The Titfield Thunderbolt

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The Titfield Thunderbolt
Titfield Thunderbolt poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Charles Crichton
Produced by Michael Truman
Written by T.E.B. Clarke
Starring Stanley Holloway
George Relph
Naunton Wayne
John Gregson
Hugh Griffith
Gabrielle Brune
Sid James
Music by Georges Auric
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Edited by Seth Holt
Distributed by General Film Distributors (UK)
Universal (USA)
Release date(s) March 1953
Running time 84 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Titfield Thunderbolt is a 1953 British comedy film about a group of villagers trying to keep their branch line operating after British Railways decided to close it. The film was written by T.E.B. Clarke and was inspired by the restoration of the narrow gauge Talyllyn Railway in Wales, the world's first heritage railway run by volunteers.

It starred Stanley Holloway, George Relph and John Gregson, and was directed by Charles Crichton. Michael Truman was the producer. The film was produced by Ealing Studios. It was the first Ealing comedy shot in Technicolor and one of the first colour comedies made in the UK.

There was considerable inspiration from the book Railway Adventure by established railway book author L. T. C. Rolt, published in 1952. Rolt had acted as honorary manager for the volunteer enthusiasts running the Talyllyn Railway for the two years 1951-52. A number of scenes in the film, such as the emergency re-supply of water to the locomotive by buckets from an adjacent stream, or passengers being asked to assist in pushing the carriages, were taken from this book.

Plot[edit]

The residents of the (fictional) rural village of Titfield rely on the railway branch line to commute to work and transport their produce to market. So they are shocked when the government announces that the line is to be closed. Particularly hard hit is the local vicar, railway enthusiast Rev. Sam Weech (George Relph); he comes up with the idea to run it locally. He and the local squire, Gordon Chesterford (John Gregson), persuade wealthy Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway) to provide the financial backing by telling him they can legally operate a bar while the train is running, so he will not have to wait all morning for the local pub to open.

The branch line supporters are bitterly opposed by bus operators Alec Pearce (Ewan Roberts) and Vernon Crump (Jack MacGowran), but, despite the fears of town clerk George Blakeworth (Naunton Wayne), the supporters persuade the Ministry of Transport to grant them a month's trial period with an inspection at the end. Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith), a retired railway worker, knows how to run an engine and joins the venture.

On the maiden run, Crump and Pearce try to block a crossing, first with their lorry and then with a passing steam roller operated by Harry Hawkins (Sid James), but the steam locomotive is too powerful and pushes them off the track. The next day, Crump and Pearce persuade an irate Hawkins to shoot holes in the water tower, but the passengers form a bucket brigade and refill the engine from a nearby river using buckets from the nearby farm. Defeated, Crump proposes a merger, but is turned down.

The night before the inspection, Hawkins, Crump and Pearce use the steamroller to tow the unguarded engine and coach down the gradient. It runs off the track where the three men have removed a rail. Blakeworth is mistakenly blamed and arrested.

Taylor and Valentine get drunk together and decide to "borrow" an engine from the Mallingford yards, but end up driving the engine along the main street of Mallingford and finally running the locomotive into a large oak tree. They are arrested, with the arresting constable giving the desk sergeant a long and very funny list of numerous offences they have committed.

Weech decides to get the antique but still-functional Thunderbolt (in real life the Lion, one of the earliest locomotives in Britain and at the time of filming 115 years old) from the museum, and after liberating Blakeworth from the law, they persuade the mayor to support them. They also commandeer Dan Taylor's home, an old railway carriage body, which is hastily strapped to a flat wagon.

With Taylor's arrest, Weech is left without a fireman/stoker. Fortunately, the vicar's friend and fellow railway devotee, Ollie Matthews (Godfrey Tearle), the Bishop of Welchester, is visiting and willingly steps in to lend a hand. Meanwhile, Pierce and Crump see Thunderbolt from the road and, distracted, run their bus into a police lorry and are also arrested.

Weech and Chesterford also have to improvise a means of connecting the engine to the rest of the train since the coupling method had greatly changed since Thunderbolt's heyday. The village craftsman uses a length of rope, but warns Chesterford to be careful.

