T E B Clarke's The Titfield Thunderbolt, directed by Charles Crichton, is often considered the epitome of this relaxation of attitudes. It celebrates its 60th Anniversary this year and Studiocanal have re-released the film in a beautifully restored high definition transfer. While much of its charm lies in the depiction of rural England, shot in Technicolour, and the fantasy of the tightly knit community coming together to defeat what they see as the short sightedness of government modernity and nationalisation, the film attempts to stall the fragmentation and dilution of the upper classes and the gentlemanly old order that took place in the late 1950s and the effects of the Labour victory of 1945 which introduced such game-changing legislation as the 1947 Railways Act and the Agricultural Act.
... a fantasy of an Empire still untainted by war or consumerism
After writing additional dialogue for the golf story sequence directed by Charles Crichton in the supernatural portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945), it was his first script for "the Ealing film that begs to differ" Hue and Cry (1947) that inaugurated his long association with Ealing comedies and set the template for the particular social structures, themes and characters that would dominate the idiosyncratic worlds of Passport to Pimlico, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. It is a world where East End boys use their favourite comic book to round up criminals, rationing is temporarily abolished when a London community is annexed to Burgundy and a mild mannered bank clerk turns master criminal and melts gold bullion down into souvenirs of the Eiffel tower.
The inspiration for The Titfield Thunderbolt seems to have originated from 'Tibby' Clarke's visit, in 1951, to the restored narrow gauge Talyllyn Railway, a volunteer run service carrying passengers and slate on the coast between Towyn and Abergynolwyn, in Wales. Tom Rolt, the honorary manager of the volunteers running the railway, had also written a book Railway Adventure and this apparently inspired many incidents in Clarke's script, including the sequences where passengers are required to push the train carriages and the engine is supplied with buckets of water from nearby rivers and streams.
Ironically, when Clarke was writing The Titfield Thunderbolt in 1952, his neighbour at the time was Richard Beeching, then Director of ICI. In 1963, as chairman of the British Transport Commission, he was responsible for the infamous The Reshaping of British Railways report that paved the way for massive cuts to British Rail, then losing £140m a year, the closure of many local branch lines, of over two thousand stations and the loss of nearly 70,000 British Rail jobs. Protests from the kind of local communities that were epitomised in Clarke's story fell on deaf ears.
The sequences involving the removal from the town museum of the Titfield Thunderbolt engine were shot at the now demolished entrance of Imperial College opposite the Albert Hall, using a wooden replica of the train. A genuine 1838 Liverpool and Manchester railway locomotive, the Lion, was used on location in Bath and Somerset. Woodstock High Street in Oxford was the setting for the stolen 1400 Class engine's drive through the village and for these sequences a replica 1400 engine was built onto a lorry chassis and included a prop fire box. The subsequent crash was shot in Richmond Park and involved an elaborate set up to get a shot of birds (pigeons hidden in special boxes) flying out of the tree when the engine crashes into it. (3)
Even at the time, the film offered a rose-tinted hue of the English sense of Arcadia, a fantasy of an Empire still untainted by war or consumerism. It is a gentle comedy that opens with the closure of the Titfield branch and the cessation of a train service relied upon and regularly used by the local community. A coach service, run by Alec Pearce (Ewan Roberts) and Vernon Crump (Jack MacGowran), seeks to exploit the gap in the market and replace the train with a modern, commercially aggressive operation.
However, Pearce and Crump find themselves in a battle to the commercial death when the local squire Gordon Chesterford (John Gregson) and Titfield's railway enthusiast reverend Sam Weech (George Relph) persuade wealthy drunk and self-made man Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway) to back a volunteer passenger rail service by tempting him with a licensed bar on the train in lieu of his waiting for the pubs to open. Former train driver Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith) is recruited and the community-run railway service is given a trial period much to the horror of Pearce and Crump who then set out to literally derail the entire endeavour.
Beyond the film's quaint, surface charm, one besotted with the romance of steam and a feudal dream of villages run by squires and vicars, there are a number of themes at work. As the film opens, Charlie the station master is handed a "death warrant" in the form of a poster announcing the closure of the line that places the film's events within the period where the cold hand of modernism was closing in on British Rail. The British Transport Commission (BTC) had already set in motion a plan to close the least used branch lines at the end of the 1940s just as 1950s Britain saw the end of petrol rationing and a boom in car ownership and economically rail passenger and freight services were beginning to decline.
The dominance of the road and the use of steam engines in their construction are represented perhaps by Hawkins (Sid James) and his steam roller: it blocks the squire's access to the station, it is used to block the line after Dan, Gordon and Sam start running their train service. It literally attempts to roll the past out of existence. As well as the steam roller, Crichton also introduces the Pearce and Crump bus company and their commercial intentions, as underlined by Pearce as he gazes upon the new coach he has bought: "five years from now they'll be calling this place Pearcetown."
