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Scene from Melbury House, The (1973)


Main image of Scene from Melbury House, The (1973)
35mm, 15 min, colour
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
SponsorBritish Railways Board
ProducerEdgar Anstey
EditorJohn Legard

Images from the rooftop of British Transport Films' offices in West London.

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This unusual piece from British Transport Films had atypical origins. From 1967 onwards, trainee camera operators were given scraps of mute Eastmancolour film stock on which to practice their cinematography. From the roof of their Marylebone HQ, shots were taken of the streets below, only later edited together (by unit veteran John Legard) with additional footage taken by experienced BTF cinematographers Ron Craigen and James Ritchie. The mosaic of images is accompanied by music recorded by the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra, based on Ralph Vaughan Williams' London Symphony (the late Vaughan Williams had been an acquaintance of BTF head Edgar Anstey and had scored 1957's The England of Elizabeth, d. John Taylor).

The resulting film, which received non-theatrical release, is a minor but magical delight. Shot over such a long period, it appears to follow the dawn-to-dusk logic of a single day, while also traversing the seasons: snow, fog and sun are all in evidence. It is peopled by busy pedestrians, playing schoolchildren, parading horses, nuns from a nearby Convent, all shot from above. Landmark buildings (the GPO Tower, Big Ben) are seen. So are cranes and other signs of demolition and construction. Late in the film, both the union flag and British Transport's own flag are seen flapping in the breeze.

An inevitably fascinating period scrapbook, the film is also an oddly moving late entry to a distinguished filmmaking tradition entering its final decade. By 1973, small-screen practice had shifted viewers' expectations of documentary away from the big-screen 1930s filmmaking from which Anstey's BTF was directly descended. Television commissioning was replacing institutional sponsorship as the principal source for documentary production; reportage and verité filmmaking had supplanted John Grierson's earlier conceptions of 'creative treatment of actuality' allied to a public service ethos. Observational filmmaking had never been central to such conceptions. Some largely observational films had come out of this older tradition, but as its least prestigious products. Films like People in the Park (d. Donald Alexander/Paul Burnford, 1936), effectively the 'quota quickies' of the documentary industry, are updated by Melbury House, an observational film which makes discreet, modern use of panning and zooming but has little in common with contemporaneous factual television. Its observation, though furtive, is both respectful towards and - literally - distant from its subjects. And the film is conscious both of its own cinematic artistry and of its modest intentions, as a diversion for filmmakers and audience alike.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'Off the Beaten Track'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (14:14)
Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)
British Transport Films