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Great Ship, A (1962)

Courtesy of P&O Heritage Collection (

Main image of Great Ship, A (1962)
35mm, Eastmancolour, 31 mins
Directed by John Reeve
Production Company Rayant Pictures
Sponsor P and O Lines
Produced by Anthony Gilkison
Photographed by Douglas Ransom
Music Composed and Conducted by Albert Elms
NarrationTim Brinton
 Patrick Magee

The construction of the SS Canberra, Britain's largest liner for twenty years.

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Produced by Regent Pictures for P&O Liners, John Reeve's documentary combines impressive footage of ship construction and eager workers with an earnest commentary (courtesy of TV personality and Conservative politician Tim Brinton) to present an unashamedly affirmative vision of British shipbuilding as managed by P&O.

Along the way the viewer is introduced to several of the key personalities involved in the shipbuilding process, most prominently Bill Duncan, the crane operator who 'sees more than most of the new ship from his perch in the clouds'. Bill ostensibly becomes the commentator for several sequences (he is in fact voiced by popular Irish actor Patrick Magee) in which we see the process from the working man's perspective. A Great Ship certainly strives to be egalitarian in its depiction of the workforce and later we even see glimpses of Bill's home life and family. But the film goes further in communicating the collaborative effort of building an ocean liner, taking the viewer on a voyage to several exotic locales: to Australia to meet the farmers whose Merino wool will be used in the "fine fabrics that will decorate the cabins"; to the border of Burma and India where elephants tow giant tree trunks that will provide the timber for the Canberra's decks and panelling. And - rather less far afield - to a factory in Rugby, where they make turbo alternators for the ship's giant engine.

Montages of welding, hammering and more craning ensue as the impressive structure of the SS Canberra gradually takes shape. The ship's launch is spectacularly filmed from several perspectives as crowds cheer and ships' horns cry out. A Great Ship's final quarter is an unashamedly promotional guided tour of the Canberra's wares - its imposing engine room, pristine cabins and shining bridge. The final shots see the Canberra gracefully gliding through calm waters whilst Brinton's commentary boldly declares the ship to represent "an unshakable faith in the future of British sea trade."

Launched on 16 March 1960, SS Canberra entered service in May 1961, initially operating the combined P&O-Orient Line service between the United Kingdom and Australia. Canberra was adapted for cruising in 1974 before being requisitioned by the British Navy as a troopship during the Falklands War, a role that made her familiar and popular with the British public. She was eventually retired from service and sold for scrapping in 1997.

James Blackford

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Tales from the Shipyard'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. London and Belfast (4:03)
2. Steel and wool (4:46)
3. A double christening (2:51)
Magee, Patrick (1922-1982)
Tales from the Shipyard