In particular I have been wallowing in The Rank Organisation’s “Look at Life” series of documentary ‘shorts’ from the nineteen fifties and sixties. That bastion of the British film industry Rank, which blossomed from unlikely roots in flour milling, produced and distributed its own films and screened them in its own cinemas to fill slots between features. There is a store of some five hundred of these miniature ten-minute classics covering technology, culture, sport, transport and innovation, a showcase for all that was great about Great Britain.
Sixty years ago the Second World War was a very recent memory, there was unemployment, often poor sanitation, no central heating, and life was devoid of the luxuries we take for granted today. So, yes, life was harsh. But what shines through in these films is an indomitable spirit and an optimism which seems to have vanished from Britain today.
The narrator’s excitement when describing the launch of a new hovercraft on the Solent, or the introduction of Motorail, a miraculous new system for transporting cars on trains, is infectious. Progress happened because of decisive action. Plans were laid quickly but mostly carefully. This was all long before the arrival of decision by committee, when even the simplest idea becomes bogged down in endless enquiries and feasibility studies. It was an age of confidence and hopefulness. However it would not last.
Chill winds began to stir with publication of the first Beeching Report in 1963. Doctor Beeching took an axe to the British Railway system, hacking off four thousand miles of line and earmarking for closure, one third of the country’s seven thousand stations. This came at a time when the railways were already struggling to consolidate in a new era of diesel and electrification.
That brings me neatly though not consequently to the demise of the steam locomotive, still in the 1950s a technological wonder. In the glory days of steam entire families found jobs for life and shiny-faced schoolboys scampered along platforms clutching notebooks and pencils to record their sightings. Trains clanked into stations puffing and hissing like massive lungs while others streaked through non-stop whistle screaming and smoke flattened to its back. There is something elemental about steam power, the production of staggering forces of locomotion from the simple fusion of fire and water.
But all too quickly steam trains had become dinosaurs with their reliance on coal. Soot blackened hulks were shunted to the scrapyard like huge, gentle beasts to the slaughter. Steam trains continued to run on the Southern Railway, my own neck of the woods, until June 1967 when the final steam locomotive puffed out of Waterloo on its way to Weymouth. I am delighted that far-sighted souls have preserved the very best examples for posterity allowing ninety tons of steel and iron to thunder across countryside at one hundred miles per hour, steam and smoke billowing in its wake.
Now, back to my Look at Life!