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


The 1930s was a decade of expansion for the film industry, and one of harsh competition from rival modes of transport for the railways. This period proves interesting in the way that the railway industry attempts to meet the challenges of road transport. One of the ways used involved sponsored film. As illustrated in the previous chapter, some independent pre-grouping railway companies notable the Great Western Railway and the London & North Western had used film for publicity purposes, albeit in a sporadic way up to 1935. However, during and after 1935 film was not only used for publicity but also staff training and more importantly staff motivation.

This chapter will examine the position of Britain’s railways throughout the 1930s, the reasons behind the increased use of film in the British, non-fiction and fiction cinemas and the position railway film units held in the cinema hierarchy. An examination will be made of a selection films produced by railway company units and a comparison drawn with contemporary railway related fiction and more general documentary films of the period.

Whilst the recently grouped railways went into the 1930s in a reasonable financial state, competition for what had been a land transport monopoly, was being challenged by both air transport and more importantly by road transport as illustrated by Arthur Elton:-

From 1920, the road-rail war increased in violence because of the growing use of the private car, the motorbus and the motor lorry. The struggle became as fierce, and as damaging to the public, as the inter-railway squabbles of sixty-five years before. Two forms of transport, which should have complemented each other, tried to destroy each other, and private enterprise seemed incapable of organising them for the common good.

One way of dealing with this competition was the grouping of the railway companies in 1923, as explained in the last chapter. It was not until 1937 that the four main railway companies came together to challenge government on the unfair bias towards road transport (in fact all four companies had a forum at which they communicated frequently, ‘The Railway Companies Association’) and came up with the ‘Square Deal’ campaign. This campaign is illustrated by Sir John Elliot who was a senior officer on the Southern Railway:-

In 1937 the railways were again suffering heavily from road competition, particularly on the freight side. Due to the problems of transhipment at the end of the rail journey, we were losing business hand over fist. The Railway Companies Association sat down to consider what had best be done. After many meetings we decided to ask parliament to agree to the removal of all restrictions on rail charges, with certain exceptions for coal and steel. A Bill was drawn up, special emphasis being laid on the fact that no other body paid so large a proportion of local rates; these were levied on every yard of railway throughout the country, most of which went to build and maintain the main roads on which their competitors operated. As it was realised that the Bill would inevitably raise opposition, a campaign was launched to put over to the public how serious the railways’ financial situation was.

The combined railway output of films was just three in 1937, but dramatically increased to ten in 1938 with the LNER & GWR commissioning one film each with the others produced by the LMS. This early restraint may have allowed the ‘square deal’ campaign to get underway. No films dealing directly with the issues of the ‘Square Deal’ campaign were produced. However, poster and banner campaigns were launched countrywide. An explanation for this could be that Richmond Temple, a specialist in Parliamentary affairs, with personal contacts in Fleet Street, did not consider film to be a medium with enough gravatas to influence government or journalistic opinion. Though the cinema was emerging as a mass entertainment medium, albeit under the influence of American film product from Hollywood.

Jeffrey Richards illustrates the popularity of the cinema in the early part of the decade:-

Cinema going was indisputably the most popular form of entertainment in Britain in the 1930s. When A.J.P.Taylor describes it as ‘the essential social habit of the age,’ he is merely echoing the verdict of a score of contemporary commentators and authorities. The Commission on Educational and Cultural Films declared in 1932; ‘The cinema has become the staple entertainment of the average family’, it quoted a statement made to a League of Nations committee that ‘only the Bible and the Koran have an indisputably larger circulation than that of the latest film from Los Angeles’

Those participating in the ‘Square Deal Campaign’ may have seen film as a narrative form fit for entertainment purposes only. Moreover, film may have been seen as a pastime or form of entertainment for the working classes, although this view was quickly becoming dated as will be illustrated later.

The British cinema and for that matter other European cinemas were dominated by films both good and bad from Hollywood. However, this did not mean that a British film industry did not exist; encouraged by the Cinematograph act of 1927 which was introduced to ensure that the British entertainment film industry did not collapse. The means of this deliverance was by a quota of British films imposed on exhibitors and renters; this quota was designed to ensure that a proportion of British films were exhibited as well as the popular American product. One way to comply with the act was to make cheap second features usually of an hours length known as ‘Quota Quickies’, two railway related films will be examined later as an example of how railway companies were able to indirectly draw the attention of cinema audiences to there services without the need to make there own advertising films. This form of ‘advertising’ did have its drawbacks as will also be illustrated later

Entertainment films were not the only form of the film medium; the non-theatrical circuit’s of film societies, clubs and schools was consolidating throughout the 1930s.