The decline of trains handling freight might well be comically signalled by the gag in the opening sequence where the conductor of the train hurls a package defiantly labelled as 'fragile' across to Charlie and it crashes to the floor with the unmistakable sound of breakage. British Rail's imposition on branch lines is also clearly codified when the train threatens to leave squire Gordon behind on market day. He's four minutes early according to the church clock but the conductor reminds him that "British Rail is run by Greenwich not Titfield time". He retorts that his great grandfather built the railway "for Titfield not for Greenwich". Immediately, this branch line is shown more as the property of the squire and his community rather than a cog in a nationalised state industry.
The community's attempt to preserve tradition, and its eventual reliance on the Titfield Thunderbolt locomotive itself, is also highlighted early in the film. When Gordon breaks the news of the line's closure to Sam, Sam picks up a framed drawing of the Thunderbolt and looks longingly at it and mourns: "the oldest surviving branch line in the world. It's unthinkable. They can't possibly close it." These words would not be out of place in the mantra of the Railway Development Association, founded in 1951 and set up to fight the BTC's closures and who would gain ground when it came to fighting the Beeching proposals. The foreshadowing of the Thunderbolt's role is also made by Crichton in his filming of the transport inquiry, the engine dominating the foreground and background of many shots.
"the home of the amateur"
This is a point underlined by Pearce and Crump's own back of a wagon campaign "a victim of amateuritis". As it trundles through the pastoral Titfield, it suggests that state controlled transport policy is a patient in danger of dying on the operating table at the hands of those ill-equipped to operate. Ironically, at the time of the film's release, the American management expert David Granick's research in the 1950s had concluded that Britain was "the home of the amateur" and observed in post-war Britain an old fashioned management, based on the cult of the gentleman amateur, was stifling the drive towards modernisation. (4)
Modernisation and commercialism are the community's enemies and this battle is visually set up after the Titfield residents secure their line's reprieve. Crichton frames train and bus criss-crossing through the landscape, both bringing their villagers to the line closure inquiry, driven on by composer Georges Auric's jaunty, insistent themes. The inquiry itself is a dissection of inspired amateurs, learning to drive trains, becoming guards through private tuition, commercial interests and union effrontery and labour protest. The squire Gordon reminds all that this battle is also about the deleterious effects of modernism and commercialism on tradition: "You realise you're condemning our village to death. Open it up to buses and lorries and what's it going to be like in five years time? Our lanes will be concrete roads, our houses will have numbers instead of names, there'll be traffic lights and zebra crossings..." Decades later and you could say his prophecy has come to pass with today's constant reports of the death of the high street and the various attempts to revive it.
This battle cry frames the rest of the film as it becomes a fight to overcome the various attempts by Pearce and Crump to scuttle the train service and deny the triumph of the amateur over the commercial professional through ideological and criminal proceedings. They rope in Hawkins to seek revenge after the train trashes his steam roller in a neat scene that parallels that other symbol of commercialism: television. In the village pub it just happens to be showing a western where a gang struggle to hold up a train as they too sit down to plot. Crichton matches a shot of the three cowboy gangsters on television with a shot of Pearce, Crump and Hawkins scheming away and later has Hawkins and Dan taking pot shots, in a surreal English parallel of cowboys and indians, as the train arrives to take on water.
Dave Rolinson suggests that 1950s British comedies sought to depict communities triumphing over ruthless business practices where "consumerism is the enemy of consensus, an alienating presence impinging on the value of work and, through the individualising agency of television, the domestic space."(5). Crichton shows the television transmission breaking down and the shot of the "normal service will be resumed as soon as possible" caption card suggests that the conflict is now in the real world, not just the fantasy of a western, and it is a fight to assert which service - amateur and non-profit or professional and commercial - will be resumed and ultimately successful.
The final hour becomes a fantasy of community solidarity - fixing up the station, preparing the engine - that attains its greatest significance when, first, water supplies are deliberately cut off for the engine and a chain of villagers, who seem to emerge from nowhere, attempts to fill it with water carried in any receptacle they can find, literally throwing the baby out for the bath water in one instance. Finally, when Pearce, Crump and Hawkins do eventually derail the engine, the community raid the local museum and bring an ultimate symbol of traditional values, the Titfield Thunderbolt, out of retirement to secure the traditions of the past in the present.
Before this, Dan and Valentine go on a drunken reverie, steal another 1400 engine and in the film's highlight, actually turn the engine into an all terrain vehicle, taking it off the rails in a witty moment where it crashes through an advertising hoarding for Guinness, depicting a cartoon figure holding up a steel girder and implying the stout is "for strength". The strength needed to smash the capitalist chicanery of their rivals, one presumes, and use the train to briefly replace the bus service by driving it down the high street, in a spectacularly incongruous vision, before it crashes into the trees and the two men are arrested, having "sinned in a good cause" according to reverend Sam.
The film concludes with the line's effort to pass inspection by the Ministry of Transport using Heath Robinson amateurism to run a service harnessing together the Titfield Thunderbolt and Dan's former home of passenger carriage. It is so precariously put together that rail stock is literally held together with string and at one point the passengers get out to push the train when it all comes apart. Their triumph with the Ministry is greeted by running white horses, squawking chickens, gangs of villagers, a disbanded cricket match - all in thrall to this symbolic act of self-preservation.
