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

Chapter Two - Establishment of British Transport Films.

The principle purpose of this chapter is to start to explore British Transport Films in the 1950s. A period, some might argue, that was the best period for BTF and the type of sponsored film the unit produced. Again, the social and political context is explored as a way of contextualising the unit and its work. Furthermore, the closure of the Crown Film Unit will be considered and whether there were any ramifications for BTF. After this the principle subject matter for the dissertation will be considered, the formation of British Transport Films. Here will be examined the unit's beginnings, policy, structure and the way it was operated by Edgar Anstey. Much of the material used in this chapter will be the thoughts of Anstey himself taken from the Edgar Anstey collection lodged at the BFI (some of it unpublished) and other parts from articles written in the film trade press regarding the activities of the unit and its practitioners.

The Labour party achieved an outstanding election result in the 1945 general election with a majority of 146. Alan Sked and Chris Cook make this observation regarding the euphoria of victory and the harsh reality that accompanied office:-

The argument can be put forward that the new Labour government were not well organised enough to deal with the ever-worsening crises. As the economic situation continued to deteriorate until partial economic collapse in 1947, Stafford Cripps was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1947 to retrieve the worsening situation. This he does with the term ‘Austerity’, becoming the term that best reflects the post war period to the 1950s. Cripps makes this socialist plea at the time:-

Add to this the plea that the hardship already endured by the people of Britain from the war and this, coupled with the continuation of rationing, could make an argument that the benefits of victory were hard to locate.

Despite the economic problems of the country, the Labour government was extremely busy in bringing its manifesto promises onto the statute book. This included nationalisation, of which Britain's private railways were to be a principle component in a national transport corporation. The perception of this central plank of government policy does not appear to have been perceived as a success in the early years of the nationalisation project as Sked and Cook illustrate:-

This nationalisation signified no new beginning for Labour. No transformation of its relationship with capital occurred in practice; all that happened was that the state bought out the former owners and allowed the former management to remain. Labour was accorded no greater say in industrial decision making.

The argument could be put forward that the government had not looked at the detail of introducing a publicly owned industry, which included workers in industrial decision-making that affected their industry, or perhaps they did not trust them? Much as the middle classes did in the 1930s. Whatever the reason, this omission paved the way for industrial unrest for decades to come.

It was not until 1951 that Churchill and the Conservative Party would be re-elected. Once re-elected, they held onto power until 1964. At the time of the 1951 election rationing was still in place, but the trade gap was narrowing. This in turn brought prosperity to Britain with food rationing coming to an end in 1954. From a social and class standpoint both the previous Labour and subsequent Conservative administration were both instrumental in not re-imposing the class system that existed before the war as is illustrated here:-

This partially-reformed society would, over the next two decades would become more affluent; with this would come more leisure time to pursue travel either at home or abroad. As will be illustrated later BTF was formed whilst the Labour administration was in power in a period of austerity and would later be at the forefront in representing the new Elizabethan age in a recovering and vibrant Britain under the Conservatives.

At this point it might be of interest to locate the British documentary movement at this period in time. The Crown Film Unit was formed from the G.P.O. film unit in 1939, which is mentioned in chapter one. The Crown unit is acknowledged as having made many outstanding films during the war. However, following the war, the unit seemed to be losing its impetus through government indifference. John Grierson, in a report published on January 5th 1946, makes this point in his opening remarks:-

Here Grierson is making a case for a more disciplined approach to government film making, which never materialised as the Crown Film Unit closed 1952 under the Conservative administration, although it should be noted that government sponsored films were still made by independent producers under the auspices of the Central Office of Information. At this point BTF had been in existence for three years, and the argument might be made that, had the Crown unit headed by Grierson in the post war years been allowed to be more effective as a communication medium, the need for BTF or the National Coal Board's unit may not have been required.

In 1952 Grierson seems to realise that the future of the documentary ‘principle’ now rests with units like BTF. Dr A.P. Hogenkamp observes:-

  1. We should devote some public money every year to making film poetry about Britain.
  2. The only, and traditionally English, guarantee of this is to put the policy job, by which I mean the sponsorship, in the hands of two or three imaginatively generous people who have the wit to know what that means.