As they are about to start their run, the police demand to be carried to Mallingford with their four prisoners. The Ministry inspector (John Rudling) refuses to adjust the starting time for the delay.

During a braking test, the rope snaps, and Thunderbolt leaves the carriages behind. However, several villagers turn out and manage to quietly push the carriages to meet up again with Thunderbolt, with the inspector none the wiser. Joan Hampton (Gabrielle Brune) has to promise to marry Hawkins to get him to lend them the chain from his roller's steering mechanism to replace the broken rope.

The train pulls into Mallingford railway station nearly ten minutes late. The villagers worry that this will prove their downfall, but it turns out that if they had been just a bit faster, they would have exceeded the speed limit for light railways. Instead, the line passes inspection, clearing the way for the Light Railway Order to be granted.

Cast[edit]

Driver Ted Burbidge, fireman Frank Green and guard Harold Alford were not actors: they were British Railways employees from the Westbury depot, provided to operate the train on location. Charles Crichton spoke with them on location and realised they "looked and sounded the part", so they were given speaking roles and duly credited.

GWR 1400 Class 0-4-2T locomotive number 1401 was hired by the producers. Locomotive number 1401 was a real locomotive.

Production[edit]

Lion (seen here in May 1980) masqueraded as Thunderbolt for the film.

Shooting was largely carried out near Bath, Somerset, on the Camerton branch of the Bristol and North Somerset Railway, along the Cam Brook valley between Camerton and Limpley Stoke. The branch had closed to all traffic on 15 February 1951, but was reopened for filming. Titfield railway station was in reality Monkton Combe railway station, whilst Titfield village was nearby Freshford, with other scenes being shot at the disused Dunkerton Colliery. Mallingford railway station in the closing scene was Bristol Temple Meads railway station. The opening scene shows Midford Viaduct on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, where the branch passed under the viaduct. The scene featuring Sid James' character's traction engine, and the Squire's attempts to overtake it, was filmed in Carlingcott.

The scene, where a replacement locomotive is 'stolen' was filmed in the Oxfordshire village of Woodstock. The 'locomotive' was a wooden mock-up mounted on a lorry chassis; the rubber tyres can (just) be spotted sitting inside the driving wheels.

The Thunderbolt itself was played by an actual antique museum resident, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway locomotive Lion, built in 1838 and so at the time 114 years old. Lion is one of the earliest British locomotives, only nine years "younger" than Stephenson's Rocket, and really under steam in the film. It was repainted in a colourful red and green livery to suit the Technicolor cameras. In filming the scene in which the Thunderbolt is "rear-ended" by the uncoupled train, the locomotive's tender sustained some actual damage, which remains visible beneath the buffer beam to this day. The scene where Thunderbolt is removed at night from its museum was done with a full-size wooden prop and was filmed in the (now demolished) Imperial Institute building near the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London.

The steam roller[edit]

The steam roller used was still in commercial service at the time of filming, and was not sold for preservation until some years later. After six years off the road for a full restoration, the roller returned to steam in 2006, and was in action as part of the road-making demonstration at the Great Dorset Steam Fair that year.

Reception[edit]

The film was well received by critics upon its original release, and currently holds a respectable three and a half star rating (7.1/10) on IMDb.

Home media[edit]

It was released first on VHS in 1998, and then on DVD in 2004.

A release on Blu-ray in 2013 followed the restoration of the film.

Trivia[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Simon Castens (February 2011). "The Titfield Thunderbolt and the Camerton Branch". Address to Wells Railway Fraternity. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Fosker, Oliver (1 November 2008). The Titfield Thunderbolt ~ Now & Then. Up Main Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9561041-0-6. 
  • Castens, Simon (22 July 2002). On the Trail of The Titfield Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt Books. ISBN 0-9538771-0-8. 
  • Huntley, John (1969). Railways in the Cinema. Ian Allan. pp. 76–79. ISBN 0-7110-0115-4. 
  • Mitchell, Vic; Keith Smith (June 1996). Frome to Bristol including the Camerton Branch and the "Titfield Thunderbolt". Middleton Press. ISBN 1-873793-77-4. 

External links[edit]