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

The London & North Eastern Railway

The London and North Eastern Railway the second largest of the four grouped railway companies did use silent film in 1925 to record the centenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. It was not until 1938 with Absolute Block Signalling a staff instructional film on how to use the signalling system, that it was to use film again. The LNER did not have a film unit of its own, preferring to contract the work to Verity Films in association with the Film Producers Guild. The first of this series was made in 1946 Secure Loading, an instructional film that deals with the secure loading of both railway wagons and road motor vehicles, with the emphasis on the loss to the company of not securing a load properly. This was joined by three other instructional films all made in 1946 by the same production company. These training films follow the familiar format of music over credits, with commentary over silent action although sound effects are used.

One of this series A Cautionary Tale 1946. This film is designed as a safety film aimed at employees working on or about the line. Even today this is an area where most accidents and fatalities occur. This film again uses the devices of Music over full credits and commentator over mute action, with the exception of a deliberately crude siluette animation named ‘Damphool’, this character the commentator mockingly describes as having nine lives, therefore the audience see nine occasions where Damphool is subject to some quite horrible and common instances to harm, that in some cases must have made the audience cringe. This is the idea of the film if a railway employee had been subject to one instance of harm survived by Damphool then a serious injury or death would of occurred. The commentary is in the vein that members of the audience wouldn’t be as foolish as to put themselves in a position of danger as the animated Damphool does, would they. In the end Damphool is eventually killed and goes off in angel wings to heaven. It is difficult to say whether the audience would have found this film patronising or funny.

The LNER also made two further films for the general public these being Locomotive No. 1 made in 1947, and is described as: -Reminiscences of an engine driver and a journey through England and Scotland’. This was on the East Coast Mainline via York. The other Making History (no reliable release date). The subject here was of schoolchildren visiting museums and other places of interest.

George Dow who was press officer of the LNER chaired a committee which produced a report in September 1946, which all but one of their number were supportive of establishing a film unit, which if it had come to fruition would have employed fifteen staff.

The committee consisted of six members, these members represented the engineering, operations, advertising and general managers functions within the L.N.E.R. the committees remit was in the form of a letter from the Chief General Manager written on the 7th August 1945 and was addressed only to the heads of the companies engineering functions, although a week later this letter was later copied to the Advertising Manager and Divisional General Manager (Southern Area). The letter is reproduced here, as it gives an indication of the purpose of a L.N.E.R. film unit if it had been established.

We have, in the past, made use of cine photography for various purposes, but not on what I would call properly organised lines, and I have come to the conclusion that an essential part of our equipment should be a thoroughly up-to-date film unit. An examination of the methods of the other companies has impressed me with the value and utility of organised film work, both in the production of films and exhibition. The films should, I think, be of three general types, i.e.

  1. Travel and Interest – for display to the public for canvassing purposes.
  2. Instructional – for display primarily to the staff in technical and non theatrical departments

Research and Experiment

I do not propose, at this stage, to go into, in detail, the question of how the film unit should be organised and used, but I think the best plan would be, in the first place, for us to appoint a small committee to draw up a report and recommendations on such points as:

  1. Particulars of the equipment required, with estimated cost.
  2. Particulars of staff required.
  3. Organisation.

If you agree, perhaps you will kindly nominate somebody to represent your department, and I will ask Mr. Dow, of my office, to take the initiative in calling the committee together.

An explanation as to why the above letter was sent initially to the heads of the engineering functions before being more widely circulated later, I that in 1938 a committee had been set up to examine the same question. On this occasion representatives on the committee were drawn from goods, passenger, advertising, superintendents and locomotive running superintendents departments, the report was entitled The production and exhibition of film for the education of the staff and for display to the public Therefore, the engineering departments needed to take view as they had not been previously consulted in 1938. The main difference between the 1946 report and the 1938 report seems to centre on the issue of in house production. The 1938 report advocates that production should be contracted out to specialist film production companies, this is how the LMS unit operated by using the Topical Press Agency, however, in the intervening period the Southern Railway had set up its own production and exhibition unit. The 1946 committee were able now to make a comparison between the two systems were as the 1938 committee could only look in terms of railway company film units to the LMS, although the G.P.O. unit would have been a fine example of in house production and exhibition.

