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On And Off The Rails - The British Transport Films Collection - Vol. 1

Edition Details:
Region 2 encoding (Europe, Japan, South Africa and the Middle East including Egypt).
 Box set, Black & White, Colour, PAL
 Number of discs: 2
 ASIN: B0006HIPL8
 Catalogue Number: BFIVD590

 

MRF Review by dwb:

I was browsing in HMV one Saturday afternoon and my eye fell on this double DVD. I had seen it a month before and although enticed by the write up on the back, I felt that at the price, other purchases I planned for that day should take priority. It remained on the shelf until my return and now it's mine.

Having watched the DVD I enjoyed it so much that I volunteered to write this review as I think other members of the forum would enjoy it too. Apart from that there were quite a few references to recent forum thread topics - and that's just in the areas I have been following.

I won't repeat the information from the back of the pack, you can read that yourselves or find a website that will provide it for you. 

Once you have removed the packing, the DVD folds out once to reveal a sepia tinted print of the interior of St. Pancras station under construction. The running lines and platforms on the eastern side are in place, but at least one of the platform areas on the west is still filled with what looks like rail lines used to facilitate the construction works.

Folding out these two flaps reveals two brightly coloured DVDs in the center two folds. The first features a very blue Pullman which hints at the "On the Rails" subject of that DVD; the second shows the entrance to platforms 14 and 15 of what I suspect is Waterloo. People are the focus of the image which again reflects the "Off the Rails" subject of this DVD.

The left outer fold contains a pocket with two booklets. The first is 8 pages (inc covers) which continues in the style you read from the back of the DVD in the shop. There are notes on each of the short films of a similar length to those found in classical music CDs and some Rock music compilations. A comprehensive list of credits for each film is also listed. Apart from the front cover, just under a page of space is given to images.

The second booklet is a catalogue for other BFI DVD releases including some notable landmark films such as "Cathy come home". Since this set is labelled Volume 1, I scoured the lists in vain looking for Volume 2, but it seems I am getting ahead of myself - at least for a catalogue listed as Spring 2005.

As the main titles of the DVDs suggest, the focus of the first DVD is on railways whilst on the second, the trains themselves are more peripheral.

So what do you get for your investment? All the films have been digitally remastered. They are all 4:3 aspect ratio. The image quality is first class. Apart from many of the films being black and white you would not notice the age of the original material. The menu structure for each DVD is the same. After the copyright notice and BFI screen (a not too lengthy procedure and no dire warnings of the evils of DVD piracy or renting from dodgy video stores) you are presented with a Main menu offering two choices - Play All; Select Film. Whilst you decide a film clip loops in the background. The Select Film menu lists each of the films available against another clip. Each DVD offers 7 films which vary in length between 7 and 28 minutes.

The 7 offerings on the first DVD are:
  "The Blue Pullman" - 1960, colour 25 minutes
  "The Elizabethan" - 1954, b&w, 20 minutes
  "Train Time" - 1952, b&w, 28 minutes
  "Rail 150" - 1975, colour, 14 minutes
  "The Diesel Train Driver (Part 1)" - 1959, b&w 7 minutes
  "On Track for the Eighties" - 1980, colour, 15 minutes
  "Cybernetica" - 1972, colour, 20 minutes

The films on the seconds DVD are:
  "Under the River" - 1959, b&w, 27 minutes
  "Snowdrift at Bleath Gill" - 1955, b&w, 10 minutes
  "This Year - London" - 1951, b&w, 25 minutes
  "This is York" - 1953, b&w, 20 minutes
  "The Great Highway" - 1966, colour, 20 minutes
  "A Day of One's Own" - 1956, b&w, 20 minutes
  "John Betjeman goes by Train" - 1962, b&w, 10 minutes

One of the aspects that sets these DVDs apart from many films aimed at the "enthusiast" market is that they were made as documentaries for showing in cinemas as "fillers" alongside the main feature. Students of documentaries can probably recognise techniques here that are still in use today. The point to draw from this is that if you expect to see trains, trains, trains, you will be disappointed. Where these films score over such concentrated offerings, is that in their broader sweep they actually show the wood rather than the trees and help to place the subject being presented in the context of that time. So without further ado here is a brief resume of each film.

