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The Titfield Thunderbolt

The Titfield Thunderbolt

By Ben Nicholson • November 12th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
Ealing Studios

Original release: March 30th, 1953
Running time: 84 minutes

Director: Charles Crichton
Writer: David Koepp
Composer: Seth Holt, Kenneth Tynan, Donald MacKenzie (novel)

Cast: George Relph, John Gregson, Stanley Holloway, Ewan Roberts, Jack MacGowran

The Titfield Thunderbolt

Ah, the unbridled joy of British trains. I’ve a regrettably love/hate relationship with the steam engine on this glittering isle. Naturally, it’s a convenient way to travel from one place to another without having the added pressure of driving, or the inevitability of an uncomfortable bus ride. Sadly, other commuters have had the same ideas and so, finding a seat on a train is now rarer than gold dust; and that’s what you’ll need to afford the latest ticket hike. Yet, on its day, a train ride can be an enjoyable and relaxing thing.

I associate getting the train with a family day out during childhood – more often than not, to see Fulham Football Club on their lower-league travels. As such, standing on the platform or being on the train is linked intrinsically, to my mind, with excitement. Also intertwined however, given that I grew up on trains in Britain, is a sense of unreliability. You say “train”, I say “delayed”. My mind is immediately a-flood with memories of cold, barren, windswept stations and the long wait for an endlessly delayed train home. Or, alternatively, sat aboard an overcrowded carriage with the temperature rising exponentially whilst the engine goes nowhere.

When travelling in Germany trains seem to arrive at the exact second that they’re due and tourists from the UK are left agog; wondering why they can manage it and not us. Luckily, the classic Ealing comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt explains everything; sabotage by the bus companies. The film follows the trials and tribulations of a small community as they try to save their local railway by making a bid to run it themselves. As you might expect from Ealing, this has hilarious results with an unmistakably British bent.

The Titfield Thunderbolt

Opening on the proposed closure of the Titfield branch line, the local residents of the rural village are, quite rightly, up in arms. The nationalisation of British railways is lamented and a campaign begun for the community to be allowed to run the train themselves headed by the fanatical railway enthusiast Rev. Sam Weech (George Relph). Much to the chagrin of Alec (Ewan Roberts) and Vernon (Jack MacGowran), owners of the local bus service, this is approved. Having undoubtedly banked on an influx of business with a halt to rail travel, they set about sabotaging the newly established railway route. The Rev. Weech and Co have a month to get it up and running, at which point there’ll be an inspection – one which Alec and Vernon are determined will be failed.

This largely takes the form of blocking the line with vehicles in a hope that the delays will cause passengers to abandon the steam-powered route to the local market town. It’s not only the wiles of the saboteurs that cause problems; with incidents like an argument at the water-filling station seeing the engine flooded. It’s the dastardly bus company, however, who conspire to put a permanent stop to the service by wrecking The Titfield Thunderboltthe train the night before the inspection. Luckily, the old Titfield Thunderbolt in the local museum is still able to run; but where can they find carriages, and will it be able to make the trip on time? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.

What I really enjoyed about The Titfield Thunderbolt is its unrelenting Britishness. The dear chaps of the villages are shocked to hear that their beloved train service will cease. They manage to get it running again when local squire Gordon (John Gregson) convinces the wealthy Valentine (Stanley Holloway) to back the venture. They tell him he can open a bar on board that’ll be open from first thing in the morning, meaning he needn’t wait for his first compotation of the day. It’s a blend of couthie community spirit and a little squiffiness that sees cups of tea, bishops shovelling coal, scheming down at the pub and a moment steeped so deeply in quintessential Britishness it almost hurts; a cricket match stops, mid-over, to wave at the train as it sails past.

Anyone wondering how it could possibly turn out might be sadly disappointed by the lack of a twist ending, but everyone else will get exactly what they’d expect. The performances are all perfectly fine, and even the villains of the piece aren’t too detestable. It may lack the darkly murderous humour of Ealing’s finest comedies, but as far as ferroequine comedies go, it fits the bill rather perfectly. So when you’re next sat on a non-moving train, you can cast your mind back to The Titfield Thunderbolt as a gently prodding reminder of what fun the disorganised mess of British trains can be.

The Titfield Thunderbolt

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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