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Dodging the Column (1952)


Main image of Dodging the Column (1952)
35mm, black and white, 10 mins
DirectorMichael Orrom
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
ProducerEdgar Anstey
PhotographyReg Hughes
CommentaryPaul Le Saux

The transportation by British Road Services of a 130-foot distillation column from London to Grangemouth and the difficulties encountered on the journey.

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In 1982, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog had a major international hit with Fitzcarraldo, a film about a man who successfully transported an entire steamship across a mountain. But thirty years earlier, British Transport Films documented what at times must have seemed like an equally ambitious task.

The slang phrase "dodging the column" means "the art and science of avoiding unpleasant and dangerous duties", though here it's used in its most literal sense, as a 132-foot distillation column is transported 500 miles by road on two Scammell tractor units from Greenwich in south-east London to Grangemouth in Scotland (the voiceover explains that it wasn't practical to assemble it in pieces). This would be a logistical challenge even today, but in 1952 it was considerably hampered by the absence of motorways (which had then only just begin construction following the 1949 Special Roads Act, with the first not opening until 1958) - as a result, the job was scheduled to take a fortnight, and required the full-time assistance of half a dozen road haulage workers.

The journey takes them through central London (holding up the traffic between Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch), then through St Alban's, Preston, Manchester and high-altitude Shap in Cumbria. Given that this is essentially a propaganda film for the state-owned British Road Services, the job proceeds very smoothly for the most part, until a jarring flashback to an incident in the Staffordshire Potteries reveals a near-disaster when the column got temporarily wedged between a tree, a garden fence and a nearby wood. This sequence served a double function: to inject a note of drama, and to emphasise to viewers that BRS would compensate householders for any damage caused.

The soundtrack consists of a mixture of formal narration (kept to a minimum), the voices of the men actually doing the work, and the reactions of onlookers in Hamilton, Scotland - they ask amongst themselves why the column has to be transported by road and why it can't be delivered in pieces, with more knowledgeable bystanders providing the answers: there's no boat big enough, and the precision engineering makes it unfeasible to rely on reassembly. This narration device also has the effect of adding human interest to a film that otherwise consists almost entirely of shots of heavy industrial processes.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'Off the Beaten Track'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (10:05)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Journey to the Sea (1952)
Orrom, Michael (1920-1997)
British Transport Films