"The Blue Pullman" opens with the final acceptance trials for these new diesel multiple units on the Midland main line. We see the interior of the train loaded with test gear including some dangling loops of string. As with all these films, the attire, bearing and formality is strikingly different to what we know today; during the early stage of the film the Pullman driver is wearing a bowler hat.

The film moves on to the inaugural journey from Manchester Central to London St. Pancras. There is plenty of internal photography (a rather good looking fried breakfast served at passengers' tables) as well as external shots of the train on its journey south. There is footage from the cab and we pass steam hauled freight travelling in the opposite direction - a chance to check on weathering detail if you freeze frame perhaps? During the film I was struck by the difference in appearance of the two sides of the train. One appears to have less white window surround than the other. I suspect this may be the kitchen cars which since Triang / Hornby never made such things are a mystery to me.

The film closes with an "on time" arrival in St. Pancras; there had been some time to make up as we were shown the train was behind on its scheduled timing. The top-hatted Station Master seems pleased. I enjoyed the film and some of the novel camera angles such as the view of the underside of the train as it rolled over an inspection pit at the depot.

"The Elizabethan" begins in Kings Cross and covers episodes in the non-stop journey to Edinburgh. In contrast to the first film, this one has a commentary - in rhyme. This is not in the same league as "Night Mail" and I found it grated, but as the film played on, either I became habituated to it or it improved and the irritation ceased. 60017 "Silver Fox" is rostered for the trip. There are many details to observe in the film for fans of 50s steam in the Eastern region. Some of the highlights for me were "dinner" - yes I know more food - taking on water from a trough at speed. Other details such as a return crank being refitted to an anonymous A4 show how Hornby might improve the robustness of their model gear - it needs to be square section chaps! Astute observers will notice on their second viewing of the films in this set that some scenes have been cut in from elsewhere.

"Train Time" is hung on the hook of a west country broccoli glut which needs to get to the markets in London ASAP. (The broccoli looks a lot like cauliflower to me, but since I eat neither, I doubt I am qualified to comment). The broccoli glut presses all available wagons onto the network - 5 plank wagons, ventilated vans, cattle wagons. Close observation reveals that the locomotives assigned to freight traffic have not all been repainted from their pre-BR colours. Some of the wagons show very faded private owner names and bare unpainted planks. All these extra wagons need locomotives and specially routed extra trains. The locos get "borrowed" from Bristol which in turn borrows locos from south Wales which means the tin plate starts to back up in the steel mills. There's plenty more - the hump yard at Toton, sea sick cattle delaying a cattle train from Stranraer leaving an interesting problem for the night shift. One of the major points that comes through in this film is just how much freight there was on the railways at that time. I think I need to buy a few more wagons!

"Rail 150" probably needs no introduction from me. It is a short documentary of the cavalcade at Shildon, mainly the locomotives on the parade track rather like racehorses before a race and to me even less interesting. For me this was the weakest film. I was expecting to see examples of "The 70s, the decade fashion forgot", but being summer, apart from some dodgy sideburns "In fact nothing to laugh at, at all".

"The Diesel Train Driver (Part 1)" is an introductory training film for engine men about to convert from steam traction. It is moderately interesting. If you like DMUs, this might be just the thing for you.

"On Track for the Eighties" is as modern as it gets. The film unit was disbanded shortly afterwards. For our forum there is some interest as there is a shot of a pair of 33s hauling an oil train away from the Wych Farm oil terminal. All you Heljan owners, stand by with your calipers. It is interesting to observe with hindsight how some future plans evolved from those envisaged at the time this film was made.

