Sunday, 12 February 2012

Small is Beautiful

One of the great last hurrahs of the British film industry can be seen in retrospect to have been the run of exquisite little comedies turned out by Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Although there is a wide variation of setting between, say, Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport to Pimlico, the theme remains the same: the virtue of the small local community standing up to bureaucracy.

Although it is not one of the better known ones, my favourite, The Titfield Thunderbolt, has this central thesis in spades.  Partially inspired by the real-life events at the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, TTT is at first glance a routine farce centering on a group of villagers trying to preserve their branch line railway service in the face of government indifference and the antics of a predatory local bus company.

However, Titfield is a joy - beautifully shot in colour (the first Ealing comedy not to be black and white) it has a fine central performance from John Gregson, and able support from Stanley Holloway and Naunton Wayne (to say nothing of Sid James before his Carry on descent into a parody of himself). The line's supporters are a cross-section of the local great and good - squire, vicar, bank manager, bishop, millionaire alcoholic - all united in the love of their village and a shared aim to keep it the same.  

Whilst the main message is that people should be able to make their own decisions about how to run their community - in this case coming up against the exasperated officials of the Ministry of Transport; the message of localism is bound tightly up with a yearning for the old ways of doing things and the challenges of technological progress.

 One of the turning points of the flim is where John Gregson makes an impassioned plea to a public meeting, railing against the idea that buses are a better form of transport than trains and represent the thin end of the wedge.  For Gregson's squire road transport means nemesis "don't you realise you're condeming our village to death....our houses will have numbers instead of names - there'll be traffic lights and zebra crossings..."  For the squire, only the preservation of the past can guarantee the future - and that sort of decision is best taken by the people that are going to be directly affected.

Of course, the time for Britain's branch lines passed, as they were decimated throughout the 1960s in favour of an incredibly short sighted trunk route focused strategy.  But the spirit of Titfield found an echo up and down the country in the numerous societies which sprang up to reopen their lost lines as museum pieces.  It's not quite the same as riding from Titfield to Mallingford, but in no small part due to this little film one can still buy a ticket from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, or Towyn to Nant Gwernol.  Sometimes even the byways of British cinema can have an effect far beyond the foyer of the local Roxy, Gaumont or ABC

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