Crichton's film is a delightful whimsy and brings together a wonderful cast, many of whom had become Ealing regulars, including Stanley Holloway, Edie Martin, Sid James and John Gregson and many English actors who made their name in wartime British cinema. Crichton's light touch and visual sense capture a fleeting flavour of Englishness and a romantic view of rail travel that has long since vanished and was even something of an anachronism in 1953.
A perfect indulgence for a wet Sunday afternoon, The Titfield Thunderbolt remains, in reality, a celebratory backward glance to a pre-war parochial England and as Charles Barr notes, it is: "Timeless and self-sufficient - like the railway of the credits - going round in circles, protected from the world outside" and depicts a rose tinted view of community in 1950s Britain which was already conservative and static. It was a view that earlier Ealing comedies had successfully interrogated just as Britain strained to unite community stability with the demand for economic prosperity, modern services and appliances, better housing and physical and ideological reconstruction. (6)
(1) Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to Present
(2) and (3) Alex Seal, The Titfield Thunderbolt (http://www.alextrack.co.uk/movies/the_titfield_thunderbolt/) and Simon Castens, The Titfield Thunderbolt (http://eis.bris.ac.uk/~liserc/tit.html)
(4) Judith A Merkle, Management and Ideology
(5) Dave Rolinson, ''If they want culture, they pay': consumerism and alienation in 1950s comedies' in British Cinema in the 1950's: An Art in Peacetime
(6) Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, A Movie Book.
About the transfer
Pinewood Post and Narduzzo Too oversaw the restoration of the film from a 2K scan of the 35mm re-combined dupe negatives and further details about that are here. I only had the DVD at my disposal for this review so my comments reflect the standard definition picture.
However, judging by the improvements that can be seen on DVD I expect the Blu Ray will show off the restoration even better. What we do get is excellent reproduction of the Technicolour, vastly superior to the quite faded version I last saw on DVD and correcting many of the colour registration issues. Douglas Slocombe's photography is well served, especially in his capturing of the Somerset and Bath locations and the green landscapes resonate and glow. The flesh tones are robust and the palettes for costumes and interiors are reproduced very satisfactorily. Detail is also impressive too in hedgerows and trees, on all the various trains, buses and cars and in the costumes, with their preponderance to tweeds and dog tooth checks. There are good contrast levels that afford the transfer depth and the requisite grain is present and correct. Naturally, with some sequences using back projection and optical mattes the picture quality does occasionally dip. The DVD provides a very enjoyable viewing experience.
Making the Titfield Thunderbolt (9:13)
A brief exploration of the making of the film with Ealing critic Charles Barr, assistant director David Peers and draughtsmen Norman Dorme and Tony Rimmington. They discuss how Clarke was inspired to write the story, the cast, the shooting on location, finding engines and drivers and creating trains that could drive down high streets. Sound recordist Rex Hipple and David Peers also discuss the use of Technicolour and working with director Charles Crichton.
Douglas Slocombe Home Movie Footage (10:22)
A lovely record of the location recce and shooting courtesy of Slocombe's 16mm camera. The footage is accompanied by an interview with Slocombe that Matthew Sweet conducted in October 2012. Plenty of detail about the period and what Ealing demanded of the location. This shows the closed Monkton Combe station before the production transformed it into Titfield and the subsequent shoot in Woodstock of the engine running down the high street and crashing in Richmond Park. Slocombe and Sweet touch on the notion of a "disappearing England' that the film seems to capture.
The Lion Locomotive (5:40)
Liverpool Museum's Sharon Brown provides a welcome history of the Lion locomotive used in The Titfield Thunderbolt. Made for the Liverpool and Manchester railway, Lion survives to this day since leaving service and being sold to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in 1859. Brown relates the recovery and restoration of the engine, its film roles and taking part in the 150th celebrations of the railway and its return to Liverpool's Great Port Gallery.
Locations featurette (2:34)
A brief comparison between past and present of the locations of the film. Footage does not have a commentary and is backed by the film's theme music.
Douglas Slocombe on Charles Crichton audio interview (4:22)
Further material from the interview conducted by Matthew Sweet that focuses on Slocombe's thoughts about director Charles Crichton. Some amusing anecdotes about beards, sauce and punch ups in restaurants.
A selection of posters, publicity stills and behind the scenes images.
Restoration Comparison (3:39)
Split screen affair that demonstrates the picture and audio clean up. Of note is the correction of the Technicolour registrations and the reduction in some of the flicker in the image too.
Unrestored UK trailer. According to its narrator the Thunderbolt is "still blushing at the memory of the night when she was whistled at by Stevenson's 'Rocket'."
The Titfield Thunderbolt
Rank presentation of an Ealing Films Production 1953
Cert: U / Released 14 January 2013
DVD tech specs: Region 2 / Total Running Time: 80 mins approx / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / English Language / HOH Subtitles / Catalogue No: OPTD2522
Blu-ray tech specs: Region B / Total Running Time: 83 mins approx / Colour / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 LPCM / English Language / HOH Subtitles / Catalogue No: OPTBD2522