The non theatrical circuit was led by John Grierson’s Empire Marketing Board and later the G.P.O. film units, these units went on to spawn other units including Realist and Strand films, as well as the establishment of industrial film units including Shell and the Gas & Coke council. All these units made memorable films. A link with post -war railway film making exists here through Edgar Anstey, who joined Grierson in 1931. He learns his craft with Grierson, Anstey later set out on his own, and joined an admiralty expedition to Labrador where he made ‘Uncharted Waters’ and ‘Eskimo Village’ in 1932. In 1934 he was offered the position of heading up the Shell film unit, which he set up and subsequently left after a year. After serving with the American newsreel ‘March of Time’ and he then returned to work on documentary and propergander films during the war. Anstey after the war is invited to form British Transport Films in 1949.

Both Shell Oil and the London Midland & Scottish railway decided to establish sponsored film units at about the same time. Shell sought advice from Grierson which resulted in the appointment of Anstey as first producer and the L.M.S. engaged the services of the Topical Press Agency. By these two different approaches to the production of sponsored film. The argument could be made that one company’s films would be held up as masterpieces the others as merely workmanlike and destined to near obscurity.

One of the two examples of British entertainment film, specifically the ‘quota quickie’ that used the railway as part of the main plot was. ‘The Flying Scotsman’ (B.I.P. 1930) Directed by Castleton Knight, might be held up as typical ‘quota quickie’ its running time is just over an hour and half the film is silent of dialogue although there is a soundtrack containing music of which the central theme is repeated a number of times through the first half of the film. The film uses as its central device the Flying Scotsman locomotive, class A3 pacific locomotive designed by Sir Nigel Gresely for the London North Eastern Railway, at the time ‘The Flying Scotsman’ train was the fastest way to get from London to Edinburgh.

The main premise of the film is that one of the drivers of the flying Scotsman on his penultimate day of service with company, reports his fireman for being drunk on duty, he is then discharged. His former fireman then intends to seek revenge on the driver, when he makes his final run on the train. A replacement fireman is rostered for the job, the driver informs the new fireman of the honour that has been bestowed on him, but the fireman takes it all in a matter of fact way. The story starts to intertwine, in that the new fireman develops a romance with the driver’s daughter the night before. The day of the drivers final run the train is boarded by the discharged fireman bent on revenge, also the driver’s daughter who hears of his intentions. As if this was not enough the driver discovers what he thinks to be an elicit love affair going on between the his fireman and daughter. The tension mounts as the journey continues at speed as first the driver knocks out the fireman in a fit of rage, then the former fireman after climbing over coach roofs seeks his revenge on the driver, the daughter witness these events, and herself is on the footplate. However, the train is separated from the engine by the former fireman (something that Sir Nigel Gresley disapproved of as the separation would have caused the automatic vacuum brake to be applied and both parts of the train would have come to a stand). The locomotive rushes forward with the train running under its own momentum behind it, the locomotive is brought to a stand, but the coaches carry on rolling to an inevitable crash with the locomotive, but fortunately the daughter switches the points just in time to avert a collision.

The Flying Scotsman is a good action melodramatic fiction film with central stock characters including villain, hero, love interest but also the famous steam locomotive Flying Scotsman, as illustrated by the story description this film does little to promote the notion of safety, this is reinforced by the opening card which exhorts that the events shown on the film could not happen on the London North Eastern Railway, In a way it promotes the vulnerability of the machine ‘Flying Scotsman’ to the extreme emotions of the human being this again might be at odds with the notion of modernity and the supremacy of the machine over man.

Also the notion of women saving others from destruction is not new, the first example of the genre of women saving others in the railway context goes back to the Hazards of Helen series of 1915.

On a practical level John Huntley gives an indication as to the cost of this production from the point of view of provision of facilities by the LNER to the British International Pictures:-

Castleton Knight first managed to obtain the exclusive use for six weeks of Gresley Pacific No 4472 Flying Scotsman; then he got running powers on ten Sunday mornings from Kings Cross to Edinburgh.

The cost of the above facilities would have been prohibitive for a film company on a budget, one can only assume that the LNER where a willing party to the production of this film on the premise that all publicity is good publicity.

The second example of the quota quickie involving railways is Bernard Vorhaus’s The Last Journey made by Twickenham Studios in 1936. In this case the drivers mind becomes unbalanced and the prospect of a crash occurs again.

The story is based on individual lives, of two small time criminals trying to escape from the police and a undercover detective pursuing them, a brilliant brain surgeon who is on the train on his way to perform an important emergency operation, a newly married couple were the husband is planning to extract money from his new wife, with various humorous supporting cameos. They all come together on the express train to Mulchester. This train is in the charge of driver Bob Holt, who is making his last journey after forty years on the footplate. However, he desperately does not want to retire but his impending retirement is brought home to him when he receives a letter from the railway company informing him that he will have to retire. To add fuel to the furnace an unfounded suspicion of an intrigue between his young wife and his fireman, Charles Disher, causes Holt’s mind to become temporarily unbalanced.

