This week the British Film Institute (BFI) released Experiment Under London, six documentary films about the construction of the Victoria Line, on DVD.
Made by British Transport Films (BTF), sponsored by London Transport, these films were a PR and educational exercise – updating London on a serious business, seriously narrated, with serious people at work on seriously important tasks.
And yet, the series is thoroughly engaging. There’s wonderful period footage of London, Londoners and the tube and the engineering feats explained are mind-boggling. Light relief comes in the form of a jaunty score and in noticing how times have changed. Our health and safety conscious minds can’t help squeak to see men 60ft underground, tunnelling beneath the city, smoking fags in confined spaces and lugging concrete blocks around in the company of heavy machinery with not a hard hat, high vis or pair of gloves in sight.
Watching the instalments in order you get a feel for the momentum of the project (as long as you can put up with the necessary recapping in consecutive reports). Find out about the first experimental tunnels dug at Seven Sisters and Finsbury Park and the installation of the incredible umbrella, or bridge, at Oxford Circus to keep the traffic moving on the road as the new ticket hall is excavated beneath. Report No. 4 Equip and Complete is our favourite, focusing on what happens once the tunnelling is done. Stations are built, escalators installed, ticket gates put in and the baffling infrastructure of the communications and computer control system is hooked up.
The finest details get a mention, whether it’s tiling platforms, hand-stitching seats or ensuring “nudge free elbow room”. There is a proud sense of every element of the massive project being perfectly in hand and expertly completed, right down to the mosaic surrounding Royal Academician David McFall’s fibreglass sculpture for the brand new Blackhorse Road station.
For the London enthusiast Experiment Under London has many nerdy, transporty and period charms, not to mention an entertaining bonus film – A Hundred Years Underground (1963).
If you’re interested in the story of the Victoria Line but want it potted and pacy there’s a 40 minute BBC and BTF collaboration which you can watch on iPlayer for free: How They Dug The Victoria Line (basically a jazzed up version of The Victoria Line report No.5, included in the DVD set).
Experiment Under London is available from the BFI Filmstore.