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Glorious British Transport Films 10 May 2018

Posted by cooperatoby in transport.
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Unloading cement, from ‘They Take the High Road’

What better way to spend Ascension Day than watch some British Transport Films. They bring back the England of my childhood and evoke the sterling virtues of skilled labour and teamwork in an optimistic mood of societal reconstruction. They take for granted that work is a positive, dignified and collective thing, and are marvellous travelogues to boot.


• In Dodging the Column (1952) EW Rudd hauls a 132ft-long distillation column from Greenwich to Grangemouth up the A6 using two Scamell tractors. Occasionally they have to unhitch the rear bogie and turn it by hand, and put plates over the manhole covers. At Stoke they have to dig up a gatepost and winch a tree out of the way. It’s amazing how narrow the roads were then. At Shap, the A6 climbs 2,000’ in 3 miles. The cockney humour is fun and in keeping with its spirit – and there are London trams skittling past.

They Take the High Road is volume 5 of the BTF’s Off the Beaten Track series. It’s a funny little film about a team of 4 lorry drivers who live in a carriage in a siding at Killín station, and make two daily tips 22 miles up Glen Lyon to deliver 7.5 tons of cement to build Giorra dam on Loch an Daimh, just NE of Loch Lyon in Perthshire. The context is an integrated multimodal transport system and the moral is the importance of good maintenance. It’s lovely watching the drivers in the potty little white-painted wooden cabs of their cherry-red ERF and AEC flatbeds.

Giant Load shows Pickfords taking a 168-ton transformer from Hayes to Iver on a 12-axle demountable swan neck trailer, with 3 tractors.


Aldenham Works Routemaster London Transport, which seems to have been unofficially put together, albeit from official footage. Aldenham was originally built as a tube depot for the never-built extension to the Northern Line, and during WWII was used to make planes. From 1956-1985 it overhauled RTs and Routemasters every 4 years. The bodies were taken off the chassis but took longer to overhaul, so were remounted on a different chassis afterwards. The site is now a business park.

A Journey by a London Bus (8 mins, 1950) by the Colonial Film Unit (sic) shows two ‘African students’ catching the bus back from a walk ‘in the fields’, on the days when London was the largest city in the world. They know it runs on a route, will be punctual, and that enjoying the journey is a matter of ‘friendly co-operation’ – no need to push or jostle. Schoolchildren sense that Africans like them, and friendly hands help a disabled person aboard. Children cross the road at a crossing – with Belisha beacons but without zebra stripes – and the driver gives the slowing down sign to stop for them. ‘Four long miles for fivepence.’ False-sounding but priceless.


Wash and Brush Up (25 mins, 1953) every couple of weeks steam engines get their boilers cleaned out, which takes about 17 hours. There’s a whole succession of different quaintly (I should say exactly) named men who follow on in succession: a fire-dropper, the boilersmith and his mate, a cooler-down, some washers-out and a fire-raiser. They riddle out the grate just like in a household fire. One man has to wriggle inside the fire¬box to scrub it out. The message, delivered in appropriately stirring tones, is teamwork. Marvellously appropriate terms: the inspector taps things with his hammer to see if they “ring true”.

Work in Progress: a trip round the country looking at various rebuilding jobs: digging the new Woodhead tunnel, hump shunting at Whitemoor, Cambridge with walkie-talkie control of the shunter – which looked pretty dangerous, involving a man running along-side the trucks rolling at 15 mph to brake them. Scheduled lorry services in the Mull of Kintyre. Buses in Bristol and the channel ferry. Again the message is an integrated transport system serving the country’s economy. The whole is graphically shown by a 3D relief model of Great Britain about 15’ long, with the mountains towering up and making connecting it up look like a pretty difficult job. “No part of Britain is self-sufficient…” it starts.

Old Sam the Signalman is a homily about level crossing safety, acted unconvincingly by the judge from Porridge.

Spotlight on the Night Mail (1948) is a pale reflection of the 1936 original, with an annoying American twang to the voiceover, reversed shots, repeated sequences and no continu¬ity. But it does show the mailbags bouncing into the ‘apparatus coaches’ nicely – that’s what it seems to be called – just the ‘apparatus’ – and at the end some Aberdeen trams.

The Way to the Sea, another 1936 Britten-Auden collaboration celebrating the 1935 electrification of the Waterloo–Portsmouth line. There’s some poetic scriptwriting: following a sequence on power transmission we set off: “A signal box; a power station. We pass the areas of greatest congestion, the homes of those who have least power of choice.” And the amazing list of reasons people went on holiday on the Isle of Wight: “to eat out of doors, to exchange confidences with strangers, the opportunity to be admired.”

These last to are both now seemingly offline.

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