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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Shoe factory workers at the gates!

Yes, actually! As it actually happened! An actual works outing! Watch what japes these people actually got up to! They actually came all the way to London! One of them even actually brought a gramophone to play on the train! But don’t worry, I safely saw them away again back to where they came from once they’d had their fun.

British Transport Films were produced by a dedicated industrial documentary film unit and distribution was usually to cinemas as a supporting feature to a programme alongside Pathé newsreels and the like. I just remember the tail end of the Saturday matinée tradition at my local cinema in Berkhamsted in the 1970s.

The BTF films form a rich record of changing times in industrial and social life in the post-war period through to the mid-1980s or so, when the whole tradition seemed to fizzle out, mainly centred on the railways but capturing Britain more widely, and beautifully so. It also in perhaps an unselfconscious, self-referential way charts changes in the way film makers treated their subjects during those decades.

There has recently been a bit of a bate over the four lads (not from London) whose casual snapped image of a night out recently went viral on social media in a confected animation of a sea shanty, much to the merriment and withering condescension of the social media observing classes as to their attire, choices of drinking location and their funny non-metropolitan, provincial ways.

It immediately brought back to mind one of the early BTF documentaries, whose first five minutes I have sneakily ripped and included here so you can watch and hear it for yourself. It is called This Year – London and it follows the employees of a Leicester shoe factory’s workers on its annual works outing. They are accompanied by a journalist called Colin Wills, who provides most of the commentary.

The tone is set early on in the film. Wills, who is used to being sent on “all kinds of comings and goings all over the world” is bracing himself for “another new experience … [long pause] … A shoe factory was going on its annual outing, and I was going along too: to see what these occasions are really like; also, to get to know something about a lot of the people.”

What unfolds is a charming portrait of working class people at play, as filmed, intermediated, voiced and generally framed by people who are decidedly Not Like Them. It comes over as a cross between a 1950s Ealing Comedy, the 1970s wildlife programme Animal Magic, in which Johnny Morris anthropomorphises various animals through comic first person commentaries of their thoughts, and elements of a travelogue to a foreign place with funny customs.

Wills provides the anthropomorphising monologues in exactly the same way throughout the film, cringe-makingly so even if delivered affectionately. And gentle condescension reassuringly insulates the Big Smoke from its day tripping visitors such that, at the end of the visit, after bus tour passing St. Pauls (plus “tidied up bomb damage”), posh lunch near Westminster, Thames boat trip, tea at Hampton Court and evening in Leicester Square, Wills makes sure to count them back onto their late night train and waves them off. There they go, off back to where they came from! Bye Bye!

I have huge affection for the entire BTF film series and there are plenty of others, particularly later on, that avoid the same patronising air that pervaded the post-war technocratic age of experts and metropolitan sophisticates and which this film to me exemplifies.

So, have we really moved on in our attitudes? I’m not sure we have, much as we consider ourselves to be the most hyper-enlightened, inclusive generation ever. From the post-Brexit vote comments I constantly heard such as “Where do all these people come from that voted the wrong way?” to the recent social media pile on against four innocent lads, the gulf is evidently as wide as ever.

What I am looking forward to is the day when first-person anthropomorphising voiceovers by those who presume to know better are no longer necessary, instead “these people” being given the mic for themselves as individuals and as communities, without presumed aggregation into lumped (lumpen?) groupings, without explanatory intermediation and without regretful apology in the air for their very existence. Those who would presume to know them and to speak for them, let alone those for whom they are a threatening tribe a little too close to the gates, might just learn more about those who share equally in the democratic franchise and deign to participate in it with their own minds when given the opportunity.

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