There’s something about the films foraged from the extensive BFI archives which makes the viewer hanker after a Britain which no longer exists. Their latest volume, The Driving Force, featuring various British Transport Films from the 1950s through to the 1980s, is a case in point. The fourteen documentary shorts on this educational and entertaining two-disc collection were aimed at children and adults alike, used for staff training and promotion as well as public information films. The main theme connecting these offerings is their emphasis on the progress of trains, both as a mode of public and transportation.
Take, for instance, Joe Brown at Clapham (1965), where Brown – a popular sixties singing star – gives younger audiences a potted history of the formation of Britain’s railways accompanied by his ‘jazzy’ rendition of The Railway Song (a catchy ditty sung by the navvies who built the country’s original railway infrastructure). Or consider Diesel Power on British Railways (1965) – at five minutes, one of the shortest films featured – praising the glories of Britain’s diesel locomotive fleet which was at the time the largest in Western Europe. Other films like Inter-City 1250 (1982) sought to promote the new high speed trains which ran between the nation’s major cities as an efficient mode of transport for both business convenience and leisure.
More than mere promotional tools, however, these films act like sociological time capsules, providing snapshots of a lost Britain. From inner-city to open country, here is a landscape altered forever by the advent of this constantly evolving transport system. Here also as these documentary gems show, are lifestyles, attitudes and fashions which, like our railway system, have over the years changed beyond all recognition. Driving Force is also accompanied by a fully illustrated and detailed booklet by expert curators, including an introduction by Steven Foxon.
This collection is yet another example of what the BFI does best – namely preserving our heritage for generations to come through the universal medium of the moving image. Though to modern audiences these films may, at times, appear a little staid in delivery, they nonetheless reminded the viewer of the halcyon days of train travel, when the service offered meant that you got to your destination in comfort and on time. Something which, like the world depicted here, is all too often a thing of the past for the modern commuter.