At the present time there is only one published work that can be said to give the full story of BTF, Moving Images by John Reed. The following is an extract from Paul Smith's thesis that was produced as part of a BA (Hons) Media & Cultural Studies Degree at London College of Printing School of Media...

British Transport Films - The First Decade : 1949-1959
by Paul Smith

British Transport Films was formed in May 1949 with Edgar Anstey as its first Producer in Charge. Anstey was a protégé of John Grierson the principle documentary filmmaker in the 1930s and the founder of the British Documentary Movement.

The nationalisation of Britain's four major privately owned railway companies, along with other transport undertakings including road motor transport and canals, took place in 1948. Two of the major railway companies maintained film units. These units were amalgamated into the new BTF and carried on the work of the previously privately run units. Their purpose was the making of travelogue films that promoted destinations in town, country and seaside resorts throughout the British Isles and promoted rail or associated transport as the best means for people to travel to the destinations represented on screen. Another successful vein was the production of films that represented the nationalised transport workforce and the part they had to play in rebuilding the country. Of more direct concern to staff were the films made to explain complicated operational aspects of the transport undertakings and were used in training schools. The purpose of this work will be to look at the wider questions posed by the films made for the general public's consumption and to document the first decade of British Transport Films from 1950 through to 1959. To achieve this goal it is necessary to make a wider contextualisation of the British Documentary movement of the 1930s. As the founder of British Transport Films, Edgar Anstey was very much an integral part of this movement, lead by John Grierson.

The unit's production arm functioned from 1949 until 1982. The most memorable period of the unit was from 1949 until the mid-1960s. The argument could be made that the unit's fortunes mirror that of the decline in short cinema documentary films and the cinema newsreel. Another avenue of exhibition that still existed in the late '70s was the private showing of films to local societies. This service provided a projectionist who brought with him from London, not only the programme of films, but all the resources required for the screening, and all for ten pounds. This service illustrates the publicity value of the BTF archive that was still exploitable; moreover, Grierson and Anstey’s faith in the national educational values of film and that it was not necessarily just a medium for entertainment.

Chapter One deals with the above, as well as looking at the state of British entertainment cinema in the same period. To further support the above there is a brief social economic contextualisation. The common thread throughout the first two chapters of this work is Edgar Anstey, influences on him and his influence on others at BTF.

Chapter Two starts with a social economic contextualisation of the 1950s. I will examine British Transport Films through its production and distribution structure. Material for this part has been taken from magazine articles written by Anstey, also articles and contemporary interviews with BTF practitioners. This chapter emphasises a shift in attitude by Anstey from the innovative young filmmaker responsible for ‘Housing Problems’, to the mature producer who, as Grierson before him, was responsible to the sponsoring organisation ensuring their message was effectively promoted to the target audiences they most wanted to reach.

Chapter Three concentrates on the remit handed to Anstey by the British Transport Commission, and how Anstey interpreted this. The remit is illustrated by films made by BTF, which in turn reinforces Anstey’s actions.

It is hoped that this work will bring together both published and unpublished work that makes up the recorded history of BTF.

One might argue that research is a solitary pursuit in which the researcher diligently follows up his sources in the quietness of deserted libraries. This might be true for some types of research; however this has not been my experience. Without the assistance of the people whose names that follow I would not have been able to contemplate such a project.

My grateful thanks go firstly to Barry Coward of 'Beulah'; Barry assisted me by providing existing published material, and indicating where to find both former British Transport Films (BTF) practitioners and the wealth of unpublished material that exists pertaining to BTF. As I continued my research Janet Moat, Special Collections Manager at the British Film Institute (BFI), cheerfully facilitated my need for primary material from the BTF and Edgar Anstey Archive. John Legard, former Editor and subsequently Chief Editor with BTF, has brought some aspects of the production files and the workings of the unit to life. He has also provided many interesting photographs. John Legard has provided further information that has been included within this website. John's help with this work has been invaluable.

Whilst an important part of this work is research, an equally important factor is the presentation of this research into a coherent and readable form. For assisting in the above I acknowledge the work done by Anne Grahame and John Legard in their attempts to proof read the final draft for both grammatical and historic accuracy respectively.

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

© Paul Smith - text must not be reproduced in whole or part without permission.