"Cybernetica" is a film with a difference. It is the only film which has the involvement of a now well known name, but you would be pushed to recognise him from the "official" documentary voice Michael Aspel uses for the commentary. Watching this film made me wonder what on earth had gone wrong. Here in 1972 the train paths were being set by computers - probably less powerful than ones in front of us now!; there was a 35 minute channel crossing (hovercraft) and the trains were light and airy. This was made in 1972, pre oil-shock I think, and yet it is pushing the line for clean non-poluting transport. 30 years later and we seem further away from that than ever.

On the second DVD, the trains move aside and some of the more peripheral aspects associated with railways takes centre stage.

"Under the River" documents the construction of the Severn Tunnel. This was a fascinating film, not unlike the recent programs "Seven Wonders Of The Industrial World" but without the dramatic reconstructions. Today people pass through on trains without even noticing.

"Snowdrift at Bleath Gill" reminds me of Thomas the tank engine and his tale in the snow. Once you are stuck, you are stuck; a cold steam engine can't melt snow. There are Wonderful pictures of a snowplough in action. Ideas for all you Settle & Carlisle modellers.

"This Year - London" is the story of a works outing to London. We begin in Leicester where the party is joined by our narrator for the day. Judging from the station announcement, this is not the only party going to London on a Saturday special. On arrival in London a fleet of coaches take them on tour and we catch a glimpse of St. Pauls when it was still one of the tallest and most imposing buildings in that part of town. And so a full day of sight seeing and activity unfolds before a return to St. Pancras for a very late train home. I thought this was an illuminating and thought provoking film - plenty of scope for running extra trains on my layout; I don't suppose that factory is open today; has the Christmas party replaced the works outing?

"This is York" makes me wonder which came first: this film or the Argo LP? We follow the Station Master through his day. Again we see his top hat and pick up many little details which can inform our modelling. The Northumbrian pulls in and Hornby appear to have got the the train name boards in the right place. Elsewhere a short of "The North Briton" shows nameplates higher up the roof. I was pleased to see colour light signals on York station, I am going to use it as an excuse not to have semaphores on my own layout. One final detail; no self respecting Station Master allows unused trolleys to be left lying about on the platform.

"The Great Highway" in question is the railway built by the Stephensons from London to Birmingham and on to Crewe, Liverpool and Manchester. We learn that Crewe works is not in Crewe at all but in a neighbouring townland due to the objections of the local landowner. The occasion of the film is the electrification of the West Coast Mainline. All the film has been shot just before corporate blue came in, so the footage of the electric traction hauled passenger trains is blue/white locos hauling maroon coaches - a fine colour combination.

"A Day of One's Own" is, to today's eyes, a surreal experience. I think my jaw was slack throughout as I made like a fish. We follow several women who are having a "day off" in which they please themselves - a walk in the country (having travelled from Waterloo on an EMU adorned with an early BR crest) - to a day shopping in Manchester (it rained, so some things don't change) to the WI outing in Durham (and you thought today's members were old, what they would make of Calendar Girls.....). A variety of trains feature, but it's a different world.

"John Betjeman goes by Train" The one where a younger JB travels by DMU from Kings Lynn to Hunstanton wearing a hat that was later worn by the Mafia soldiers in "The Italian Job" and the Sicilian dons in Godfather 3. He does not speak in verse or call down bombs on any of his destinations but his delivery is verging on the lyrical. There are glimpses of station buildings that have probably since been demolished. The highpoint of the film is Wolferton station - "Alight here for Sandringham".

The length of this review betrays how much I have enjoyed these two DVDs. There are so many other points I would like to raise - slide rules, health and safety, and so much more. I am sure I will play them again and do not regret their purchase.

But to each his own and if you are not very interested in the periods filmed and find recent social history of little interest then these DVDs may not be for you. 19.95 is not cheap even for a double DVD set giving 261 minutes of entertainment with 6 pages of interesting sleeve notes. If you get the chance to buy them for less I urge you to bite the seller's hand off - you will not regret it. For my part, roll on Volume 2.

DWB (02/2006)

 

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