Guaranteed to excite archivists, documentary buffs, social historians and those whose hearts palpitate at the thought of diesel fumes, oil stains and mass transit, London on the Move is a detailed and interesting series of short films – made between 1947 and 1983 – that examine various aspects of the daily arterial workings of the UK capital’s public transport system.
Comprised of 13 films spread over two discs, there are almost four hours of informative and light-hearted fun here, covering such subjects as mechanical overhaul, lost property, staff canteens and general modernisation. With the wealth of material included, the BFI’s extensive Transport Films Collection – of which this is the tenth DVD volume—is without doubt the definitive visual document on the subject.
The opening and best short is All That Mighty Heart (1963), shot between ‘53 and ‘63. The film’s style could best be described and aesthetically ‘clean’, much like others in the collection. Most of the shots are static, and present the action concisely and without visual gimmicks. Gleaming trains and buses glide gracefully into shot; hands enter frame-left and push buttons on flickering panels tattooed with schematics; close-ups show the details of engineering maintenance (which is a lot more fascinating than it sounds). It’s all beautifully and unobtrusively lit too, and it’s no surprise that the cinematographer David Watkin went on to feature films and an Oscar win.
Considering the period most of the films were produced in, there is also plenty of the clipped and proper narration one would associate with the iconic Bob Danvers-Walker, although visually many of the sequences are gently lyrical too. Corporate film certainly doesn’t equal an absence of art here. For example, All That Mighty Heart begins with a tranquil montage showing a Central London yet to wake; the train drivers travelling early to work are serenaded by a narration that consists of a beautiful quotation from Wordsworth’s 1802 poem Composed upon Westminster Bridge, including the line that gives the film its title: “the river glideth at his own sweet will, and all that mighty heart, is lying still”.
The strength of the best films in the collection is this enduring mix of practical filmmaking—showing people doing practical things—and a deeper, more philosophical look at the function of the transport system, and how it represents a microcosmic world reflecting a scaled down version of London as a whole.
There is plenty of appealing oddness to enjoy here too, of which the highlights are numerous: One for One (1964), an entirely innocuous film about the business of servicing a bus engine, features disturbing orchestral music that wouldn’t be out of place in The Omen. I can only imagine that the composer Edward Williams was a bit frustrated and longing for a break into the big time of feature films, because on this evidence, he’d already made his mind up to write a creepy, dramatic score for the film, regardless of the subject matter. Wonderful.
There’s also an amusing and old-fashioned animation from 1969, Automatic Fare Collection and You, a sort of proto-Who Framed Roger Rabbit? without the overt violence, in which a little animated arrow flies around with a glistening comet tail, whizzing between flustered hatbox-carrying housewives and smartly dressed golfers, guiding them through the station’s new ticket barrier process (“Remember, lift those bags up!”). Another, The Nine Road (1975), about the No. 9 bus route across Central London, opens and closes with a lovely folk song featuring some of the most charmingly literal lyrics I’ve ever heard, and in Do You Remember? (1955), two guards on the London Underground find the discarded upper torso of a curvy female mannequin in a train carriage. “Whatcha gonna do with it?” asks one; “Dunno, might take it home with me” replies the other. Erm, OK.
Nevertheless, all the films are beautifully made, clearly the work of experienced crews. They also strive to convey a similar message, which they do very well: that the London transport system runs smoothly, safely and effectively, and that it operates on the forefront of modern technology (I was impressed to see a complicated CCTV system already being used on the London Underground in the early ‘60s; it looked indistinguishable from the current system, save for it being in black and white rather than colour).
Some people may consider the subject matter of this collection as a little dull, but they’d be wrong. Just like another of the BFI’s excellent releases, The Elephant Will Never Forget, John Krish’s moving 1953 film about the end of the London tram system, all these thoughtful transport films have been directed with an artist’s eye, and most demonstrate that there is definitely a poetry to the mundane. As XTC’s Andy Partridge once noted, “The ordinary is endlessly fascinating”, and in this context, he’s absolutely right.
Extras include a detailed booklet with notes on each film, plus Moving Millions (1947), a Central Office of Information film detailing the massive logistical scope of London’s transport system. The majority of the films have also been newly mastered in High Definition, and the results show crisp visuals that are a treat to behold.