With this connection between the Crown Film Unit and BTF, it is appropriate to start the examination of British Transport Films under the direction of Edgar Anstey. Anstey, in 1970, wrote a foreward to an article for the trade magazine ‘Film User’ entitled ‘British Transport Films roll for Twenty One years’. I have reproduced it here in full as it seems appropriate for Anstey to explain in his own words the beginnings and achievements of his creation: -

As well as setting the scene for the remainder of the piece, Anstey puts forward the notion of analysis of ‘human and social problems’ in connection with the sponsored public transport film. The argument may be put forward that perhaps Anstey missed his earlier role in life by making films that challenged the social conditions of workers, as opposed to directing the ‘chairman’s address to the industry’. On page twenty-one the film ‘The Elephant Never Forgets’ is discussed, which illustrates the problems of satisfying both sponsor and creative talent, which must have been experienced by Grierson with people like Paul Rotha.

The remainder of this chapter will draw further on the writings of Edgar Anstey and other practitioners of the unit and an examination of the unit itself is undertaken here. Anstey gives his interpretation of ‘publicity’:-

In the above quotation Anstey admits the need for a level of entertainment to hold interest. The notion of entertainment within BTF’s films will be explored when some of BTF’s works are discussed later.

However, it is of interest that Anstey makes this point. The argument could be put forward that ‘actuality’ in itself is not interesting but needs something else to keep the audience interested in the message being put across by the filmmaker for the sponsor. This further calls into question the legitimacy of the ‘actuality’ represented in documentary or sponsored film, in effect what is behind the representation. With this in mind, it is appropriate to look briefly at the framework that the British Transport Commission allowed Anstey to work within, which in turn focused the unit’s output.

The notion of sponsorship as applied to BTF should be made clear at this point. The British Transport Commission sponsored BTF to produce films in the categories set out below. To carry out these requirements from its formation until 1963 the unit was provided with funds to make films and therefore its principle sponsor was the BTC who set the following objectives. These are printed below as of 1967 but were little changed from 1949:-

The remit and the films that arose from it will be discussed in detail in chapter three.

At this point it is worth considering the audience for the output of BTF. In the early fifties there were two ways to exhibit a film, either the theatrical circuit or the non-theatrical circuit. The argument could be put forward that the notion of entertainment, as talked about earlier, would be of most importance in a film released to be seen by a cinema audience. This audience is primarily there to see the ‘main feature’ as opposed to the ‘full supporting programme’. John Legard (former chief editor with BTF) makes the point that one film made by BTF was not well received by a cinema audience (Kensington Odeon). ‘Train Time’ (1952) was touring with ‘The Gift Horse’ starring Trevor Howard, Donald Sinden and Sid James. The film was a wartime naval drama based upon aid given by America to help Britain fight the war.

Before the audience got to the main ‘feature’ they had to sit through thirty minutes of ‘propaganda’ or information on the freight and passenger services provided by the British Transport Commission. This film featured the device of people speaking for themselves as well as actors playing roles.

The point here is that ‘Train Time’ was given a slow hand clap by an audience who had come to see a British ‘entertainment’ film with a group of actors playing Officers and Men stereotypes, as opposed to the ‘real’ people represented running a complex railway industry; albeit perhaps manager and worker stereotypes. A lesson was drawn from this experience and films in future were more entertaining.

The above may support the notion that cinema audiences were not interested in documentary or sponsored film within the cinema. Although this appears to have been an isolated incident, BTF’s theatrical bookings lasted as long as the ‘full supporting programme’.

