The inside story of the making of David Lean’s masterpiece, 70 years old this month, from Chapter 14 of ‘Steaming to Victory’
“YOU KNOW– David Lean chose me personally for my part in Brief Encounter. He said, “That’s the girl I want to play the part of Beryl. She was the woman behind the counter in the refreshment room at Carnforth station. Isn’t that lovely? It was my first film. Oh, so romantic! There’s nothing so poignant as a railway journey, especially people saying goodbye to each other at a station in wartime.”
Speaking here is Margaret Barton, the last-surviving member of the cast of David Lean’s much celebrated film, starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson – which more than any other recreates the atmosphere of the railways in wartime, as well as featuring one of the most famous goodbyes in movie history. I find her far away from smoky Lancashire in the idyllic market town of Wimborne in Hampshire, where 16th-century houses surround the historic Minster. Barton lives here with her husband, a retired professor from the Guildhall School of Music. These days, she is a busy 86-year-old – although no-one should be surprised, since the residents of Wimborne officially live longer on average than anywhere in the UK. And even in her ninth decade the days of the wartime railway still run through her blood. She travelled many miles north to open the recently restored tearoom at Carnforth station, and the other day was reliving her wartime performance for students at Bournemouth University on the pier in the seaside resort.
“The film is still fascinating to people today,” she says, “because it evokes the atmosphere of the war so well. There’s a lovely shot as the titles go up of that great express running through and the train making that marvellous noise, with all the steam everywhere.” Before her big break, Barton had been a child actor on the London stage, working with Noel Coward and leading actors such as Donald Wolfit, as well as having a part on BBC’s Children’s Hour with “Uncle Mac”. “I had the most marvellous time making it. David Lean took me under his wing. He invited me behind the camera sometimes to see how it was being made. Of course, we weren’t really at the station in Carnforth. The refreshment room in the famous scene was actually a film set at Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. Today the “Brief Encounter” tearoom at Carnforth is a copy of the one at Denham, rather than the other way round!”
When David Lean made Brief Encounter in 1945, the war was coming to an end and little could the great director have known that what started out as a small-budget, feelgood movie would have outlasted almost almost every other media depiction of the wartime role of the railways. Meanwhile Margaret Barton and her fellow actors live on in the endless revivals of the film in almost every country in the world. Certainly, the fictitious Milford Junction, where a married suburban wife had her doom-laden trysts with her married doctor lover amid the emotional confusion of war, was authentic enough. Since Noel Coward’s original screenplay was set in the Home Counties, Lean had originally wanted to use Watford Junction as the setting. But the War Office would not give permission as filming with arc lights would have run too much of a risk at a busy station so close to London. Instead, Carnforth, north of Lancaster, along the main line to Glasgow, filled the bill, with a combination of expresses and local stopping trains, as well as the all-important buffet – although there are some Watford Junction shots in the opening titles.
But not all went to plan. Many of the shots of the express trains were ruined because the drivers slowed down in alarm when they saw the bright film lights at a station in a small town where they were expecting total blackout. An official memo was sent out urging them to speed up rather than slow down, but this did not always work. When the water troughs nearby were frozen, the trains had to pause in the station to take on supplies, spoiling the desired effect of expresses whooshing by in the nighttime. There were also some unintentional giveaways to the northern location, with a destination board advertising connections to Giggleswick and Hellifield in the Yorkshire Dales – and although the LMS 2-6-4 tank engine that takes Johnson home to “Ketchworth” is clearly real, her destination is obviously a studio location.
Brief Encounter – even though it generated a positive image of the railways at war – was “art” rather than propaganda, although much of the huge volume of publicity for the railways and the war effort has since been appreciated as art, too. Like Brief Encounter in the history of cinema, a BBC radio production called Junction X is one of the all-time great classics of its medium. Produced by the BBC in 1944, the year before David Lean’s film, the hour-long documentary was described at the time as a “dramatisation of events that occurred on a vital crossroads on the path to victory on a certain day in 1944 between the hours of 10am and 10pm…showing how British Railways are successfully carrying out their vital and gigantic war task in conditions of unparalleled difficulty.”
