Form befits content: Experiment Under London

'Experiment Under London', the latest and eleventh two-disc set in the BFI's British Transport Films Collection, is released on DVD on Monday, 19 August.

In November 2007, a friend and I attended a Cinematic Orchestra gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Deciding to navigate our way there from Waterloo on foot, we were bemused to find Londoners couldn’t point us in the general direction but for instructions relating to Tube stations. Though we got there eventually without need to go below ground, the trip confirmed two things: that London is massive and that its residents and workers consequently take its Tube system for granted. Maybe this explains why there’s something romantic about the Underground. Travelling on its trains, a visitor might feel anything between a mixture of anxiety, intrigue, romance, fear, confusion and loneliness, as she or he sits or stands, looking at others for whom Europe’s most expensive underground transport system is a daily essential, and at the diagrammatic maps that adorn the interior of every carriage just above head height, figuring out which stop is best to change onto a different line.

Just as the Tube itself might be taken for granted by anyone who doesn’t have to work within its tunnels every day (and night), so those examples of sponsored films made to document its erection, operation and history over the years have been neglected in both scholarly and, especially, critical terms. Functional rather than spectacular, the seven complete films included in this two-disc set from the BFI – which is the eleventh volume in its British Transport Films Collection – provide a fascinating insight into the creation of the Victoria Line, which was designed and built to run between Victoria and Walthamstow in order to relieve congestion in central London. Engineering work began in late 1962 and culminated in early 1969. In later years, the line was extended southward to Brixton.

Produced by the British Transport Films Unit for London Transport, these films can be seen today not only as history lessons in themselves, but also as a celebration of both the forethought and skills of this civil engineering project in particular and the mammoth physical efforts made in bringing its designs to fruition. They are also, of course, enduring portraits of engineering and its achievements in general. Presented chronologically, the films here include Experiment Under London (1961), in which preparatory experiments are being carried out at Finsbury Park to ascertain whether concrete or cast iron is better suited for lining the tunnels; Over and Under (1965), which introduces the project to viewers and updates with its progress so far, including the erection of a steel umbrella above Oxford Circus to allow for building works to begin beneath ground without halting road traffic; Down and Along (1965), which documents the tunnelling process – not just of the train tubes but of ventilation and escalator shafts as well as pedestrian walkways; Problems and Progress (1967), which looks at how engineers planned modifications and reinforcements to stations without disturbing existing lines; Equip and Complete (1968), which shows the final stages of construction and the lengths to which management went in order to ensure quality control; and London’s Victoria Line (1969), which compiles the key elements of the previous films in order to collect and present its abridged history in one sitting.

Though the films were intended to be accessible overviews to casual observers, I can’t pretend to have followed all of the ins and outs of the logistical concerns documented therein. What comes across in scores, however, is the legitimate pride of the engineers who designed and oversaw the Victoria Line’s production, and the genius and mastery of their technology – whose accuracy, an outcome of scientific knowledge, is at times difficult to comprehend. To those interested in London Underground, these films reward repeat viewings not only as documentaries but also as beautifully crafted films in and of themselves. James Ritchie directed Experiment Under London; directorial duties for the other five films were shared between Bob Privett and Donald Washbourne. Echoing the collective efforts involved in the Victoria Line’s construction, the tension between individual agency and the implications of sponsored filmmaking attains here a palpably rare unity. Two extras are included: A Hundred Years Underground (1963), directed by John Rowdon, a 40-minute history of London Underground’s origins and expansions, and six minutes of mute rushes of Queen Elizabeth opening the Victoria Line in 1969.

Newly mastered in High Definion, the five films made between 1965 and 1968 boast exceptional colour cinematography by Trevor Roe, Jack West and Ronald Craigen. For all their historical value, what makes these works as enduring as they are is their peerless control of light and colour. In imagistic terms, the films match the revolutionary qualities of the engineering work they depict. Texturally, they evoke – as did some of the colour films in the BFI’s previously reviewed Steel release – a kind of transformative potential, illustrating in what are frankly astounding painterly ways what life might look (or indeed feel) like in a future society. (See this interview with Patrick Keiller, on whom these films have presumably had some influence.) The contradictions of life under capitalism – of privatised industry and of the misery suffered by the millions that use London’s underground transport system – have yet to be reconciled. But for a brief moment, we allowed ourselves to imagine and build a tube-shaped utopia that helped revolutionise the way we conceptualise space and time. And these have political ramifications that are relevant and vital to think about today.
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All images from Victoria Line Report No. 2: Down and Along