To return to the findings of the 1946 committee, all where in agreement with the establishment of a L.N.E.R. film that would be able to produce and exhibit its own films. With the exception of Mr A.R.Wilson of the Divisional General Managers (Southern Area) office, who in his own minority report appended to the main report, advocated the 1938 committees recommendations of film production being bought in, with the railway company providing exhibition staff and equipment only.

The types of films that the unit would have produced are listed in the report.

The committee envisages that the types of films that could be made by the film unit may be classified as follows;

Prestige and Revenue, Encouragement Films.
In this category would be included travel and interest films; films dealing with the achievements of the L.N.E.R. and its predecessors; present day activities and developments on the L.N.E.R; services and facilities offered by the L.N.E.R; and scenic attractions of the territory served by the L.N.E.R.

Staff Instructional Films.
These would include films demonstrating the correct performance of duties and of various methods of work, embodying diagrams where required; and the introduction of new methods of performing work. In this category also would come films designed to broaden knowledge of the L.N.E.R and to encourage staff interest in its various activities; and films dealing with staff suggestions.

Research and Record Films.
Films of this kind would include those dealing with motion, either slow or high-speed, the latter calling for the provision of ultra-highspeed cameras; some of the films would record phenomena too quick for the eye to see, whilst others would be confined to the observation of behaviour of relatively slow-moving objects. Under the heading of record would be included films covering events which, filmed primarily for technical purposes, might later be of value for inclusion in films made under the former two headings; foe example, a film of some locomotive test might eventually provide a valuable sequence in a prestige film dealing with L.N.E.R locomotive development and thus avoid re-filming.

When the programme for the annual production of the film unit is being planned adequate margin should be left for the filming of events or developments of an urgent or unforeseeable character.

The most interesting aspect of the above is the third part of the remit for the unit, with the use of film as a research tool; this may have been at the request of the engineering departments to which this branch of filmmaking would have been very useful. So far in the railway context film had only been used for staff instruction and travel promotion. Moreover, the committee seem to display a rare sense of history, in that films were to be made of the achievements of the L.N.E.R’s predecessors.

From the 1946 report it would appear that the company was willing to investigate the purchase of expensive production and exhibition equipment at an estimated cost of £17,600 which was far in excess of equipment costs of both the Southern and LMS railway’s. An acknowledgement is made that the Advertising Manager already had in his possession four 16mm projectors; these were presumable bought as a recommendation of the 1938 committee.

The report breaks down the cost of equipment:-

£1,950 - Production Equipment
Projection Equipment:-
£14,400 - 4 Fully equipped cinema vans with attendant generator vans, and projection apparatus:
£600 - Theatre equipment
£500 - 2 sets of portable equipment:
£150 - Equipment Vans
Total: £ 17,600

This is quite a high level of expenditure considering the railways revenues had been hit by the depression before the war.

Moreover, the staff to be employed to make and exhibit films was to total fifteen with a salary cost of £ 7,225 this is again detailed by the report:-

Films Officer - £1,000
Asst to Films Officer - £800
Director - £750
Asst Director - £600
Scriptwriter - £600
2 Cameramen - £500 each
Storekeeper/Asst cameraman - £350
4 Operator-electricians - £350 each
Clerk/Librarian - £325
2 Shorthand typists - £200 each

Furthermore, the appointment of staff to the above posts would be from mostly within the company, although the report does acknowledge the requirement to appoint from outside the company.

Had this proposal been enacted the L.N.E.R. would have had a film unit that would have outmatched both the Southern and LMS units in equipment and personnel. The proposals of the majority of the 1946 committee were not taken up and instead, it would appear a revision to the principles outlined by the 1938 committee as advocated by the one dissenting member of the 1946 committee A.R.Wilson were adopted instead as the L.N.E.R. commissioned Verity Films to make a series of films, which was discussed earlier. Had the L.N.E.R. embarked on this project, then the leadership or the entire notion of British Transport Films which was formed in 1949, might have been different with a Films Officer already in place who would have had a unit working together for at least two years, this person might well have taken control of both the Southern and LMS units and headed up the new amalgamated unit.

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.