Capturing a single day at Waterloo station, Terminus (d. John Schlesinger, 1961) combines two kinds of documentary filmmaking: a sort of cinema verité, a 'true' record of life passing by, and little stories that emerge, vanish, then reappear later in the film. Its many different perspectives - close-ups, long-shots, high and low angles - keep things lively. Every time you watch it you notice some new, pleasing detail. Unlike the GPO Film Unit's Night Mail (d. Harry Watt, 1936), there is no narration. Instead, Terminus's carefully chosen on-location sound recordings complement, and are equal to, the images.
John Schlesinger's short reveals how democratising railways were. In 1961, everybody used the train; in a single day, the film catches vignettes from childhood, marriage, work, crime and punishment, old age, death. One could go practically anywhere by train, and Schlesinger knew that, as he so movingly showed in Billy Liar (1963), to get on a train could change your life. Only two years before Dr Beeching's cuts, one might expect a service very shortly to be decimated to look run down, but the station is alive, vital. There is an obvious pride in the railway etched on many of the characters' faces.
What of the people in Terminus? Are they really us? The suits, hats and pointy glasses perhaps now seem strange and unfamiliar. But the class divisions of British Rail trains are not so very different from today - even though the three classes of travel became two after nationalisation in 1948. The boat trains and beautiful Pullman carriages are now replaced by the Eurostar.
Terminus has deservedly won countless awards. The equally famous and much loved Night Mail seems patronising by comparison, annoying in its jokiness and light-weight artiness. Terminus's images and soundtrack are a serious business.
*A free extract from this film can be downloaded from the BFI's Creative Archive. Note that this material is not limited to users in registered UK libraries and educational establishments: it can be accessed by anyone within the UK under the terms of the Creative Archive Licence. The film is also included on the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'Running a Railway'. A short excerpt from this film can also be viewed via the BFI's YouTube channel.