.

All mistakes would waste money, and to show them what not to do the film impolitely pictures the men foolishly making one mistake after another, each with its inevitable consequence ‘not good is it’ he says grimly. Using music only at the beginning and in the final sequence of the speeding train.

Here would seem a return to the old format, this was a training film and therefore some of the more entertainment orientated production values are left out in order to concentrate on the training message.

The final examples from the LMS film unit is part of a series of newsreel type films entitled Events of 1937. Three of these films where made in 1936,1937 and 1938, all of them are made in the vibrant newsreel style common at this period. In particular Events of 1937 contains twelve different discreet segments all featuring different important events that have happened on the LMS, one common theme runs through all of these films and perhaps also explains why the LMS film unit flourished in the way it did, Sir Josiah Stamp later Lord Stamp of Shortlands, Chairman of the LMS. Stamp appears in Events of 1937 in seven out of the twelve stories and in most is the main protagonist, in that he is opening, presenting or being presented with something.

Stamp was an early causality of World War Two, this may account for the LMS film unit closing during the war except for recording certain wartime events on the LMS, and it would also appear that the LMS magazine also disappeared at the outbreak of war.

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.