For an explanation of the purpose of the non-theatrical circuit I draw upon the work of Ian Breakwell and David Parsons who spent a period observing the work of BTF in 1973. As part of their observations they interviewed Gerald Sayers in charge of distribution:-

As part of this non-theatrical audience there was the staff themselves. It seems incredible by today’s standards that staff of a national industry would wish to go and see films about work. But Anstey in 1960 makes this point regarding the success and the purpose of the staff shows:-

The above statement needs to be seen in the context that home entertainment was still sparse and the television had yet to make a widespread impact and then only in black and white, whilst ‘Report On Modernisation’ referred to by Anstey is shot in colour. Also, in the above and on other occasions, one is given the impression that Anstey really cares about the people running the railways. This again may be in part due to his work with the British Documentary Group.

As a counterpoint to the above, David Watkin, who worked at BTF as camera assistant and cameraman before going into the mainstream as a cinematographer, makes this observation of Anstey as man who was walking a tightrope between sponsors/employers who wished to portray the coming of the new and the filmmaker who wanted to make something that was passing into history and wished to mark its passing.

The above illustrates another side to Edgar Anstey, a practical and politically aware man as far as pleasing his employers, which in turn allows himself and the unit to function. Whilst maybe not making films of social comment, BTF are making films and people like David Watkin benefited from this policy in that Watkin was able to leave BTF and pursue a career as cinematographer, whilst others including John Legard, Ron Craigen, James Ritchie, Charles Potter and others remained with the unit, and helped fulfil the Commission's remit, as well as being rewarded with continuous employment as film makers, which was not always usual in the film industry.

Was Anstey entirely happy with the situation in which he now found himself’? Had he sold out his artistic principles in favour of a regular salary? With regards to John Krish, Anstey’ s judgement arguably proved him right for John Krish did return to BTF after Anstey retired to make a children’s safety film, ‘The Finishing Line’ (1977), which put its message across so graphically that it was later controversially withdrawn.

At this point it is worth looking briefly at the work of the production side of the unit. Again I would like first to take a contemporary account from the period when the unit was functioning. This is provided by ‘Industrial and Commercial Photographer’ January 1973 and other sources:-

The unit employs three permanent cameramen and, at the moment, two camera assistants, to which nucleus are added freelance cameramen and assistants as and when required. Although the permanent teams can normally handle adequately the eight to twelve films constantly in production, there have been occasions when as many as eight teams have been out on location at the same moment. Each team comprises director, cameraman, camera assistant and unit manager for mute shooting; when sync sound is involved - a fairly infrequent occurrence because of the expense - a sound crew, focus-puller and clapper loader are engaged.

The above is supported by John Legard, editor and then Chief Editor with BTF, (from 1951, when he moved from the Crown Film Unit before closure, until 1982), who gives an account of the structure of BTF under Anstey.

Legard says that there was a small nucleus of ‘established staff’ that worked full time for the unit and were employed under B.T.C. (and later British Railways) conditions of service. In addition to this small group there were temporary and freelance staff obtained through the Association of Cinematograph, Television and allied Technicians (ACTT), (now BECTU) or from personal recommendation within the unit. Legard himself was a temporary member for his first fifteen years with the unit.

The attraction of working for BTF was continuity of work and a regular salary as temporary staff. Legard also states that Anstey occasionally allowed staff to pursue other projects and then return to BTF in order to keep them ‘fresh’. ‘Anstey also brought in ‘guest’ directors as another way of keeping BTF productions fresh.

Charles Potter MBE, who joined BTF at its inception, came from the L.M.S. and remained with BTF until he retired in 1978. In his unpublished autobiography ‘Reluctant Railwayman’, lodged at the British Film Institute, Potter gives an indication of the workload and staffing of the unit:

The above is supported by figures published in an ACTT report ‘A Long Look at Short Films, published in 1967, which states that:-

A unit averaging 75 people has been maintained from 1949... Until now, producing between 20 and 30 films a year on an annual budget of about £200,000.

However, as illustrated above, these figures would appear to include staff involved in other areas of BTF’s work including the production of filmstrips and distribution.

Having examined the formation of BTF, the man responsible for the unit's establishment and how the unit functioned, it is now time to look at the products of BTF and the B.T.C. remit they were made for and how these films fitted into the social economic climate of Britain in the fifties. This will be dealt with in chapter three.

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

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