Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, 1955 for British Transport Films

Snowdrift at Bleak Gill, 1955, directed by Kenneth Fairburn, edited by John Legard and photographed by Bob Paynter. David Watkin was an unacknowledged assistant on this film. The film is 10minutes, largely devoted to the single task of freeing a goods engine and carriages from snowdrifts using a mechanised snow plough and gangs of diggers, mainly by the light of the Moon and huge Tilly lamps.

“Ken Fairbairn was a nice man. Known as “Twitcher” because of a tendency to be hyper-anxious whenever you were sorting out the necessary things for the shot to be useable. He was also small in stature, resulting in most of his set-ups being done on the baby-legs, which was a bit trying. He wrote his own scripts for the most part; one that I did for him about the lost luggage office was called A DESPERATE CASE. Another about incoherent station announcements had a similarly apt title to begin with: GET LOST! But Edgar made him change it. A phone call about about 9.30 one freezing evening  asked would I collect some camera gear with Bob Payntor and travel up to Barnard Castle in Yorkshire. There we bundled ourselves inside a snow-plough and set off to rescue a train stuck in a snowdrift at a place near Stainmore Summit called Bleath Gill. The snow-plough was a massive steel prow-like structure stuck on the front of an ordinary guard’s van propelled by a couple of engines. It was cosy enough inside with a nice stove and a mad-looking guard – cosy that is until it began to fill with smoke and the mad-looking guard threw in a couple of detonators “to clear the flue”. Reaching a quick decision between being frozen or blown up I hung as far out of the window as possible, and after a massive explosion the stove, thus brought into line, glowed splendidly for the rest of the journey.

The first revelation about snow-ploughs is that it is unsubtle to charge bull-headed at a drift since the plough would then get itself equally stuck after about ten yards. Instead a gang of men with shovels dig three foot wide trenches at similar intervals across the track so that when the plough finally gets a run at it there is quite a good shot of snow flying in all directions. The lighting for the gangers, and now us, was a collection of the largest Tilly lamps ever seen (with reflectors the size of a 2K) and it fell to me to set these at intervals beside the line and then traipse back and forth keeping them pumped up (just like Frank Brice on NIGHT MAIL except instead of running about a field I was wading though snow up to my ears). It took the rest of the night and the whole of the following day to finally dig the thing out – an uncongenial task, and not only to us. At a subsequent showing of the film in the area, one of the railway officials involved commented that “If it hadn’t been for the fucking film people we’d have just left her to thaw out.” from Clara.

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