A few blog posts ago, I mentioned how much I enjoy Stanley Holloway’s performance in ‘Brief Encounter.’ Stanley and trains go well together, it would seem, as another iconic railway film also features him in fine fettle. Of course, I’m referring to ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ (1953).
Trains are an incidental feature of ‘Brief Encounter’, but the railway takes centre stage in the ‘Thunderbolt’. The setting is idyllic – the English countryside at the height of summer. I’m a confirmed atheist/pessimist, but if anyone ever mentions heaven, this is the sort of mental picture that appears in my mind. A small branch line with an engine and a couple of dusty carriages meandering through small honey coloured villages and riotous meadows. And if you were in need of company along this eternal journey, well you could do a lot worse than Stanley’s half-cut-happy-go-lucky chap. In fact, any of the Titfielders would make for an interesting companion.
The story, if there does happen to be anyone at all out there new to this film, involves the villagers of Titfield joining together to save their branch line railway. When the closure is announced by poster on the station, there is much distress about the fate of the village – in fact only the local bus company are pleased with the impending axe. The bus contingent is very much cast as the baddies of the piece. With the local vicar (literally) driving forward a community-run railway there is a religious element to the film. The clear cut battle between good and bad; the sermon from John Gregson as the squire as to why the railway needs to be in their lives; the penniless hermit who gives up all he owns to the cause when the original rolling stock is ruined and the redemption of the alcoholic Holloway as the saviour of the line. During the crucial timed run along the line with the officials on board the train – who are to determine if the trains can continue running under local steam – the carriages become uncoupled from the engine. As everyone rallies round to quietly push the carriages along, there is something almost spiritual about the scene. Perhaps this heaven thing going on in my head is not entirely coincidental.
This theme of a community joining together to deliver an important service should be fairly familiar to British people at the moment. Especially if, like me, you work in the charity/voluntary sector. The term “Big Society” fills myself and my colleagues within the sector with rage and frustration. To briefly explain, some Eton/Oxbridge-educated-ivory-tower-dwelling nit thought it would be a good idea to get local services delivered for “nothing” by getting local people to do it themselves. A common example, much discussed, are local library services. Many branches are closing, and those in the community bewailing the loss are being told that they can keep it open, if they run it themselves. For nothing. It’s a bit like volunteering, only with paid professional workers being made redundant, their qualifications and experience being devalued, along with the whole concept of volunteering. Volunteering is meant to be an add-on, not a necessity. Meanwhile, I see voluntary and community organisations all around me going to the wall, and old colleagues and friends being made redundant or having their hours cut. Funding has dried up, because apparently we’re all in this together and so the services that we deliver should be cut back. Need any advice, counselling or support because life has dealt you a cruel blow and you don’t have an old boys network to fall back on? Good luck. Let me know if you find it. In a nutshell, we have been told that the community needs to start delivering its own services, but there’s no money to be had to do this. But there are always costs to services.
And this is where ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ comes undone as a believable story for me these days. It’s interesting to see that community-run services as an idea go way back, but look closely at it and it appears to be an unsustainable operation. The vicar (and his friend the Bishop) are the only local people actually able to drive an engine. So what happens when they are unable to do so? Properly trained and qualified staff are needed. Who maintains the rolling stock? What about track maintenance? Really, it’s an accident waiting to happen. Can people be found to staff the station at peak times, or are they all too busy getting themselves or their families ready for work? I realise that the very idea for the film was based on one of the heritage railways that were being launched around the time. But a heritage railway for tourists is different to a daily train service specifically laid on to service a community. It’s as much an unsubstantiated dream as heaven is…and the “Big Society”. But the film is certainly a lot more fun than the government’s hare-brained ideas.