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

The Southern Railway Film Unit

The Southern Railway film unit appears to have been set up in 1940 with its first film being released in 1941, Waterloo Station arches gutted by fire 10th May 1941. The Southern Railway started up film production as the LMS finished for the duration of the war with what appears to be there last film Transportation of National Gallery Paintings to Blaenau Ffestiniog released in 1941. Both films are filmic depiction of the events in there titles as opposed to the structured documentary film. Also there is no connection between the two units, no transfer of staff from the LMS as it closes to the Southern as it opens.

The Southern unit differs from the LMS in that it is a self-contained film unit with Basil Sangster as unit manager, editor and cameraman and Bobby Arlen as scriptwriter. The Southern like the LMS did have a cinema coach and these where under the direction of Tom Heritage who was the projectionist. From 1947 David Watkin joined the unit and was credited in Peep Behind the Scenes 1946 as cine operator learner.

Before the Southern Railway Film Unit was established the Southern Railway had commissioned three films from Strand Films these being:-

Beside the Sea - Directed by Marion Grierson, 1935
Southern Seaside - Directed by Marion Grierson, 1935
The Way to the Sea - Directed by J.B.Holmes, 1936

Unlike the later LMS films these three films all gained a review in the British Film Institute’s publication Sight & Sound. This would indicate that sponsored film when made by members of the British documentary group was worthy of comment were as sponsored film made by purely commercial interests did not warrant critical examination, it is something of a shame that this sort of division existed as both the LMS and the GPO units were both promoting there sponsors products. Furthermore it is interesting to note that the Southern Railway Magazine the staff magazine for employees of the Southern Railway makes no mention of the above films within its pages.

The first reference to film made by the Southern Railway Magazine, is the appointment of Mr J.Masterton from April 1st 1936 as Head of the Film and Photographic Department, which was part of the Southern Railway’s Advertising department. Masterton had formally been Outdoor Carriage and Wagon Assistant to the Chief Mechanical Engineer. No mention is made to his credentials within film or photography. As part of the above announcement the S.R.Magazine made this justification of the appointment:-

Photographs and films have always been part of the work of the advertising department; but the rapid growth and expansion of this particular branch in recent years has lead to the necessity for an entirely new section being formed.

Nowadays the cinematograph also is being increasingly used as a means of propaganda, and the railway companies, like most other large business organisations are making more and more use of it for publicity purposes, staff instruction and research.

However, despite Mastertons appointment nothing happened until after the outbreak of World War Two! In the S.R. Magazine of Sept-Oct 1940 (the magazine had gone bi-monthly due to paper rationing) mention is made of the cinema coach which seated 56 people and would also be used for home guard training as well. More importantly there is no mention of the setting up of the Southern film unit, this may be attributed to wartime information restrictions.

A lecture given to the Southern Railway Lecture and Debating Society by Herr M. Muller-Hillbrand Chief of the German State Railway Film Service, on November 22nd 1937. The Deputy Chairman attended this lecture entitled ‘Railway Films’ along with other senior officers of the railway; at this lecture films were shown. Again nothing directly was started by way of the formation of the S.R. unit, which were still some years away.

The Southern Railway film unit under Basil Sangster made a total of nineteen films from 1941 till 1948 varying in subject matter from fuel economy in Black Diamonds 1946 to a film about the Southern Railways hotel service called Services Rendered 1948, this appears to be the last film made by the unit for the Southern Railway.

David Watkin talks of one of the personalities of this small but effective unit, Bobby Arlen as Watkin describes him as ‘a gay script writer’.

Our little unit came under the wing of the Public Relations and Advertising Department upstairs at the station offices, whence everybody would crowd into the small theatre below the arches whenever there was a first run through of one of Bobby’s commentaries. These were one-off affairs because afterwards drastic changes had to be made before final recording could take place. For example in a travel film about the river Thames, over a shot of two youths in swimming trunks lying on the river bank’…Runnymede, the birthplace of English liberty, where the English still take liberties with each other- especially at weekends.’ The only other samples I can now call to mind were in a catering film called ‘Services Rendered’ where a young commi-chef putting some basins into an oven is asked ‘What’s in your pudding, little boy? (That actually survived in the finished film), and also of the Charing Cross Hotel, which had its own carpenter’s shop where we were told ‘. Most of the time is spent replacing springs in beds from the bridal suites.’ that one did get changed, to something about mirrors broken over the heads of erring husbands. He certainly seemed to have something of a preoccupation with sex.

What also made this unit so remarkable was that the Southern Railway was in the forefront of the war effort the entry point for an invading army. The railway itself was a key part of the supply chain of both men and materials, yet the Southern Railway film unit continued to help bolster the moral of staff on a besieged railway. As to be expected a majority of these films were war related. One of these is Ladies Only 1943 . This film differs from the others as Hugh Farrar writes the script with photography and editing by Hal Morley, also a Margaret Simpson is the commentator.

The film looks at the differences to women’s roles between 1938 and 1941the opening scenes deal with the history of women kind utilising various famous role models as diverse as Joan of Arch to Emily Panchurst, the film then goes onto look at the role of women in 1938 in the domestic and office environment, after this short sequence the remainder of the film illustrates in detail the jobs being done by women in various jobs normally done by men on the Southern Railway. This is a well-polished product with an upbeat dance music score.

The call for restraint is still apparent after the war in Black Diamonds 1946 which is a staff training film that deals with the still then important question of coal consumption, some of the footage for this film comes from the earlier wartime fuel economy film The Burning Question 1943. At the time coal was in short supply and being rationed. Like other railway companies and other industries in general the Southern still relied on steam locomotives or engines to power machinery some of which still dated back to the nineteenth century; therefore conservation of coal supplies was vital.

The film opens with music over credits, although the credits do not mention any of the members of the production unit as was the practice for internal company training films. The film then goes into the familiar ‘illustrated lecture’ mode of address. First shots of are miners emerging from a coal mine, with the commentator exhorting the virtues and national importance of the work these men do. The next scene shows a fire lighter, the commentary again extols the virtues of his job and the part he can and other employees of the Southern Railway can make to the drive to conserve coal. At this point one of Bobby Arlens double entendres makes an appearance when the commentator says ‘ That ‘this method of lighting a fire is very much easier then rubbing two boy scouts together in our camping days’.

In the next sequence the audience is introduced to Wally and Len who are the Driver and Fireman respectively. Again the virtues of their professionalism is emphasised and are expressed as ‘heroes’ later in the film.

The go through their joint task’s in preparing a Southern Railway Merchant Navy class locomotive for traffic. The locomotive is seen reversing onto its train at Waterloo, with the engine working in an economical manner, which is the point of the film. Later the commentator points out a locomotive at Waterloo station that is not being driven economically to ensure the students watching the film are in no doubt as to which method they should adopt.

The film looks also how the motormen of electric trains can help in the fuel conservation drive. Black Diamonds is not as polished as some of the LMS films or the films made for the London & North Eastern Railway by Verity Films in 1946 and lack the pace of the wartime Southern production The Burning Question.

The lasting legacy of the Southern Railway film unit was the work it undertook during the Second World War, out of the two railway sponsored film units in operation the Southern was the only unit to continue to make documentary and training films for the general public and the employees of the Southern Railway throughout the 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.