fri 19/04/2024

Blu-ray: Life on the Line | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Life on the Line

Blu-ray: Life on the Line

More British Transport shorts from the BFI, handsomely remastered

Paddington Station in 1969Volum

Wax lyrical about the contents of a British Transport Films short and you might start sounding like a Daily Mail columnist, railing about things being better back in the day. On the evidence of this 15th volume in the BFI’s anthology series, many things clearly were. Take 1969’s Multiple Aspects, which shows engineers remodelling the lines leading into Paddington Station, the work completed on time, and presumably on budget, in exactly five weeks.

Though it’s disconcerting to watch the workers slaving away without hi-vis jackets or protective headgear, just inches away from passing trains, as an advert for the benefits of letting the state manage a complex public utility, it couldn’t be bettered. A Tale Out of School, also from 1969, is a beguiling travelogue following 35 schoolgirls from North Yorkshire travelling from Skipton to Switzerland by train. The views are spectacular, and seeing the pupils settling into their couchettes with nothing but packs of cards and bottles of orange juice really is a throwback to a more innocent age – still, as someone who’s led school residentials for years, having just two teaching staff in charge of 35 pupils doesn’t look very safe to me.

Life on Line packshotThe 14 films in this volume are from the final years of the British Transport Commission’s in-house film unit, replete with tantalising glimpses into the imagined future of the country’s rail network. We watch Queen Elizabeth II opening a rebuilt Euston station, and there are shots of flashy new signal boxes and an ominously named ‘plasma torch’ designed to remove leaves on the line. Sea Road to Britain was made a year before the UK’s first EU referendum in 1975, a colourful celebration of Britain as a tourist destination with a focus on showing how easy it is for Europeans to reach the country by ferry. Less exotic but equally engaging is A Day with SELNEC, focussing on the newly-established passenger authority organising transport in Greater Manchester. Seeing the city centre looking so grimy is a shock, and there’s also mention of an ambitious plan to build a rail tunnel beneath it, the project scrapped in 1977 due to rising costs.

Blue Peter’s Peter Purves stars in 1982’s Round Trip to Glasgow, enjoying a first-class trip down to London on BR’s tilting Advanced Passenger Train. Which, famously, wasn’t quite advanced enough, Steven Foxton’s booklet notes recalling the “unfortunate mix of political interference, bad press and a need for a greater period of time to iron out teething problems” which led to the train’s scrapping. BR asked for the film to be withdrawn and even destroyed. Most poignant is Channel Tunnel: Tomorrow’s Way (1986), released after Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand signed the treaty which enabled the tunnel to be built. The last BTF production shot on film, it imagines a bright future where the English Channel is no longer an obstacle. Goods can be shipped from Malton to Milan easily, a London executive can nip over to Paris for the afternoon to sign a contract and “get something nice for the wife”, and it’s possible to get from Manchester to Brussels without changing trains. As a bonus, there’s a fun 1986 short made on video called King of the Road, showing Ford Capri-driving salesman Des Johnston’s damascene conversion to the joys of rail travel. Image and sound quality is consistently good (BTF always made good use of funky library music), and there’s a compendious booklet. Highly recommended.

The pupils settle into their couchettes with nothing but packs of cards and bottles of orange juice


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