It was produced by the celebrated documentary maker Cecil McGivern, who was part of a group of producers working on war-related programming. He wrote several other classics, including Bombers over Berlin, The Harbour Called Mulberry, and Fighter Pilot, going on to a distinguished career as Controller of Television at the BBC in the early 1950s, overseeing TV coverage of both the 1948 Olympics and the Queen’s Coronation. Junction X covers twelve hours in the working life of an anonymous railway junction, presented as a dialogue between “The Listener”, representing the public users of the railway, who were fairly disgruntled by this stage in the war, and an all-seeing “Narrator”, who explains the complexities of wartime operation. Over the sixty minutes of the documentary, listeners are invited to eavesdrop on the daily wartime operations of the railway, with flashes back to the big events such as Dunkirk and the Blitz. The soundtrack is rich with authentic railway sounds of hissing steam, and the accompanying clanking, clatter and whistles, along with a dramatic orchestral soundtrack. Very modern in tone for its time, Junction X combines classic radio drama with the immediacy of journalistic reportage:
“Dawn… the points and flashes of coloured lights are vanishing… and out of the shadows emerge movement and solid shapes…The dim outlines of passenger trains moving from station to station…Fast expresses hurtling over the length and breadth of the land… But there are squatter shapes of slower movement…freight trains, line after line of them…no section empty of them…often no space between them…engine to guards van, head to tail in a long, slowly moving column…waggons – in hundreds, in blocks…surging slowly on…stopping only when no room can be found for them, when sections are blocked and relief for them is for a time impossible to devise…waggons…one million of them loaded every week…filling marshalling yards – waiting for space on already congested lines – spilling onto passenger lines – pouring loaded into docks – pouring loaded out of docks, running alongside ships, alongside factories, sheets pulled taut over guns and tanks, bombs and shells, over boots, machinery, food…waggons whose loads cannot be sheeted – tractors, landing barges, lorries, crated aircraft…waggons carrying closely guarded secrets. And snaking in and out of them and alongside them, the priority specials, the troop trains…And watching them and tending them, many thousands of men and women whose lips continuously mouth three words – ‘Keep them moving’.” It was a beautiful piece of radio with the grasp and emotional power of a good film documentary, proclaimed Desmond Shawe-Taylor, radio critic of The Sunday Times, at the time. “I wish I had more space to dwell on the facilities of this picture of British railways under the stress of war; the complicated, interlocking organisation, the superficial ‘flap’, the fundamental calm. Little as I know about railways, Junction X rings true; furthermore, it is grand entertainment and first-rate propaganda for the man on the platform. Such a feature deserves not one, but half a dozen repetitions.”
The same could not be said of some of the films promoting the role of the wartime railways, of which many were made by the Ministry of Information and the railway companies themselves, some employing leading directors and actors of the period such as Max Munden and Frank Phillips. Some seem frankly laughable to the modern viewer – such as the imaginatively titled Decontamination and Repairs to Track of 1942, showing a simulated gas attack on the Southern Railway at West Hoathly in Sussex, in which staff stride about surreally in rubber clothing not appearing to do very much. In another Monty-Python-style film for the Southern Railway in 1943 called The Burning Question, a bowler-hatted gent tours an engine shed ticking off drivers for wasting coal. Even worse is Gang Safely, from 1944 in which a Terry Thomas type gloats at a motorist with a broken arm and offers a lecture on how much better off he would be if he had travelled by train. Truer to life is Shunter Black’s Night Off, made by the renowned British documentary-maker Max Munden, which shows how modest shunter Joe Black heroically extinguishes a burning explosives truck through a meticulous and delicate manoeuvre across the points of a goods yard to the water tower – with a nod to the real-life heroism of Norman Tunna the year before, described in Chapter Thirteen.
