The Driving Force: industries and imagery without equal today

24 February 2014

'The Driving Force', the latest and twelfth two-disc set in the BFI's British Transport Films Collection, is out on DVD today.

For a northeasterner whose eagerness to move to London fluctuates dramatically, the British Transport Films’ output has a strange, lasting appeal. To be more specific, while the BTF’s perpetuation of ‘The South’ as the de facto host to those essential qualities of ‘Britishness’ (for better and worse) was in line with many other sponsored filmmaking units in post-war Britain, its geographical coverage—conditioned by a truly nationwide industry—seems to have enabled a less patronising division of Britain between that formidable magnet ‘London’ and the ‘provincial’ land around it. It helps that such films often boast (in spite of their functional nature) enduringly exceptional cinematography, their credits including great, unsung masters of colour such as Trevor Roe, Jack West and Ronald Craigen. Before anything else, there’s frankly an imagistic richness to these films that is mostly and alarmingly without equal today.

The Driving Force is the twelfth volume in the BFI’s ongoing British Transport Films Collection and features promotional documentaries made between 1955 and 1982. Many of the films featured are concerned with the shift from steam- to diesel-powered trains. Infectiously proud in their emphasis upon modernisation and the rapidity with which the UK’s heavy industries were able to put the nation at the economic forefront, these short films also have a bittersweet edge today. In the decades following the Second World War, speed, convenience and ease were the repeated buzzwords in propagating enthusiasm for British Rail’s expanding network of passenger services and freight locomotives; as one narrator remarks in Contact with the Heart of England (1967), nationalised train travel promised “low fares at a time when everything else in our budget is going up.” Even if my young person’s railcard wasn’t due to expire next month, such remarks would hit hard. They couldn’t be further removed from a present-day passenger’s experience of train travel.

Indeed, one responds with anger to claims made in The Good Way to Travel (1966) that trains are indeed “indisputably” the best form of transport. Prolonged neglect and privatisation has in the decades since, of course, rendered train travel disastrously expensive. Trains continue to be the brazenly forward-moving embodiment of class society in Britain, with their archaic subscription to a tiered carriage system—updated accordingly and shamelessly from first- and second-class to business and standard—and their alarming absence of what in today’s odious culture is called ‘customer service’. Catch cheaper equivalents by road, such as the tardy Megabus, and the change in class is visible. If talking about indisputable facets of Cameron’s Britain, then, let’s for the sake of brevity call a spade a spade: East Coast (the trains company operating long-distance passenger services out of London to Leeds, Newcastle and as far north as Inverness) is the cancerous epitome of a governmentally criminalised Britain.

None of this is to take away from the often brilliant filmmaking on display in this two-disc DVD set, however. Assembled chronologically, the selection opens with Bridge of Song (1955), a rousing, musical ode to a century of industrial invention, which fittingly and persuasively concludes with the claim that “history is continuous”. Indeed, advancements in technology, industry and civil engineering in the twentieth century enabled an unprecedented and exponential acceleration of trade and travel, of import and export. “The trick has been to keep the best features of old practices and use them as a background to new ways of working,” so claims the narrator of The Future Works (1969). A sound principle! Thereafter, the same film presents one logistical problem after another only to show off the forward thinking of those behind the ingenuity of the UK’s rail network. One can’t help but marvel.

Even a film as ostensibly dry as Freight Flow (1969) has merits. Beyond its extraordinary cinematographic texture, its dizzyingly dense depiction of the UK’s central position within a worldwide manufacturing industry becomes increasingly enthralling, as the continuous, daily movement of freight from one country’s production line to that of another takes on poetic qualities. Enthusiasts of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Space (1997) and his 2001 essay ‘Port Statistics’ (recently reprinted in this book) will find much to admire here. Similar to Keiller’s film, meanwhile, Going Places Fast (1974) promotes a northward journey away from London, venturing to York and other regions with optimistic abandon. Even if the ulterior motive is to make money from it, seeing the world is a splendid thing.

From the searing black-and-white imagery of Joe ‘Rocker’ Brown and his band The Bruvvers performing in Joe Brown at Clapham (1965) to the remarkable colour in The Driving Force (1966), Britain is documented with such vivacity here that it’s barely recognisable. The gentle maximalism of the latter film, combined with some masterful (and amusing) editorial flourishes, also speaks of a narrative creativity seldom felt in the nation’s filmmaking landscape today. As exhaustive and overwhelming in its details as Scotland-set Partners in Prosperity (1980), The Driving Force puts the UK at the centre of transglobal trade and innovation. “Experiences as concentrated as this exist nowhere else”, “do not exist anywhere else in the world.” Alongside such comments, something resembling nostalgic bafflement creeps in. Perhaps the UK’s filmic output is so barren today because as an industry, it’s been treated by its government just as any other: not with mild indifference, but with active, disdainful venom.

See also:
Form befits content: Experiment Under London (BTF Collection Vol. 11)

Images from The Driving Force (1966)

Images from Partners in Prosperity (1980)