David Watkin at British Transport Films

Born into an illustrious railway family, David Watkin began work with the Southern Region Film Unit of British Railways in the late 1940’s. In 1950 he became a messenger boy and assistant cameraman at British Transport Films.

Barry Coward writes:

One day in 1981 I received a phone call from a David Watkin asking for a video copy of the BTF production Under Night Streets. At that time I was head of the Public Relations Strategy Team at London Transport and BTF had recently sent all the film they had shot for London Transport to us, as part of the winding up operation run by Jimmy Ritchie.

We did telecine Under Night Streets for David and subsequently he paid for other BTF titles to be tele-cined including Care of St Christopher’s, What’s in Store, The Finishing Line (made long after David had left BTF, but directed by John Krish, who’s work David much admired), Holiday, All That Mighty Heart, A Desperate Case, MFD Re-railing Equipment, Diesel Train Driver and Snow Drift at Bleath Gill.

British Transport Films was created by the British Transport Commission following nationalisation of much of the country’s public transport, road haulage, ports and waterways by the Attlee government in 1948. David worked as camera assistant on BTF production No 1 Transport which set out to explain the purpose and objectives of nationalisation. The camera department in those early days consisted of Ron Craigen with David as his assistant and James Ritichie with Billy Williams as assistant. Ron was a consummate technician who could strip and reassemble any camera with ease, something David never mastered.

Technology was never David’s forte, instead he surrounded himself with technicians of high calibre that he could trust. Jimmy Ritchie was an artist, especially when it came to night shooting. David was happy to be Ron’s assistant and only assisted Jimmy when Billy Williams was not available. David thought that this arrangement enabled him to learn from Ron’s technical competence and Jimmy’s artistic ability without actually copying either of them. In 1957 John Taylor, a director often engaged by BTF, persuaded Edgar Anstey to let David become cameraman for a travelogue John was to direct entitled Lancashire Coast. During the summer John, David and his assistant Jack West went to Blackpool and filmed holiday makers on 16 mm Kodachrome. Much of the best material was not used in the travelogue. Later John persuaded Edgar to let Ralph Sheldon, a film editor renowned for cutting to music, assemble a film from the unused material David had shot. The result was Holiday set to music by Chris Barber. The BFI has put an extract up at YouTube.

David’s short film A Desperate Case partly shot in his home town of Margate can be viewed here. David left BTF in 1962 after shooting All That Mighty Heart to make his way in features and commercials. BTF had given him an excellent foundation for his future work.

For much more on British Transport Films visit the BTF web site

All That Mighty Heart

All That Mighty Heart was the last film shot by David Watkin before he left British Transport Films.

You’ll notice a sequence in the film of a housewife using a washing machine. David lit this shot from outside – with a brute – and had Frank Brice, the BTF Gaffer, hold up a white sheet to reflect light in the room. This was a precursor of a technique he was to to develop which earned him the sobriquet – the Vermeer of the film business.

All That Mighty Heart is available as a DVD from Beulah.

Diesel Train Driver

In this photograph, from the shoot for Diesel Train Driver the personnel are Inspector Tommy Sands (far left), Jack West, David’s assistant (centre with tape), Frank Brice the BTF gaffer, David Watkin with Newman Sinclair camera and James Ritchie, director. (Photo courtesy of the National Railway Museum, York. The NRM hold a large collection of BTF production stills.)

Under Night Streets

Fifties UndergroundSpending his nights under Piccadily Circus and other London night spots was David’s luck while shooting Under Night Streets in 1958. David saw for himself the camaraderie of railway workers, in the permanent way gangs and the fluffers featured in the film. David had certainly put to good use the night shooting techniques he learned from Jimmy Ritchie. The film is full of atmosphere, even if it was also full of dust when filming the cleaning of ventilation ducts. It is available on the Fifties Underground DVD from Beulah.

  3 Replies to “David Watkin at British Transport Films”

  1. dave abbott
    20/04/2009 at 9:56 pm

    Trying to get hold of copy of Under Night Streets work on underground since 1970 so having a look at morden

  2. dave abbott
    20/04/2009 at 9:58 pm

    Wonder if you could let me know where I can obtain a copy if possible
    Thanks

    • 21/04/2009 at 6:06 pm

      The British Transport Films David Watkin worked on are available from Beulah. You can order the Fifties Underground DVD online from their site by clicking here, or telephone Signal Box in Anstey, near Leicester (UK) on 0116 236 2901 who stock all of the films.

      Fifties Underground (YB38): The post war London Underground had changed little. A few postponed extensions were opened. Whilst London Transport planners battled with the Government for new trains signalling and the automated Victoria Line, life underground continued unchanged. The training and information films on this DVD reflect these times. SAFETY ON THE TRACK (1951) is primarily designed for track workers. Its is a straight forward film detailing how to work on the track. Then the film moves into Lillie Bridge depot where steam rules supreme. The final incident livens up the film. POWER SIGNAL LINEMAN (1953) demonstrates the work of this important member of the Underground team. Centred on West Ruislip our lineman carries out maintenance and repairs to signals and points. SCHOOL FOR SERVICE (1953) released as London Transport Cine gazette no 11, this film demonstrates the work of the Railway Training Centre at Lambeth North ( replaced in 1962 by a purpose built centre at White City ). Platform staff, booking clerks, signalmen , drivers and guards all passed through the training centre. UNDER NIGHT STREETS (1958) After British Transport Films abandoned the idea of one film to tell how London Transport keeps London moving ( Operating London, published on YB37 All That Mighty Heart) three films eventually appeared – Overhaul (YB30 The London Bus), All That Mighty Heart (YB37) and Under Night Streets. This film tells of the work of the fluffers who cleaned the tunnels each night and of an emergency track gang called out to replace a broken rail.

      Underground (YB41): In the 1950s while London Transport planners battled with the Government for new trains, signalling and the automated Victoria Line, life underground continued unchanged. The training and information films on this DVD reflect these times. SAFETY ON THE TRACK (1951) is primarily designed for track workers. Its is a straight forward film detailing how to work on the track. Then the film moves into Lillie Bridge depot where steam rules supreme. The final incident livens up the film. POWER SIGNAL LINEMAN (1953) demonstrates the work of this important member of the Underground team. Centred on West Ruislip our lineman carries out maintenance and repairs to signals and points. SCHOOL FOR SERVICE (1953) released as London Transport Cine gazette no 11, demonstrates the work of the Railway Training Centre at Lambeth North (replaced in 1962 by a purpose built centre at White City ). Platform staff, booking clerks, signalmen , drivers and guards all passed through the training centre. UNDER NIGHT STREETS (1958) came about after British Transport Films abandoned the idea of one film to tell how London Transport keeps London moving. Instead three films eventually appeared – Overhaul (YB30 The London Bus), All That Mighty Heart (YB37) and Under Night Streets. This film tells of the work of the fluffers who cleaned the tunnels each night and of an emergency track gang called out to replace a broken rail.

      In 1962 London’s first new tube line since before the War was authorised. It took five years to build the Victoria Line (between Walthamsow and Victoria) and British Transport Films covered all the aspects of construction, fitting out and testing in four Victoria Line reports, Over and Under, Down and Along, Problems and Progress and Equip and Complete. Now restored with new 35 mm colour prints these films have been brought together to provide a comprehensive programme of the building of London’s Victoria Line. The DVD also includes AFC and You an animated short film explaining how to use the automatic fare barriers.

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