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

The Run-Up To Nationalisation

What was the country expecting for the £941 Million pounds that had been paid to the shareholders of the former railway companies? It would appear they did not receive very much as Hugh Dalton Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking in the House of Commons, December 1946 makes this point in less optimistic tones:

This railway system of ours is a very poor bag of assets. The permanent way is badly worn. The rolling stock is in a state of great dilapidation. The railways are a disgrace to the country. The railway stations and their equipment are a disgrace to the country.

The reality of the situation was that after the ravages of the war the British railway system was worn out. Moreover, due to the tactics of the four main line railway companies the shareholders got a very much better price for their shares. This point is best illustrated by Sir John Elliot the last General Manager of the Southern Railway:-

Nationalisation ‘Posed two major problems for the Railway Companies association. First, could privately owned railways survive against fierce competition from road transport? Second, it was apparent to us all that we could not go back to our pre war organisation without major changes. The LNER, as its Chairman, Sir Ronald Matthews, made clear, would be financially unable to continue to operate on its own, and in the interests of its shareholders could not oppose a takeover by the state. Between the wars its finances had been unhinged by the collapse of the coal and steel industries whose traffic had been the backbone of its revenue. The outlook for the LMS, though not desperate, was poor for he same reasons. Moreover, since the death of Lord Stamp during the war, the lack of strong leadership at Board level at Euston was keenly felt, and as it was the biggest of the four companies, it was a problem on its own account.

The Great Western and the Southern, because of their passenger business, might have lived for a few years on their own, but sooner or later they would have been overtaken by air and road competition. Unification of some sort was therefore inevitable.

In the face of this situation, the Railway Companies Association sat down to consider what best to do, and I was present at most of their meetings. It was decided, rightly in my opinion, to launch a public campaign against nationalisation, the real objective of which was to obtain the best compensation for the companies’ shareholders who, it was felt, would be at risk if the Boards agreed to nationalisation without a struggle. We put up a successful fight for fair compensation, but with the passing of the Transport Act of 1947, with a vesting date of 1January 1948, the noose was round our necks.

The LMS after the war did start commissioning films again although from a different supplier Gaumont British Instructional. A reason for the change of supplier might have been as part of the publicity campaign mentioned above. Charles Potter explains the post war set up:-

Immediately after the war, the LMS commissioned Gaumont British Instructional to make six 16 mm sound Kodachrome films, the subject being the railway’s contribution to the like of the nation: example of these are ‘Wheels behind the Walls’ (building) and ‘Animal, mineral, vegetable’ (farming).

About thirty 16 mm sound projectors were bought, and strategically placed at various points on the LMS for screenings to non-theatrical audiences such as Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, and Women’s organisations.

The Gaumant British Instructional films were made in 1947. Topical Press also went on to make another four films for the LMS including its very last before nationalisation Main Line Diesel in 1947.

The Gaumont British films are of interest in that they are very much less subtle than the films made between the wars. The format is again the ‘illustrated lecture’ with a newsreel style commentary supplied by Frank Duncan, the music too is derived from newsreels of the period presumably from the newsreel sister company. The films are based on the usual economics lecture as already illustrated in Anytown and a direct comparison can be made with Anytown in the 1947 version entitled Animal Mineral and Vegetable. This film again illustrates the importance of manufacturing and the part that transport plays in assisting the process of manufacturing is vital. Once again the workers of the industrial north are seen taking to the trains for the annual ‘wakes week’ again Blackpool is illustrated as the ideal destination, although the inevitability of returning to work is not emphasised to any degree.

What is emphasised through this film and the other five is the importance of the LMS in providing railway infrastructure and services that keep industry in business.

This series of films being shot in colour further illustrate the run down state of the railway infrastructure after the Second World War, everything about the railway looks shabby and worn out. However, this imagery does not dilute the message of the films, which appears to be what would you do without the LMS.

Whilst these films acknowledge the staff who work upon the LMS, this series does not appear to be aimed at the staff as the pre war Topical Press films where. This might explain why this set of films did not benefit from the special train and exhibition at traffic centres around the LMS system. Instead thirty projectors where purchased with the emphasis shifted to general non-theatrical exhibition as favoured by Grierson prior to the war.

These films further illustrate that the LMS knew the value of film as a propaganda and promotional tool, and the six Gaumont British Instructional films do illustrate how the LMS thought it was a vital component in the country’s transport infrastructure, the purpose of which may have been obtain better levels of compensation for its shareholders as illustrated by Sir John Elliot.

The Southern Railway Film unit made five films in this period none of which overtly support the fight for compensation, but instead illustrate the work of the hotels and refreshments departments in ‘Services Rendered’ or the luxury of travel on the Golden Arrow and Signal Success, the latter two shot in colour.

Pictures survive of Basil Sangster, Bobby Arlen, David Watkin with John Shearman and Ronald Craigen working on Transport 1949 at Waterloo the first film commissioned by British Transport Films. David Watkin provides an explanation to what happened to the other members of the unit at establishment of British Transport Films in 1949.

The day finally came when we left the arches below Waterloo station forever and became absorbed into the new organisation (BTF). What for me was a springboard into the future was sadly not so regarded by any of the others to whom it was an unwelcome intrusion into their world. They refused to oblige the union (ACT) by joining its ranks, displaying at the same time an admirable independence and an astonishing lack of common sense. In accordance with the Act of Parliament (Transport 1947) they neither lost nor were obliged to change their jobs; the jobs simply became backwaters within the organisation.

However, Charles Potter makes this rather more optimistic observation regarding the end of the Southern Film unit:-

At the same time, the members of the Southern Railway Film Unit joined the BTC Film Section. Unlike the LMS unit, which had ceased making films internally, the Southern Railway unit was in full flight of production, and had for a number of years been using films more or less in the same manner as my own company. The SR personnel joined the Commission, making a very big contribution to the success of the BTC film unit’.

Credits for early British Transport Films do not credit either Basil Sangster or Robbie Arlen; Basil Sangster was put in charge of the stills department at BTF , therefore David Watkin’s version of events is possibly the most accurate.

The Great Western made no films at all in the post war period, preferring to manipulate the print media, which that company was adept at doing.

London Transport commissioned Academy Picture Corporation to make Seven More Stations 1948 and some of the early Cine-Gazette series before British Transport Films took over the production of this series.

Of the four mainline railway companies and London Transport only the London Midland & Scottish and Southern railways embraced the medium of film with any enthusiasm in the mid thirties and again after the war. The Southern Railway took up were the LMS left off at the beginning of the war and continued production throughout the war that illustrated how the staff of the Southern Railway served the war effort. The Southern unit then continued till nationalisation. These two units have left a legacy of film that illustrated the way people lived and worked in this interesting period. Although the work of these two units is not revered as the work of Grierson’s British documentary movement, the argument could be put forward that both the General Post Office, London Midland & Scottish and Southern Railway’s were sponsors, it is just that Grierson and his protégés felt as Rachael Low has explained considered they were an elite. Yet when films of both units are considered together they compliment each other. The subject of exhibition should not be ignored either. The LMS having made a number of films then with a great deal of effort exhibited them to staff and others throughout its system. The Southern also used cinema coaches to exhibit its films; these coaches also served a dual purpose as Home Guard classrooms.

Where as the Great Western Railway made a feature film and then failed to do anything with it. However, it was quite happy to allow a major part of its resources to be used by commercial entertainment filmmakers, who then use those resources to make a film that does not show the Great Western in a good light. This fate also befell the London North Eastern Railway. But the LNER did manage to commission a couple of films for a public audience as well as three good training films and may well have ventured into film production itself.

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.