But there were better ones, too. Ernest Hemingway’s wife-to-be, Mary Welsh Monks, an American journalist working then for the Daily Express, narrates the Southern Railway’s Bundles for Berlin, of 1943, celebrating the role of the company’s newly recruited women workers. The film was slickly made with none of the “stuffed-shirt” dialogue that characterises many documentaries of the period. Monks introduces the women by name Here is Delsey Warner “who used to work in a theatre box office – now she’s selling train tickets” – as well as Stanford Beale “making chainsaw links; before she was working in a greengrocer’s”. As Monks observes pithily, “These gals don’t pretend to be Amazons, they carry their compacts in their pants pockets.” But not all the commentary is so modern, Some of the characteristic wartime sexism creeps in – women scraping rust off a bridge are “exchanging gossip just as they did over their backyard fences”.
Some of the best films were not made by the railway companies at all. City Bound, produced by Spectator Films in 1941 for the British Council is an elegantly cinematographed view of London’s transport in the Blitz, directed by Richard Carruthers, who went on the make one of the first films in Technicolor. The prologue says it all: “This film was put in production during the days when the Blitzkreig started. Production went on just as the people of London went on…”Another classic, whose style echoes the legendary Post Office film Night Mail, with its W. H. Auden script, is Newspaper Train of 1941. Made by the Ministry of Information’s “Realist Films Unit” it follows the overnight journey from Fleet Street of a bundle of newspapers aboard a train for Ramsgate. There is a nice dramatic twist at the end. After the train passes through a Luftwaffe bombing raid, the newsagent at the destination opens his bundle to find shrapnel inside. (However, the film suffers from the stereotyping afflicting many of the railway information films of the period, in which the “bosses” all speak with cut-glass accents; while the the “workers” are a caricature, invariably speaking in broad Cockney.)
Poster advertising was by far the most powerful medium of wartime information, not just on the railways, but in every area of society. As war became inevitable towards the end of the 1930s, the government mounted a campaign of propaganda, not just to boost national morale, but to drive home the policies of austerity. There were scores of famous poster slogans, many of which are still deeply rooted in the national consciousness today, such as “Dig for Victory”, “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?”, “Careless Talk Costs Lives”, and “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases”. Ironically, the slogan that is most reproduced today – “Keep Calm and Carry On” – was a flop when it was first launched in 1939, being seen as far too earnest and paternalistic at a time 10 months before the German air raids were launched. A million copies of the poster were printed, but none was actually circulated. They were ultimately binned along with related posters in the same style – “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution, will bring us victory” and “Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might.” It may say something about present society that this imagery, rejected as patronising in 1939, should be regarded as so totemic today. This and other early efforts of the Ministry of Information were derided in Parliament and criticised in the press, and it wasn’t until the arrival of the journalist and publisher Brendan Bracken as Minister of Information that a more catchy and media savvy approach was adopted, accurately catching the public mood. Typical was the work of Cyril Kenneth Bird, known as “Fougasse”, whose sketched pen and ink cartoons, always in the house style of a white background with a red border introduced a key tenet of wartime propaganda – the use of humour to impart a serious message. His most famous poster series, “Careless Talk Costs Lives”, was ubiquitous throughout the war.
