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

Chapter Three - The Remit and Films

The purpose of this chapter is to examine some of the films made by BTF in the period from 1950 to 1959, the unit's first decade of operation. The films will be examined in context with the remit given by the British Transport Commission to BTF. This is in turn carried out through the interpretation of the remit by Edgar Anstey.

Before embarking on the examination of the films and remit, it might be worth revisiting the growing optimism that was occurring in post-war Britain. This is provided by Arthur Marwick who states:-

Two points from the above are applicable here. Firstly, the fact that the British public were again starting to think of leisure and holidays. For this the public required transport. In 1951 76% of holiday travel was undertaken by public and, therefore, nationalised transport. The remainder went by private car. Secondly, that cinema audiences were at an all time high. It might be argued that these were amongst the points taken into consideration when forming BTF. BTF’s existence depended on promoting resorts like Blackpool, Scarborough and many others. Not only for consumption by British audiences but overseas as well, one of the main recipients being America. Also to be taken into consideration is that due to the fact that cinema attendances were high in this period, it follows that it would be likely that that cinema audiences would see a number of BTF’s films. There were 45 productions between 1950 and 1959 thereby planting suggestions to cinema audiences of possible places to visit. Herman and Chomsky, through their propaganda model, set out principles of advertising. Although these were directed at the medium of television similarities can be drawn here with BTF as the advertising arm of the BTC:-

The point here is that all of BTF’s promotional output was made for a reason; the promotion of travel was one of those reasons. Here Edgar Anstey elaborates on the travel promotion aspect of the BTF remit:-

An example of this particular genre is Michael Clarke’s ‘Heart of England’ (1954), which achieved 669 theatrical releases and four awards. Here the film depicts the rural nature of the Cotswolds. There are shots of villages and work on farms. Here the main subject is the place, what goes on at that place and the reasons for visiting. Transport, be it bus or train, is only seen fleetingly and is hardly alluded to in the film. (As mentioned earlier and by Anstey above most people travelled to their destination by the nationalised transport system, therefore there was little point in transport references. (It was into the 1960s with the increase of ownership of the private car, that the transport references became more important.) In this film the audience see the people of the Cotswolds both at work and play, be it at the annual show or the Stratford mop (fair).

Predominant film practice at the time called for a commentary of events on screen, this was scripted by Michael Clarke and John Moore and spoken by Stephen Murray who emphasises the reasons for both labour and fun.

Occasionally, of necessity and played low below the commentary, the film is supported by a vibrant and exhilarating musical score by Elisabeth Lutyens. This was common practice by BTF and was specially commissioned for this film.

This and other films in this category entice the audience with luscious images, informative commentary and vibrant music to explore for themselves what they have seen on screen, be they domestic or overseas tourists. Another factor to be taken into account regarding foreign tourists is the foreign exchange they provide. This might also signal the change in Britain from trading and manufacturing nation to tourist destination.

The next film I would like to examine is ‘Holiday’ (1957) directed by John Taylor. There is a marked difference between this promotional film and the ‘Heart of England’. Whilst both films share a commonality in promoting travel, the emphasis in ‘Holiday’ concentrates on people enjoying their leisure time. There is little descriptive commentary as the music, provided by Chris Barber's Jazz band, and the images speak for themselves. Whilst ‘Heart of England’ is cyclical in connection with the seasons of the year, ‘Holiday’ bases its cycle on one day.

‘Holiday’ also shares with ‘Heart of England’ the virtual absence of any reference to transport modes, except for steam locomotive noises over the opening caption, and the opening scene of people having arrived by train and walking along the platform. The remainder of the film concentrates on people having fun! Whether it is at the swimming pool, on the beach (crowded like sardines), at the fairground or up on Blackpool tower. This film relies heavily on images of people enjoying themselves, moreover, they look totally at ease with the camera, whilst some of the cast may be actors the appearance of people in crowd scenes are not. Edward Scott MBE who was assistant director on ‘Holiday’ provides an indication as to how this piece of ‘Cinema Verité’ was carried out:-

The argument could be made that ‘Holiday’ is a film aimed at the working class and that ‘Heart of England’ is intended for a middle class audience. However, both include images of the working class at leisure. Therefore the counter argument can be put forward as Anstey infers earlier in the piece that films like ‘Heart of England’ are intended for the international rather than the domestic audience, whilst ‘Holiday’ is directed at the domestic audience alone. Both these films did well on the theatrical circuit with ‘Heart of England’ achieving 669 performances as opposed to ‘Holiday’, which achieved 341 performances. These figures should be seen in the light of declining cinema audiences i.e. post war attendances of thirty-one million as opposed to 1960 attendances of ten million.

