Nationalisation and British Transport Films 1946-1977
From Charles Potter M.B.E.:

Immediately after the War, the LMS commissioned Gaumont British Instructional to make six 16mm sound Kodachrome films, the subject being the railway's contribution to the like of the nation: examples 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.

In 1949 with advent of Nationalisation, Jock Brebner and Christian Barman of the British Transport Commission set up the BTC Film Unit (to be headed by Edgar Anstey, as Films Officer) to produce and distribute films for all the undertakings administered by the BTC, including British Railways. I joined the new organisation as Distribution Assistant, bringing with me the old LMS films and the two cinema coaches. 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 Films Service.

An intensive production programme was started, and once again there were film shows for the staff, their families and friends. Screenings were arranged as far apart as Wick, Fort William and Penzance. The films chosen for the performances varied according to local requirements, but in the main Terminus, The Travolators, Report on Modernisation and Bridge 114 provided the basis. Three is Company, A Dream of Norway and What a Day! were other new films to be included on occasions. Despite television, the reactions of railwaymen and their families to these screenings of Commission films, being shown in Town Halls and other suitable premises all over the country, was most impressive. They poured into the halls with their wives and families in their hundreds, and there were many audiences numbering between 1,000 and 2,000. When attending these shows, I definitely felt in the auditorium the effect on staff morale of films such as Blue Pullman and the Modernisation series. As Edgar Anstey expressed it, "to celebrate the railwayman's contribution to national life has always been one of the objects of our film making", and this subject continued to figure prominently in the staff film shows. The extent of the distribution of the films made ensured the practicality of our film making. In every instance, distribution of each production was planned well ahead, so that the appropriate audience was reached to the maximum extent.

The films produced fell into three categories. To begin with, there were the informational films about the Commission's undertaking. These were designed to be shown to the general public in the cinema, or by television, or non-theatrically to clubs, societies, industrial, trade, professional or educational groups. They dealt with railways, road-passenger or roadfreight transport, inland waterways, docks, hotels and catering services, or with London Transport.

The purpose of the informational films was to provide the public with the facts about the operation of a transport system. The better informed they were, the more understanding they would be when they were next caught up in a delay, or something similar.

We used the television screen as much as possible, and supplied excerpts from the Modernisation films for a number of TV programmes. At that time, this was an excellent medium for the BTC to report back to the nation on the progress of the Modernisation of British Railways.

The second category of films - travel incentive - was also for public showing. They were planned to increase the Commission's revenues by publicising specific road and rail services. In the main, they were travelogues, and showed areas recommended for holidays or for shorter trips in off-peak hours. Others highlighted particular kinds of places that could be visited museums, art galleries, country houses open to the public and so on; still more Illustrated the possibilities of group excursions - for example the new film What A Day. For this category of films, use was also made of the three available distribution channels - television, theatrical and non-theatrical. It was common practice for commercial representatives of the Commission's undertakings to attend the non-theatrical showings, armed with special brochures based on the films. At the end of the show, questions were asked by the audience about fares, train times etc. and it was an excellent opportunity for 'our man' to supply all the information required in a friendly atmosphere created by the film show.

A new film, Blue Pullman, had its West End premier at the Odeon, Marble Arch, and was timed to coincide with the inauguration of the first of these trains on the London Midland Region, which meant that the film (including shots in a train apparently in public service) had to be completed before the trains were operational.

Further examples of traffic-promotion films were Journey into History, Farmer Moving South, The Land of Robert Burns, Journey Into Spring, Giant Load, Scotland for Sport, A letter for Wales, Robert Reid Reports on British Waterways and Coaching Holiday.

Paid theatrical distribution for this type of film was obtained not only in Britain, but also in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Such films, on occasions, recovered in distribution revenue from all sources more than they cost to produce.

The third category of Commission films was staff instructional, teaching the necessary skills to the Commission's 725,000 staff as part of complete courses of instruction. During this time, there was the transitional period of railway operation moving from steam, to diesel, to electrification. It was very necessary to explain to the railway operational staff the merits of this new age of technology, and to influence their attitude and approach to this modern form of motive power. Two BTF film producers, Messrs. Stewart McAllister and John Shearman, were instrumental in making some outstanding training films for this purpose. One of the most famous films in this category was The Third Sam, narrated by Stanley Holloway, which was given the top award by the British Film Academy as being the best training film from anywhere during the year of its production. An interesting aside on this railway technical revolution was the comment that "with a steam locomotive it took two minutes to discover the failure, and two days to put right, whereas with a diesel or electric locomotive it took two days to locate the fault and two minutes to remedy" - there is a moral somewhere?

The theatrical distribution of the Commission's films was carried on in the normal way through a commercial distributor. Films were sold to the cinemas on their entertainment merits, and the revenue obtained help to finance further productions.

Non-theatrical distribution was effected either by posting prints to approved projector owners, or by means of over 100 mobile projectors distributed throughout the regions of British Railways.

The Films Service also controlled two cinema coaches, which toured the railway system to play their part in railway staff training schemes. These coaches were equipped to seat an audience of 58, and were fitted with 16 mm sound projectors, fed by a mobile generator carried in a coupled coach. (In this way, the equipment was made usable in small sidings, yards etc, where a suitable electricity supply could not easily be laid on.) Passenger coaches that were equipped to show films were sometimes attached to excursion trains, or to special trains carrying delegates to conferences. The Films Service also arranged for the showing of programmes of films, including its own, for the entertainment of visitors to Commission hotels, and of passengers taking cruises in British Railway ships. The screening of films at a number of stations during lunchtime, and also in Arrival Bureaux, was another innovation. Office workers eating their sandwiches whilst watching the screen supported the first type of show, and relatives and friends waiting for a train to arrive were the audience for the latter. They were most successful, and much appreciated by the public.

Twice a year, the Service carried out an analysis of the Commission's film distribution. The figures showed that an aggregate audience of approximately 200,000 people were reached each month in British Cinemas. Over 1,500,000 of the general public were seeing British Transport films non-theatrically during each of the six autumn and winter months. From time to time, there were television screenings for the BR films (or excerpts) and the audience figures became quite astronomical.

Joining us from the Central Film Library, Gerald Sayers, over the years, built up a most efficient library. The library was a railway arch underneath Waterloo Station (not featured in Terminus, which was surely modest of us) and Gerald Sayers and his staff worked miracles in making sure that films arrived with the borrower at the right place, time and date, no mean feat bearing in mind the volume they were handling, (2500 16 mm prints each week during peak periods). It was estimated that non-theatrical distribution alone eventually yielded a public audience, per title, of something in excess of three million, at a production and distribution cost of less than a halfpenny per head. BTF Films were sometimes borrowed by Welfare Officers to show to inhabitants of HM Prisons; it was interesting to note that a film we made for the Tilling Bus Company entitled Away for the Day was the most popular - need I say more?


"Introduction", John Legard
Peter Sims
"Nationalisation and British Transport Films 1946-1977", Charles Potter M.B.E.
"Random Thoughts", Edward Scott M.B.E.
Pam Coldicott
Richard Morse - BTF Editor Early 60s
"Out On Production", David Lochner
"Five Happy Years at BTF", Dick Best