August: the dog days of summer, the silly season, long languorous days when London’s streets are empty and not much happens.
Happily though, some respite from this torpor comes in the form of a big double slab of London nostalgia from the BFI. This month sees the release of their contribution to London Underground’s 150th anniversary, British Transport Films Collection Volume 11 – Experiment Under London [DVD] a two DVD set of films documenting the construction of the Victoria Line. Made between 1961 and 1969 the six films chart the initial planning stages, the monumental tunnelling effort, the complex engineering challenges, and the Royal opening (the first time a reigning monarch had been on the tube). Don’t forget this was the first new underground line to be built since the early 1900s and the first to carve its way through modern, twentieth century London. It’s a heroic story that in a small way parallels the Victorian railway-building age. A largely Irish workforce dug their way through thirteen miles of London clay, inserting concrete tunnel sections by hand with sheer brute force in dark, muddy and claustrophobic conditions, building sixteen new stations or interchanges along the way. This being the pre health and safety era there’s not a high-vis jacket in sight and precious few hard hats or protective gloves. Not only that, much of the work is done with a cigarette or occasionally a pipe on the go.
Here’s a clip.
It’s worth pointing out that from day one in1969 the Victoria Line was completely automatic with drivers there to operate the doors only. To this day it is still the only fully automatic line on the network.
As well as the six films you also get a couple of extras including a 1963 feature called A Hundred Years Underground.
Alternatively if you don’t want to shell out for ‘Experiment Under London’ there’s an excellent 1969 BBC documentary, ‘How They Dug The Victoria Line’ completely free on iPlayer – http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/p00sc29t/
What better way to reacquaint yourself with life in the capital after frittering away all that time in the sun, on the beach or by the pool. What’s more if you don’t already own it do yourself a favour and get British Transport Films Collection Vol. 10 – London on the Move (2-DVD set), thirteen short films on different aspects of London Transport from the 1950s to the 1980s. Particular highlights are 1951’s ‘Our Canteens’, ‘The Nine Road’ – a 1970’s feature on bus route 9 – and the oddly moving ‘All That Mighty Heart’. Both volumes come with illustrated booklets.