Station platforms had been a favoured advertising medium since Victorian times, when they were festooned with enamel signs advertising the likes of Virol and Fry’s chocolate. So it was natural they should be deployed to spearhead the national wartime message. From January 1940, the Advertising and Public Relations Committee of the Railway Executive Committee was converted into the Publicity Committee – and while individual railway companies remained free to promote their own messages, publicity became more focussed. Some of the inspiration was drawn from Frank Pick, who in 1913, became managing director of London Underground Railways and started to commission some of Britain’s best artists to produce posters for its stations. With Pick’s flair, the Underground became a national leader in the field. There were other influences, too. As far back as 1923, the LNER had appointed William Teasdale, seen by many as a visionary in his industry, as advertising manager, who appreciated the worth of good poster design accompanied by a catchy slogan. He employed leading artists such as Austin Cooper, Frank Newbould, Tom Purvis, Fred Taylor and Frank Mason and the company combined their work with memorable slogans such as “It’s Quicker by Rail”, “King’s Cross for Scotland’ and “Harwich for the Continent”. Teasdale was driven by a very modern mantra that seems obvious now, but was not so apparent at the time. His principle was simple: the effectiveness of advertising was defined by two overriding things – attractiveness and position. The LMS adopted a different but no less effective technique, employing the artist Norman Wilkinson to commission some of his fellow Royal Academicians, including Augustus John and Sir William Orpen to produce paintings which were then turned into highly effective posters. The LMS continued to employ Wilkinson throughout the war, encouraging him to travel throughout the network for a series of dramatic oil paintings, including “Blitz on an LMS marshalling yard near Willesden, 1940” as well as “LMS express bombed and machine-gunned near Bletchley, October 1940.” Some of the LMS’s posters were even distributed in America to emphasise the war effort back home. The company was keen to continue to promote its image in the US. Its streamlined train, the Coronation Scot, was marooned in the US at the outbreak of war after its publicity tour, since no shipping could be spared to bring it home. As a gesture of goodwill, the company made its luxurious cars available for American officers.
The Southern Railway also had a well-oiled public relations machine, dating back to the 1920s when it had been the target of bad publicity over delays during the electrification of its suburban network. Lord Ashfield, founder of London Transport, suggested to Sir Herbert Walker, the Southern’s general manager, that if the railway kept its passengers informed, it would not receive so many complaints. So Walker employed a journalist from London evening newspaper, the Evening Standard, called John Elliot, who was perhaps the railways’ first “spin doctor” – not just putting out publicity material but proactively rebutting bad news, too. Elliot was aided by another journalist, E. P. Leigh-Bennett, from the Bystander magazine, who produced a magazine for commuters, emphasising the virtues of the network. Like Teasdale on the LNER, Elliot had a flair for poster publicity and the railway produced hundreds of famous designs, the best known being the image of the little boy standing at the end of Waterloo station looking up at the locomotive fireman. The poster simply reads: “For holidays I always go Southern ‘cos it’s the Sunshine Line.”
By 1940 station hoardings had effectively been cleared of holiday and other leisure advertising and replaced with promotion for the railways’ new role as an essential part of the war machine. Instead of “Skegness. It’s so Bracing” passengers were confronted with slogans such as: “Travel only when you must. Coal, food and guns come first.” Even so, as much wit and humour as possible were deployed. One poster advising people to stay at home ran throughout the wartime period, with the slogan: “Stay put this summer”. It showed a photograph of shells on a beach contrasted with wartime shells being loaded aboard a train. Another on the same theme has become something of a poster classic since. It shows a cartoon image of a locomotive missing its wheels, with the caption “There isn’t even half an engine to spare for unnecessary journeys, so ‘stay put’ this summer.” It was designed by the famous Reginald Mayes, who started his career as a newspaper artist on the Eastern Daily Press and became the chief artist of the LMS.
Railway managers were not happy about throwing into reverse their previously highly effective policy of promoting leisure travel. Now utility was the order of the day. One of the new generation of posters showed a dirty locomotive emerging from a tunnel, watched by a soldier standing to attention. The words were direct and effective in Gill Sans capitals, which always denoted wartime seriousness: “This British engine used to pull holiday trains to Blackpool.” Beneath, the legend read: “Like hundreds of others it is now pulling troop trains or ammunition here or to the front. This is an example of how the railways are helping to win the war.” But humour was never far away despite the seriousness of the message. Perhaps the most famous poster of the time was “Is your journey really necessary?” by the great Bert Thomas, who had been an official artist in the World War One, producing the largest single poster of that conflict, inviting people to invest in War Bonds. Thomas drew the “Is your journey really necessary?” poster for the Railway Executive in 1942, reflecting some of the class attitudes of the war. It depicts a cartoon of a “gent” in a pinstripe suit and his wife in fur with their “Scottie” dog at a ticket office window – socially as far as possible from the ordinary “squaddie” – who really did need to travel. Other posters on the same theme were more emotive and hard-hitting. The designer “M” produced a poster showing troops wading through waves on a beach, with the legend in tickertape beneath: “Now our men have landed on enemy soil – surely no-one will endanger their supply of vital munitions by taking unnecessary journeys.”
