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‘A high entertainment standard’ – films from our archive at the 2015 Aesthetica Short Film Festival

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“We are dealing with a type of film that is in every respect far removed from the ‘feature’ film production of the Elstrees, Denhams and Hollywoods of this world.”

So wrote William Brudenell of the London Midland & Scottish Railway’s Film Services in the company magazine in November 1936, hardly geeing the staff up for a thrilling cinematic experience. But he was perhaps being deliberately modest, as the film unit was still only two years old.

From the November 1936 edition of the LMS Magazine

From the November 1936 edition of the LMS Magazine

All the big four companies – the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS), the Great Western (GWR), the Southern and the London North Eastern – got involved with film-making to varying degrees in the late 1930s. The LMS embraced it the most, producing over thirty sound and several silent pictures between 1934 and 1941 and contracting much of the production out to Verity Films; much of their output was intended for training but was also shown publically. The Southern commissioned a few features from Strand Films before setting up its own Film Unit in 1940 and producing nineteen films before nationalisation in 1948.

It’s perhaps surprising that the two companies who produced the most ground-breaking marketing didn’t seize on film as it emerged as the form of mass entertainment. The LNER only commissioned a few training films from Verity. The GWR also commissioned some films from private production houses, but seems to have got cold feet after a typically ambitious experiment, Romance of a Railway, commissioned to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1935.

Romance ran for over forty minutes and began with historical re-enactments of key parts of GWR history, with professional actors and crowd scenes swelled out with permanent way men and members of GWR Dramatic & Operatic Society, followed by documentary sequences showing off the network and climaxing with the construction of the streamlined King class locomotive King Henry VII at Swindon Works. Aside from three staff screenings at Paddington, Romance was never shown, and the GWR seemed almost embarrassed by it – after being heralded in the GWR Magazine in 1935, it was not mentioned again, despite later articles trumpeting how the company was supporting the British film industry by providing transport and locations including Swindon.

It’s hard to appreciate the film work of the big four en masse, mainly because there’s no unified collection where you can view it all (unlike British Transport Films, most of whose output is held by the British Film Institute and available on DVD). Scraps exist at our archives, the BFI and in some private film archives. Some titles have surfaced online, others on commercial DVDs. Parts of their output, such as the documentary segments of Romance of a Railway and some of the LMS’s titles were adopted and adapted by British Transport Films. And the rightly-lauded work of the BTF and the 1936 classic Night Mail produced by the Post Office overshadow the less coherent work of the big four. Influential film historian Rachel Low damned the LMS output with faint praise:

..the films, unimaginative and without conscious social significance… show a firm and workmanlike attention to their own purpose.

Good for staff education then and period detail and nostalgia now, in other words.

Our invitation to show some footage at the renowned annual Aesthetica Short Film Festival gave us a chance to look anew at some of this work, to appreciate it as cinema. To accompany the Aesthetica 5th anniversary screenings to be held at the museum on the 6th and 7th of November 2015, we wanted four films with creative and cinematographic interest to complement the creativity of the award-winning short films in the main programme, and we came up with some intriguing results.

Making Locomotives at Swindon Works is the final segment of Romance of a Railway. The second half of Romance is more daring in its use of cinema to capture the present of 1935 when the GWR is working on the future. And as the apotheosis of the film, Making Locomotives at Swindon Works brings out energy and strength by the rhythm of the music echoing the rhythm of the machines and the workers.

A still from the film Making Locomotives at Swindon Works

A still from the film Making Locomotives at Swindon Works

Most of the Southern Railway Film Unit’s productions focused on the war effort, not surprising given its geographic position closer to the war front. The railway industry played an important part in the war and made considerable changes to participate in the war effort. The Film Unit documented this transformation with efficiency in Service for the Services in 1945. The film focuses on how the Southern contributed to the movement of troops for D-Day, and bringing back injured soldiers in evacuation trains.

A still from Service for the Services

A still from Service for the Services

As Britain had been under threat, the company put its best efforts and science into slowing down a possible invasion by making the system impracticable with barriers and traps. The railway industry was also transformed off the tracks, as their works manufactured guns and tanks rather than rolling stock.

The LMS showed the greatest understanding of how to use film. They toured their films round their network, and as rail travel was a collective experience, film screenings were an opportunity to address a gathered community of staff, their family and friends, and invited customers. An example of the self-promotion of its technical prowess is Coronation Scot, a film about the locomotive of the same name. In the beginning of the film, the crowd acclaiming King George VI’s Coronation meets the one simultaneously cheering for the locomotive rolling out from Crewe Works.

A still from the film Coronation Scot

A still from the film Coronation Scot

This is 1937, the Coronation Scot goes out for high-speed run tests on the service from London to Glasgow, followed by the shadows of the planes filming the event dangerously close to each other. The genuinely thrilling aerial footage of the train completely transcends the somewhat prosaic earth-bound Royal-watching scenes. The last film we selected centres on the services of the LMS.

The company give us the chance to have a glance at what was life like in a town like Anytown in 1936, actually Rochdale and its railway station. The film illustrates the importance of the railway system in an ordinary town by showing how the railways, thanks to the LMS’s web of services, affected every aspect of life: food, work and business, family, activities and holidays.

A depiction of Anytown (actually Rochdale) showing rails' role in everyday lives

A depiction of Anytown (actually Rochdale) showing rails’ role in everyday lives

Written by Tim Procter

  1. James Brook

    Would love to see a few more of these old films from the archive

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