Before leaving the traffic promotional film, I would like to look at ‘A Day of One's Own’ (1955) directed by Kenneth Fairbairn. This film now serves to illustrate the advancement of the perception of women by the media, as the film seems totally at odds with the situation today.

The film opens with an animated credits sequence that is carried out by a woman hanging washing on a line. The washing theme is carried through to the opening scenes, where a variety of women are shown washing mainly by hand; these scenes are voiced over by a male commentator speaking in rhyme. The scenes also take place in well-kept suburban locations. The film then homes in on the central protagonist who appears to rebel and argue with the male commentator’s rhyme when she shouts. 'Oh Stop!' 'Why stop?' he replies. 'Because I am taking a day off, a rest, a day away from the cooking and cleaning and all the other chores that keeps a housewife running around'. The commentator then instils guilt into the rashness of this decision by asking ‘Will you take the children?’ When this has been addressed, doubt is expressed by the woman herself at the steps of Waterloo station, giving the impression appears of someone who is shirking their responsibilities. The remainder of the film is in the same vein using different women or groups of women all enjoying a day out. The argument might be made that this film appears to fall into the category of ‘symbolic annihilation of women’ as Dominic Strinati elaborates here:-

With the above in mind ‘A Day of One's Own’ appears as a film aimed at the female audience to trivialise them and in ‘Holiday’ there are signs of the sexual in the beauty contest. However, half the audience at the contest are women. There again, the women in the ‘candid shots’ are enjoying themselves! On the subject of stereotype the women in ‘Holiday’ are in the main ‘good looking’ however in ‘A Day of One's Own’ all types of women are represented. The argument might be made that all BTF are doing is reflecting the gender status quo at this period of time. It is interesting to note that ‘A Day of One's Own’ is shot in black and white; moreover the film did not achieve a theatrical release; perhaps the notion of the woman being tied to the home was already being challenged.

The remainder of the chapter now concentrates on the role of the informational film; again I use the words of Edgar Anstey in giving his interpretation of this part of the remit:-

An illustration of the informational film is ‘Fully Fitted Freight’ (1957) directed by Ralph Keene. This film is in essence an illustrated lecture on the principles of supply and demand, and why this means that goods need to be transported from one part of the country to another. The lecture is addressed via commentary written by Paul le Saux to a fictional Mrs Smith. The film's central protagonist is the 4.48 Bristol (Midland Road) to Leeds, fully fitted freight train. The human element is provided by the army of railwaymen that minister to its needs. Items of goods are seen being sorted and loaded, with some of the items having sub-stories behind them like the lady in Inverness who requires fur lined boots that are made in Glastonbury. In this way the audience can identify with and understand the process of getting products from the place of manufacture to the place of use courtesy of British Railways.

The film is shot in black and white complete with stunning night photography and good use of Vaughan Williams' ‘Overture of the Wasps’ music. It seems to celebrate the steam freight train and all who work with it, when by virtue of the modernisation plan this mode of transport would be dead within five years of the making of this film.

The heroes of the piece are the railwaymen who, it might be argued, are struggling with a system not much improved from the Victorian era but are providing a good public service. In support of the above notion Anstey makes this point:-

Furthermore Michael Renov cites Brecht who puts forward this view on representation that can be applied to this and other films in this category:-

Another factor to be taken into consideration is the use of contemporary cinematic language; the audience would have been exposed to the conventions of the cinema and the story lines of the entertainment cinema in their leisure time. This helps reinforce the point being made by the film, especially in the documentary drama films as mentioned by Anstey earlier. This, it may be argued, also goes some way to explain the popularity of the staff screenings as mentioned in chapter two.

In terms of gender the informational films seem to reinforce the notion already explored of the ‘annihilation of women’ since in the majority of these films they are absent as workers at the “cutting edge’. Instead, they may be seen in offices or telephone exchanges and the argument could be made that this is merely stereotyping. However, the counter-argument might be that this is representation of women before ‘liberation’. ‘Fully Fitted Freight’ serves also to illustrate that consumerism was being actively promoted, as opposed to ten years earlier when it was being stifled. Britain was in recovery and BTF made sure people knew that the transport industry had its part to play.

