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Elizabethan Express (1954)


Main image of Elizabethan Express (1954)
35mm, black and white, 19 mins
DirectorTony Thompson
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
ProducerEdgar Anstey
ScreenplayPaul Le Saux
MusicClifton Parker

Narrators: Howard Marion-Crawford; Alan Wheatley

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An account of the first journey by the new Elizabethan Express service from London to Edinburgh.

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At Platform 5, The Elizabethan,
A special express for the holiday season,
Summons its strength.
And the time to depart
Marks an ending for some,
But, for many, a start.

Elizabethan Express is an honest-to-goodness charmer with integrity. The obvious enthusiasm for its subject - the world's longest non-stop daily to average 60 mph - is put into the premise of a question, one that seems to ask, 'Isn't this marvelous? How does it all come about?'

The film unfolds in classic British Transport Films manner, moving deftly between the contentment of the passengers and the labour required to provide this pleasure. How can the train run so smoothly that diners are capable of "filling stomachs without filling laps?" It is due to "the state of the tracks, provided by these chaps on the maintenance gang. Elizabethan Express, then, is both celebration and revelation.

The narration is a poetic monologue inspired by the GPO Film Unit's beloved Night Mail (d. Harry Watt/Basil Wright, 1936). The whimsical, rhyming verse, however, takes less after W.H. Auden than Edward Lear - less lofty but more fun. Writer Paul le Saux's words dart in and around station offices and buffet cars, ably served by the stylistically-varied photography. Director Tony Thompson unites the exaggerated imagery at key moments with inspired close-ups, such as on the lips of control managers who sit with microphones, "like prompters assisting the course of a play / Breathing out words like Arabian perfumes."

Le Saux's verse is at its best providing quick sketches of worker activities rather than fashioning real characters. The naming of a Scots crew, for example, may drive the plot but at the expense of turning them into cartoons. Interestingly, at its most serious, the film recalls early Soviet cinema. The maintenance crew are shot with low-angles, in glorification of their work. Elsewhere, a 'fitter' gazes nobly after the departing Elizabethan, whose journey he helped prepare through his sweat and toil.

The repeated hints at a connection between train travel and storytelling reveal the slightly mournful tone of these promotional films. Beneath the brisk, buoyant tone, a train ride, it seems, is much like a tale to be swept up in - but one that can end all too soon:

The loud hiss of steam
As the train seems to slow
To the pace of a cloud,
Breaks the afternoon task
And disperses the dream.

Dominic Leppla

*This film is included on the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'On and Off the Rails'.

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Video Clips
Complete Film (19:27)
British Transport Films
The Romance of Steam