Other messages focussed on workers travelling unnecessarily at peak periods and on passengers lugging unnecessarily heavy loads. The Cornish artist Patrick Cockayne Keely, noted for his rich colours and simple visual imagery, produced “Staggered working hours. shorter queues”, depicting commuters descending an escalator, which on closer inspection was a giant ruler. The cartoonist “Kerr” sketched a soldier laden with kit and weapons, with the caption: “If you must – travel light. I can’t, you can.” But much of the drive of wartime publicity was to encourage the public to salute the importance of the railway to the war effort. One of the best known of these morale-lifting posters was “Another Mechanised Army”, showing a tin hat lodged casually over a signal arm, with a caption reading: “There are half a million railwaymen on the Home Front…their equipment, their specialised training and unrivalled knowledge are contributing vitally to the National Cause”. The Royal Academician Fred Taylor designed another on the same theme, producing a painting of munitions trains lined up side by side, with the caption: “Guns, shells and bombs are not the only munitions of war.” Not so romantic but no less effective was “Lines of Communication” – a photograph of a tangle of trackwork at a busy junction, with the accompanying legend: “50,000 miles of railway provide vital links in the chain of defence for public services, essential supplies, munitions of war, service movement.” It was rounded off with the declaration: “British Railways are Carrying On.”
Some of the posters lauding the achievement of railway staff had an almost Soviet “socialist-realist” quality. One such was a shot of an idealised-looking driver, staring intently out of his cab at the line ahead above the words “Over half a million railwaymen are maintaining a vital service.” In similar vein was a photograph of a driver in his cab, hand on regulator, accompanied by the caption: “A mighty war effort. Railways are vital for Defence Needs, Food distribution, Public transport.“ When war ended this style reached its apotheosis with the simple triumphalist slogan: “In war and peace we serve”, above a fluttering Union Flag and an image of an express locomotive, with the simple initials: “GWR-LMS-LNER-SR”. Not all the poster campaigns ran smoothly, however. The Ministry of Information produced some hard hitting posters warning about the risks of venereal disease. One showed a wedding scene, with the headline “Here comes the bride.” Underneath, the words read: “A man suffering from venereal disease who infects his wife commits a vile crime against her and children yet unborn.” Understandably, the railways did not wish to have such posters on station platforms and the Railway Executive Committee wrote in protest to the Minister for War Transport. They were overrruled, however.
Although subsumed into the Railway Executive, London Transport continued to operate a separate publicity policy, not wanting its legendary high standards of poster art and typography to be compromised. Typical was the “Seeing it Through” campaign – a series of highly idealised portraits championing the heroism of LT’s own workers. The painter Eric Kennington’s pictures, accompanied by some verse from the essayist A.P. Herbert, evoked a “Peoples’ War” theme. There was a similar lyricism behind London Transport’s “Proud City” series by Walter Spradbery, showing London landmarks rising above the ruins of the Blitz. There was a fear that the posters would have a depressing effect, but they were generally seen to convey the opposite message, celebrating a noble fight against Nazi tyranny. The humorous counterpoint was provided, as always, by Fougasse in his classic cartoon style, urging people to pass along the platform or to stand on the right on escalators. More humour was provided by the famous Daily Telegraph cartoonist, David Langdon, who was commissioned to design a series of cautionary posters during the Blitz. It was concerned that passengers on the Tube were removing the criss-cross tapes that had been applied to the windows to reduce blast injuries, and asked Langdon to warn them of the dangers. Billy Brown, a City gent in pinstripes, bowler hat and umbrella appeared in his first poster, pointing to the tape being peeled off, and saying: “I hope you’ll pardon my correction, that stuff is there for your protection.” One wag scribbled a reply: “Thank you for your information, but I can’t see the bloody station!” Langdon, who continued drawing cartoons for the national press almost until his death in 2011, had a huge empathy for the wartime travelling public. He wrote in 1941: “To me it is the British sense of humour which is still the fount of ideas, and in paying my tribute to it and to the marvellous way it has persisted undaunted through the darkest hours, I raise my tin hat to those faintly ridiculous but wonderful people, the men, women and children of the blitzed areas whose sense of humour will carry through to victory.”
