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.
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
Spending 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.