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Third Sam, The (1962)


Main image of Third Sam, The (1962)
35mm, 10 minutes, black & white
DirectorKenneth Fairbairn
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
NarratorStanley Holloway

Cast: William Norburn (Sam)

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Driver Sam Smith is given the privilege of driving one of the new electric trains. But when a problem arises, it takes three very different Sams before the problem is solved.

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British Transport Films taps a rich vein of humour in this unusual approach to the training film, in which a steam engine driver has his first confrontation with new electric technology. Driver Sam Smith is a clear descendent of the popular mule-like character Sam Small, as developed in Stanley Holloway's comic monologues of the late 1920s and '30s. Holloway himself was persuaded to narrate, with an unnamed actor playing Sam. The film follows Sam's attempt to cope when something goes wrong on his new assignment - manning an electric locomotive.

Director Kenneth Fairbairn - whose previous credits include the celebrated Snowdrift at Bleath Gill (1955) - revels in the old-time flavour suggested by the combination of steam and Sam's rhyming monologue. He also adopts techniques associated with silent shorts, including a frenetically speeded-up slapstick sequence. During the playful title sequence, accompanied by boogie-woogie piano, we see the back of Sam's head poking out of his engine and almost feel the wind rushing through his hair. "Sam Smith were a highly-skilled engine driver," Holloway booms in broad Yorkshire accent, "oof tha' there were never a doubt." Indeed, Sam quickly learns how to operate the electric locomotive like a pro.

Problems occur when the new train breaks down thanks to an electrical fault. The photography takes full advantage of Sam's broad, almost lizard-like visage, with keen close-ups of his face and eyes as he imagines different ways of tackling his predicament. "Like many of us, Sam had two or three sides to his character," Holloway narrates. We are then introduced to three versions of Sam's personality (loosely corresponding to steam, diesel and electric rail transport). The first two episodes end in disaster - the first Sam does nothing at all; the second does far too much. The third Sam's moderation wins the day. He "keeps it cool," and "with heart lightly racing," locates the faulty fuse and restarts the train with time to spare.

Not unlike wartime propaganda, the film ingeniously appropriates Sam Small's doughty and very British character - "sometimes perky, sometimes dour, but always independent", as Holloway describes him - for its own ends. If Sam can come around to Modernisation, the film seems to say, who among us would stand in the way of progress?

Dominic Leppla

*This film is included on the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'Running a Railway'.

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Video Clips
Complete Film (8:55)
British Transport Films
The Romance of Steam