This is demonstrated by the early scenes where the goods are being grown or made and in the closing scenes where the products are being used or consumed.

The second illustration of the informational film genre concentrates on the first in the modernisation plan films as mentioned by Anstey earlier. This was ‘Report on Modernisation’ (1959) directed by John Taylor, who directed all of the modernisation films until they changed their name in 1965 to 'Rail Report' when they were directed by Nick Nicholls. The last of the series was ‘Rail Report no 13’ (1980) directed by David Lochner.

As the title suggests, the purpose of these films is to focus on the modern both in terms of passenger and staff. In the late 50s the government were investing 391 million pounds in the then ailing and loss-making railway industry. It comes as no surprise that the fruits of this substantial investment should be promoted to both public and staff via the medium of film.

The series is shot in colour: this may be to emphasise a break with the old ‘black and white’ railway and illustrate either work in progress or completed, and the benefits reaped by these works for both passengers and staff. Although the modernisation plan itself fell short in its task due to the enormity of the job of modernising the entire British Railways infrastructure, the films do provide a morale-boosting quality that something was happening even if modernisation might not have reached the locality where the film was being shown. Anstey partly justifies the existence of BTF to the purpose of morale building here:-

The above statement supports the need for the informational or what some might call the propaganda film within industry in order to motivate staff and keep passengers or customers informed of process and new developments.

The argument can be made that Anstey, through British Transport Films, continued the work he had previously undertaken for John Grierson at the Empire Marketing Board (E.M.B.) film unit. This notion is supported by Paul Rotha, for a while a contemporary of Anstey at the E.M.B. Rotha makes these observations about BTF in the July 1950 issue of the magazine Public Opinion:-

Also in support of the Griersonian ethos of training new talent, as has been illustrated earlier in this work, David Watkin's first film as cinematographer was ‘Holiday’. John Reed points out some later success for David Watkin that reinforces the notion of BTF as a training school for aspiring filmmakers.

Whilst BTF did a great service to the film industry in providing a comprehensive training facility for aspiring filmmaking talent, the unit had a commercial remit to fulfil from the British Transport Commission and later the British Railways Board (B.R.B.). The main purpose of the unit was to provide films that would stimulate travel by the commission's diverse services, and also to inform the public of the effort that went into providing these services. In these parts of its remit it can be argued that the unit succeeded, as between 1955 and the penultimate year before the full unit's dispersal in 1982, BTF had won 212 awards including the ‘Hollywood Oscar’ for ‘Wild Wings’ directed by John Taylor in 1966, for best live action short subject. The B.T.C. and subsequently the B.R.B. started to lose traffic and money from 1954. Therefore on purely financial terms the argument can be made that the unit had failed to fulfil its remit in the field of promotional and public relations film.

Whilst conducting this research it was interesting to note that, unsurprisingly, much material has been written about Grierson, Rotha and Humphrey Jennings with the latter having a retrospective of his films screened at the National Film Theatre in January 2000. Although Anstey was part of the British documentary movement and not only started BTF, but also the Shell Film Unit, there are no books to celebrate his achievements or screen retrospectives of his work. Can the argument be put that by accepting a position as head of an industrial film unit he is a lesser man than those who remained independent? Has he paid the Faustian price in not being fashionable in favour of security? Did he feel that he might have betrayed his early principles of the use of groundbreaking techniques as in ‘Housing Problems’ in favour of the role of transport propagandist? There is evidence that he may have missed his early days; most people as they grow older take on more emotional and material commitments that require stability. With this in mind he might have thought the time right to ‘settle down’ and make his name in sponsored film which he could have done at Shell fifteen years earlier. Through BTF Anstey had the opportunity to direct his considerable talent towards helping other filmmakers and transport.

In the general output of BTF the view is taken of Britain slowly coming out of the ravages of war into the 1950’s; this is an important legacy that Anstey and BTF have left for future generations. Furthermore BTF went onto to reflect the ‘swinging sixties’ and then to change again to reflect the mood of the seventies. Although BTF was a sponsored unit, Anstey and his team of resident and freelance filmmakers have managed not only to capture the transport of the time but moreover the period it operated in. As BTF was indirectly publicly funded through subsidies to the B.T.C. and B.R.B. from 1954, the unit has provided another service to the public in recording three diverse and interesting decades of British way of life and transport.

These images may seem optimistic, but the job of a film unit that is encouraging the use of the transport network is to show that network and the places it served at their best, and there can be no argument that BTF has achieved that objective.

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

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