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Train Time (1952)


Main image of Train Time (1952)
35mm, black and white, 30 mins
DirectorJohn Shearman
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
Executive ProducerEdgar Anstey
Commentary WriterJohn Rowdon
PhotographyRonald Craigen
EditorStewart McAllister
MusicEdward Williams

Commentator: Frank Duncan

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A day with the operating department of the newly formed British Railways, as officials work to ensure passenger and freight trains get to their destinations on time.

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Train Time was a relatively early release from British Transport Films, like many of its productions seen first in cinemas and then available for non-theatrical booking in both 35mm and 16mm form. Director John Shearman was one of Edgar Anstey's longest serving collaborators at the BTF unit, and here turned out an enjoyable film that illustrates perfectly the updating of prewar and wartime styling and motifs to the early postwar era. As with so many older films, the basic conceit is the playing of people as 'themselves' in a narrative based on their typical daily professional experiences - but their convincing performances show that non-actors were becoming better practised at this (perhaps helped by BTF's relatively high budgets, presumably enabling more retakes than earlier documentary directors could afford). Only one professional actor is used - playing the suave, slightly spivvy 'Mr Calloway', a British Rail middle manager prepared to work through the night to ensure that freight and passenger trains run on time and that delays in one place don't start a domino effect across the whole system.

The subject is very much bound up with BTF's modern aim of both explaining and celebrating the new nationalised transport network, and the ingenuity and persistence of those employed by it. The 'voice-of-God' narration is almost exactly that: it enables the audience to gain a kind of omniscience, making the connections between events happening simultaneously at opposite ends of the country. The film's deepest theme is the interdependence not just of railway managers, staff and trains but of society itself - with agriculture, shipping, coal and steel all part of the picture. This is an inclusive vision, but also one in which proper hierarchies are respected, as in the scenes of conference calling between a senior British Rail manager and his regional subordinates.

The film feels more modern than its predecessors, partly because of its glistening photography, and notably because of its light, imaginative score by Edward Williams (a fine composer, whose underrated contribution to the later documentary tradition is almost as significant as, say, William Alwyn's or Muir Mathieson's had been before him). It adds zest to a well-crafted, involving short film imbued with a commitment to public service. It portrays a Britain well within living memory but so different from our own that Train Time could almost be a piece of science fiction.

Patrick Russell

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

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (28:28)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Anstey, Edgar (1907-1987)
British Transport Films
The Romance of Steam