He decides to take revenge by driving the train to destruction. He ignores all signals, passes all calling stations and, taunting Disher with his intrigue, forces him, at the point of a revolver, to keep firing. The fireman gets free and is able to get into the train where the cry for a doctor is heard by the brain specialist He answers the call and risks his life to save the train load of terrified passengers. By picking a perilous path to the footplate, and by means of a rapid psychoanalysis, he brings Holt to reason and the train to a stop only a few inches from the buffers at ‘Mulchester’.

The difference between Last Journey and Flying Scotsman is that Last Journey has a number of sub-plots taking place which are all played out on the train and become as one, and the passengers realise that there collective end may soon be coming. These sub-plots and other aspects of the film elevates the film over the earlier Flying Scotsman. However, the central premise of both films is a train out of control with the inevitability of death but also the thrill of rescue from death.

The Great Western Railway’s reputation as a safe way to travel does not come out to well. Out of the four railway companies the Great Western was the most publicity conscious and promoted itself at every occasion in the print media. An article in the Great Western Magazine of December 1935 makes this awkward point that any action seen in the Last Journey could not happen upon the Great Western Railway:-

Making ‘The Last Journey’ on the Great Western Railway. Twickenham Film Studios desire to express their grateful thanks to the Great Western Railway Company for the facilities, which they have courteously extended to them in connection with the filming of ’The Last Journey’.

Apart from the interest which the portrayal of a great railway system on the screen must arouse, it is, perhaps, amusing to reflect that, actually, the Great Western would be the very last railway on which events pictured in the film could actually happen, as it has become a recognised truism with the travelling public that the Great Western Railway is not only the fastest and most comfortable, but also the safest railway system in the British Empire.

Filmgoers will read this tribute as the foreword to a thrilling railway film, which is being released shortly, and they can sit back in their seats with an assurance of sixty minutes’ entertainment, packed full of excitement’.

Again like the LNER earlier who also had an opening card at the beginning of Flying Scotsman in the same vein as the above.

The Great Western Railway like the LNER must have considered that this might be a good way to put their railway system before the public in the cinema.

Both production companies were given very generous production facilities respectively by the London North Eastern Railway and the Great Western Railway. From a publicity point of view both films served to illustrate the vulnerability of the railway system to either men with revenge in mind or drivers who have gone temporarily insane, in both instances the railway’s passengers were exposed to potential harm. This message seems to be at odds with the message given out by railway companies that travel by train was and is safe. Is this a case of publicity at all costs? Both films were made on railways that did not have there own film units, although the Great Western Railway did commission Romance of a Railway in 1935, a year before The Last Journey was released.

Three of the four railway companies provided facilities to commercial entertainment film units with the Southern Railway played host to Gainsborough Pictures in 1937 for Oh Mr Porter again with the generous provision of facilities.

The London Midland and Scottish went in another direction in that it facilitated the making of Night Mail produced by John Grierson’s GPO film unit, much has been written about this film, however it is worth noting that where as in the entertainment films mentioned above the railway is a device for the surreal story lines of a fiction film, in Night Mail the railway and its staff are the central subjects. Night Mail was made in 1936 at this time the LMS’s own film organisation had made over five films of its own in the same year; this perhaps illustrates the LMS ‘intelligent’ use of film to promote itself, rather than be exploited by the entertainment film industry.

The Second World War changed everything; documentary filmmakers used their talents to make propergander films to assist in the war effort. The entertainment cinema continued to make escapist cinema in this case escape from the realities of war, which like the depression before the war where only to real to the people living in the cities targeted by the blitz. Other films showed heroic Britons puling through in terrible circumstances. The LMS stopped production for the duration of the war, only to be replaced in 1941 by the Southern Railway Film Unit, which then covered the war effort as seen by the Southern Railway.

The period from the end of the Second World War till nationalisation on January 1st 1948 saw the LMS renew its links with sponsored films. The Southern Railway continued through the war and onto nationalisation. The Great Western did nothing of significance, however, the London and North Eastern Railway starts to take an interest in at first establishing its own unit, but then goes onto commission a number of films for both public and staff audiences.

The catalyst for this significant change to British industry was that the Labour party achieved an outstanding election result in the 1945 general election with a majority of 146. There was the euphoria of victory and then the harsh reality that accompanied office:-

The new government entered office on an optimistic note. ‘There was exhilaration among us wrote Dalton. We felt exalted, dedicated…It was as if they were walking with destiny almost immediately, however, they were faced with the problem of the country’s desperate economic situation.

Despite the economic problems of the country, the labour government was extremely busy in bringing its manifesto promises onto the statute book. These included nationalisation of all the major heavy industries including coal mining and Britain’s private railways were to be a principle component in a national transport corporation, which included road transport passenger and freight, hotels, and a variety of sea services.

Perhaps the most disappointing non use of film was by the London Passenger Transport Board which was formed in 1931 from the myriad of private transport interests in London, under its remit came the Underground Railway companies, busses and trams. Lord Ashfield who headed this organisation had set aside four thousand pounds to make a major film about London Transport. This project never came to fruition; moreover London Transport did not start making films until 1948, when they became part of the British Transport Commission at nationalisation.

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.