Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Motorway (1959)


Main image of Motorway (1959)
16mm, colour, 30 mins
Production CompanyJohn Laing & Son
CommentatorRichard Baker

A report on the construction of the London to Birmingham motorway.

Show full synopsis

The monumental effort to construct the M1, Britain's first long-distance motorway, through a harsh winter and a flooded summer between 1958 and 1959 was such an epic project that it seems a natural subject for film. The lead-contractors on the job, John Laing & Son, had a clear interest in promoting the achievement and advocating the success of its planning, which explains their investment in a film on the project. But Laing had a much bigger commitment to film, setting up their own company film unit and producing numerous films on a variety of construction techniques and jobs. Although such productions were principally intended for promotional purposes to bring new contracts to the company, this film in particular is also intended as document, or testament to those responsible for its delivery.

The film was produced with fewer facilities than would have been available to the bigger, more established film units, but nevertheless is filmed with some imagination and ambition. For example, a sequence showing the start of construction tilts the camera and films from low angles to make these already large machines seem like monsters. Other sections are handled in a more straightforward fashion, and one can imagine that a number of cameramen would have been involved in filming over such a long project, helping explain the variety of styles.

Maintaining continuity during the 19 months of filming and across 110 miles of carriageway must have been difficult, and the planning of the filming would have been as subject to the vagaries of the weather as the project itself. The film sensibly takes a chronological approach, building up the road from foundations to tarmac, although these elements would have been filmed out of sequence in different sections of the project. The film mentions how the use of a helicopter was an important factor in overseeing and monitoring the course of work, and it is equally important for the film. The travelling bird's eye views along the length of the road give the truest picture of the scale of the job, although some may consider that they also reveal the true extent of the scar the construction made upon the landscape.

Jez Stewart

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (29:29)
Building for the Nuclear Age (1960)
Laing Film Unit