First things first: I’m not a train spotter. There’s nothing wrong with being one, obviously, I’ve just always thought that standing in the rain at New Street with nothing more than a notebook and a Tupperware box full of fish paste sandwiches waiting for an obscure Class 31 Diesel locomotive was a strange way to spend a Saturday.
What I am a sucker for, however, is a good documentary on BBC4. Particularly an interesting story well told with a load of archive footage, and they’re particularly good at these. Subjects you think could never be made fascinating have generally been brought to life on the channel: motorways, caravans, a history of plastic. The list is endless.
You can also add The Age of the Train to this list. It looked at the Inter City 125, a train that was new and futuristic in the 1970’s, gave British Rail a shot in the arm in terms of their public image, and was such a decently made train that 80 of them are still running now and are expected to run until 2030 at least.
Fortunately for the story, the engineering aspect was kept to a bare minimum, which meant more room for anti-British Rail material from Ronnie Barker and Mike Yarwood.
And the story was a good one, encompassing trade unions, indifferent politicians, advertising, design and technology.
British Rail in the 1970’s was in a sorry state, the butt of many jokes regarding lateness and dodgy food, with drivers tied to ASLEF, a hard-line union under the leadership of Ray Buckton, who filled the 70’s union man stereotype by being both from the North of England and being distinctly unhelpful. Not that right-wingers were immovable either, as Margaret Thatcher (who never used trains and wanted to privatise the service) proved just as formidable an enemy.
Enter new BR boss Sir Peter Parker (no, not Spiderman), who realised that high-speed travel would boost the service. The 125 won out over the in-house rival APT train, which had a disastrous first journey by failing nine minutes outside Glasgow, eventually conking out completely at Crewe. It also made the travelling journalists poorly when it travelled round curves.
The best bits of the documentary were the advertising segments. Flamboyant ad man Peter Marsh invited Parker to a meeting, and kept him waiting for 20 minutes in a filthy room full of mouldy coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. ‘This is how the public sees you’ explained Marsh when he eventually appeared, ‘and I want to change that’.
The tactic worked – he won the account, and despite Parker’s original misgivings that Jimmy Saville was a bit scruffy and appealed only to young people because he wore T-shirts and presented Top of the Pops, the ‘This is the Age of the Train’ campaign ran for years and helped revive both passenger numbers and the public’s perception of British Rail.
This was an immaculately made documentary, the different threads blending together seamlessly to make an interesting and coherent story. This wasn’t just a story about a train, or about British Rail, it was a political story, a story about technological development with some cultural asides about Britain in the 70’s thrown in for good measure. Lucy Hester’s narration was to the point and didn’t intrude – the pictures told the story, with great archive footage of all the main players.
BBC4 proved again that a potentially dull subject made a great hour of television. Remember that when you see the promos for the week long season on watching paint dry.