For some of us who worked for B.T.F, our formative years were marked by an encouragement within the unit to develop a keen interest and enthusiasm for the industry and the people who worked within it, and to adopt a flexible and adaptable approach to the job - yet still produce results!
It was during the filming of one of the earlier films on which I worked at BTF, Britannia - A Bridge (1973), that I came to appreciate the importance of such an attitude. That film certainly had its moments. The nature of the civil engineering works was such that regardless of weather conditions, one had to fit in and adapt to their schedules often continually adjusting one's own. The filming of the rebuilding, after the disastrous fire of Robert Stephenson's box-girder railway bridge over the Menai Straits in North Wales was certainly a challenge, not least to our collective sense of survival! Filming from the girders some 200 feet above the Straits, with the fastflowing tidal current below was a never-to-be forgotten experience... and I think some of the crew thought, "Do you really need this shot, David?" As one of the engineers reminded us, working on the girders was dangerous enough, but becoming over-confident whilst so doing could be even more perilous... a step back to improve the camera angle could prove to be one step too far. All of us working on the film, Ron Craigen, Trevor Roe, Jack West, Merlyn Davies, Trevor Walker and, of course, myself, had at various times to remember where we were, to keep our wits about us, but still achieve our aims, and produce satisfactory results. We worked with both the Consultant and the Contracting engineers who seemed always to be at loggerheads, one party insisting on certain objectives being met at the same time as endeavouring to contain the costs, the other carrying out the work under extreme and uncertain conditions, at times incurring higher costs which had to be agreed or justified through argument - a constant battle of wits between them both! Keeping up to date as to what was happening, and when and where it was happening meant our keeping in touch continually with the separate factions, in order that, for example, we could secure the most favourable camera position, or arrange the most convenient schedule asking if they could "adapt a little" to allow for the most advantageous lighting conditions for us perhaps to include a sunset, or at least daylight hours All this inevitably called for evening "meetings with refreshment" at the Local Hostelry, with one or other of the engineering "teams"!
One incident sticks out clearly in my mind. Earlier that year, I had "reccied" the main camera position, specifically chosen to be used when the tide was out and the sun setting behind the bridge. What I had forgotten was that when we would be filming later in the year, the sunsets would be in a different position! When the time came, there was a mad dash across the mud flats of the Straits, with the 35mm camera, (I think It was the Newman Sinclair clockwork camera), the large tripod head and tripod not the lightest of equipment - to a revised camera position, in order to capture the lift-off of the central section of bridge and a sunset, both happening at the same time. I still have a vivid image of a young Merlyn Davies sprinting towards us carrying the 10:1 35mm zoom lens then slipping head-over heels into the mud! He amazingly managed to keep the lens safe, untouched and spotlessly clean, then to fix it to the camera, pulling focus and setting the aperture in time for the start of the lifting sequence he himself being completely covered in Welsh mud!
On another occasion we were having one of our evening "meetings" at a waterside inn, ("The Antelope" as I recall) in order to catch up on the Contracting Engineer's early morning schedule for the next day. (A giant pontoon was to be floated down the Straits to the bridge and a small boat with engine was needed by our crew in order to film this.) Suddenly, Merlyn disappeared. The rest of us carried on with our planning. Merlyn reappeared soaked from head to toe and still fully clothed! "I've just had a dip in the Straits to keep my mind clear," he told us.
Merlyn, as well as enjoying life to the full, was always resourceful and full of visual ideas... ever willing to "have a go" for that extra-special image, whether he was working as a Camera Assistant or indeed, as a Cameraman. He was certainly responsive to any visual idea that was asked for. Many a Director owed much to him. Indeed, gratitude must be expressed to many of the BTF Cameramen, who in spite of low budgets and small crews, achieved wonders.
Cameramen always appreciated a cup of tea. It was amazing how, regardless of where we were, that tea would appear, not infrequently when we were about to start filming, with a gentle reminder from the Unit Manager that we were In danger of running into overtime, or missing the train back to London "But drink your tea before it gets cold!" Stuart Black and Martin Amstell were consistently successful in managing to tread that difficult path which is the Unit Manager's lot, trying to organise facilities, ensuring that what has been asked for actually materializes, at the same time as keeping their shooting records up to date, or sorting out hotel bills, many a time the unsung heros.
Yes, the film-crew's life was rarely monotonous... there was always something memorable happening, like filming on top of the icy roof-top of a moving Engineers overhead-wiring train during a heavy snow-storm over Shap summit! (Wires over the Border). We found many people willing to co-operate with us in spite of their own problems, like the Railway men and women who through the course of their everyday duties had the often taxing responsibility of helping the public, disabled as well as able bodies, but yet still found time to respond to our needs a little bit of "acting" perhaps, or maybe some dialogue with one of their customers, just for the benefit of a sequence that was being filmed. (Just Like the Rest of Us) Douglas Gordon once said, "It was always very much a case of filming by consent and co-operation." Indeed this was so. Filming inside large industrial factories, both within British Rail and the private sector, at home and abroad, where many of the sequences shot were on the production line would have been impossible but for the cooperation of people who were already working under pressure often at quite intricate tasks. (Freight Flow and Points and Aspects) Everyone pulled together, - lighting technicians, like Frank Brice, and camera crew, with factory floor managers and their operators.
What can I say? Only that it was an exhilarating and rewarding period in my life.... I only hope that there are others who thought and felt the same about life out on production with British Transport Films.