The obverse of all this upbeat publicity was censorship, which affected both the public and railway employees alike, although the Railway Executive wasn’t entirely humourless on the subject, publishing the following piece of doggerel:
In peace-time railways could explain
when fog or ice held up your train.
But now the country’s waging war
To tell you why’s against the law
The censor says you must not know
When there’s been a fall of snow.
That’s because it would be news
The Germans could not fail to use.
So think of this, if it’s your fate
To have to meet a train that’s late
Railways aren’t allowed to say
What delayed your train today.
For long periods in wartime, the railways were also forced to impose an information blackout on their own employees – censoring information about the contents of payloads and the destinations of trains. As Audrey Tallboys explained in Chapter Two, even the staffs of ambulance trains rarely knew their destinations or where the wounded had come from. Flyers were posted on railway premises urging staff to keep any information they had confidential. One read:
Know more than other people.
You are in a position of trust.
Don’t let the fighting forces down.
A few careless words may give something away
that will help the enemy and cost us lives.
Even so, the priority was to maintain morale, and the railways continued to issue their employee publications throughout the war, churning out tales of life on the home front. The LMS suspended its house magazines but replaced them with a special wartime magazine called Carry On! The Great Western cut back the pagination of its house publication and printed on utility paper, while the Southern reduced the frequency of its staff magazine from twelve issues a year to six. The magazines were heavily affected by the censor and much of the copy was out of date by the time it was published. But it didn’t matter too much – flag-waving and cheerleading were the order of the day.
Perhaps the most professional of the official wartime publications was a glossy booklet published in 1943, simply called Facts About British Railways in Wartime, issued by the British Railways Press Office on behalf of the four main railway companies and London Transport. Printed on quality paper and priced at “One Shilling Net”, it was more than simply an assembly of statistics. It included high quality photographs and a text that was more lyrical than the usual jingoistic material of the time. The introduction, for instance, read: “In peace and war, in defence and in attack, in defeat and in victory, the achievements of the railways have reflected the courage and vision of the men who run them. Railways and the services they operate have grown so familiar that they are more often than not taken for granted. Perhaps this is a compliment rather than a slight. How often in the darkest days and noisiest hours of the blitz has the familiar clatter of shunted trucks in a nearby goods yard or the same old chuff-chuff of the local train passing, brought the sound of reality, of normality, to anxious minds.” The booklet was revised and updated in a similar format twice as the war progressed, entitled successively British Railways in Peace and War (1944) and It Can Now Be Revealed: More about British Railways in Peace and War (1945) – although the title was something of an overstatement, since the censor was still busy at the time and “revelation” was not the business he was in.
Among the most heartwarming aspects of the railway publicity machine were the events designed to raise the £5,000 to buy a “Railway Spitfire”. Staff donated spare cash from already small wages to buy the warplanes as they toiled themselves under the bombing. The directors of the Great Western pitched in £500 to launch their fund. The LNER named their Spitfire, the Flying Scotsman after the famous Anglo-Scottish Express, while the Southern Railway had the honour of being the first railway company to donate a fighting aircraft. It was named Invicta after the oldest locomotive of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, reckoned to be the first public railway in Britain. The aircraft had a plaque in the cockpit recording its provenance. The staff of the Southern also raised enough cash to donate a Fulmar DR659 to the Fleet Air Arm. The donors were delighted to hear reports of how well their aircraft had done. The Invicta heroically fought off Focke-Wulfs in its role as a bomber escort, while the Fulmar gained distinction in accompanying a Malta convoy. The hard-working railway staffs were not only doing battle on the ground, but doing their bit – albeit vicariously – in the air, too!