DVD Review: They used to build Tube lines

Underground, a two set DVD, Yesterday’s Britain’s No 41, Beulah, £24 95.

They used to build new Tube lines. Now we just talk about it. One of these two DVDs is devoted entirely to the building of the Victoria Line in the 1960s and somehow it gives the impression that things got done. Yes, the methods were not that different from those used by the deep Tube builders of the 1900s, but there was a feeling of direction and energy which seems absent today.

Actually, that is not entirely fair as this was the first new Tube line for over half a century and it was on the drawing board for nearly twenty years before the first sod was turned. But the film shows that with a clear focus, a complex engineering task which seem almost unimaginable today, such as the building of a new Tube line, involving the construction of an ‘umbrella’ at the Oxford Circus intersection. The shot of taxis waiting patiently at the lights in Regents Street as a crane manoeuvres a huge beam across the road seems taken from a different planet, let alone era. Even the crowd scenes at peak hours seem, well, uncrowded compared with today’s chaos. Moreover, everything seems to have been produced in Britain. Whether it is the rails or the panels used for the lining of the tunnel, a factory somewhere up the road is producing it. This was still a time where Britain’s engineering was a world leader and the word multinational had not entered the lexicon.

The first DVD consists of four contemporary ‘reports’ of work in progress, issued at the time which again would be unlikely today. Who would dare say now that the work should be finished within the next six months, provided there were no unexpected problems? Nowadays, should there be a delay, they would end up in court and made to eat their words.

Only in the last section of the four does the public come into it and that is a hilarious section aiming at teaching people how to use automatic ticket barriers. They only functioned with the yellow ones, not the green ones, an added complexity and there seemed to be no one to help them at the gates. And there seemed to be so few people (two million journeys a day compared with three million today).

The other DVD is from the process school of filmmaking. Dating from the 1950s, four films show various aspects of the operation of the Underground in that 1950s dry propaganda style where every word of the interviewees has been rehearsed, the voiceover is oh so authoritative and not a tie pin is out of place.

The contrast between the two sets of films is fascinating. In the first the world is still full of fifties’ certainties and all the faces are white, while in the second we are clearly in the era of Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ when the world was changing fast, not least in terms of the colour of the people involved. The fifties personnel, all stiff caps and all, seemingly, middle aged, contrast sharply with their successors a decade later, who are less well kempt and no longer all white.

The best tale from the second DVD involves what all Tube passengers will know as a ‘points failure at….’, but in fact is really an electrical problem – as it usually is – at a crossover junction. With a whole section of the Central Line held up, the linesman scurries trying to ascertain whether the fault is in the signal box or at the points, and eventually locates it. Only one impatient passenger is shown, but one can also feel the frustration boiling from inside one train, as it sits at a station with the doors open waiting for the signal to change. The way that London has halted while one remarkably efficient and probably amazingly lowly paid linesman goes about methodically finding the fault is true drama, all related in deadpan fifties style. Not to be missed, either, are the fluffers, the women who cleaned the dust out of the Tube system – which mainly consists of human skin flakes – every night while being chatted up by the bowler hatted inspectors.

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