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Roadways (1937)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Roadways (1937)
35mm, black and white, 14 mins
DirectorsWilliam Coldstream
 Stuart Legg
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
Produced byAlberto Cavalcanti
CameraJonah Jones
 H.E. Fowle
MusicE.H. Meyer

A survey of the development of transport and the growth of highways in Britain since 1918 and the effects on industry and communications.

Show full synopsis

The briskly edited opening sequence of Roadways shows workers at a GPO transport depot busily preparing for the haulage of mail and GPO engineering materials across the country. Goods are labelled, weighed and loaded onto lorries. The process is executed with clockwork precision by real workers with real accents, thus capturing something of the candour of ordinary life in a way that sets the documentary film apart from the feature. The artistic use of natural noises in this sequence is striking. Paul Rotha employed this technique to good effect in Shipyard (1935).

Having engaged the viewer, the primary aim is to impart essential information on behalf of the film's sponsor and the introduction of commentary at the beginning of the second sequence decreases the sense of intimacy between viewer and subject. "Every morning these giant long-distance lorries swing out onto the roadway... Their day's journey takes them through the new world of the modern roads... But behind this changing panorama of our roads there lies one of the gravest problems of our time."

Roadways was made at a time when "roads took their yearly toll of more than 6,000 lives". With its fleets of lorries and vans, concern over road safety was of direct relevance to the GPO. Underlying what is ostensibly a fact-laden survey of road transport, with emphasis on the heavy growth of road traffic from 1918 until the 1930s, is the film's real objective - to promote the GPO as a responsible and conscientious road user in an era of "few rules and too little control". It's worth bearing in mind that the driving test for new drivers (existing drivers were not obliged to take the test) had been introduced only three years before this film, under the Road Traffic Act 1934.

In lesser hands this production might have amounted to a lacklustre chronology of road transport but in the very capable hands of GPO luminaries Stuart Legg and William Coldstream the material is dramatised and humanised. Most memorable are the individual sequences showing the various types of road users such as lorry drivers at the pull-in, the woman sewing at the wheel while stuck in traffic, and the teenage bikers, amongst them an accordionist, relaxing on the roadside.

Katy McGahan

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (14:25)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1937