Experiment Under London (1961), released by the BFI as part of their British Transport Films Collection, is an example of what the Institute does best – the preservation of film capturing intrinsic parts of our country’s cultural and social history.
The films included here, by their very nature, are technical. As a result they will likely have more appeal to those interested in the science and practicalities involved in building London’s underground system, which was at times a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare. The approach of the collection overall is introduced in the opening film Experiment Under London, which describes in detail the making of two different kinds of tube tunnels – one lined in concrete and one in cast iron – dug deep beneath the ground in Finsbury Park, north London, in the early 1960’s. Used as tests for the main work which would connect Victoria in south west London with Walthamstow in the north east, the viewer sees the technology and manpower used in the days before computerisation made everything, in theory, much simpler.
Other films in the volume, The Victoria Line Report No.1: Over and Under (1965), The Victoria Line Report No.2: Down and Along (1965), The Victoria Line Report No.3: Problems and Progress (1967) and The Victoria Line Report No.4: Equip and Complete (1968), follow the process of building twenty three miles of tunnel which covered ten and half miles connecting twelve stations and eleven intersections, and went to form the early parts of London Underground’s Victoria Line. Segments like Over and Under, which depicts the logistical difficulties of closing London’s Oxford Circus above ground over one bank holiday weekend, in order to create a false road under which the transport workers could build a new larger station concourse, are fascinating from a technical viewpoint. However these films, including the mute rushes depicting the Queen opening the finished Victoria Line, also provide an historical, social snapshot of everyday life during the time of the formation of one of the most important, yet frequently maligned aspects of the capital – its underground system.
Watching these films you wonder whether the people working on today’s underground infrastructure, would get away with what, on the face of it, appeared a much laxer regard to safety and protocol. On the other hand you can’t help but think that fifty years ago they got the job done much quicker, and in the process created a tube system which was built to work, and is still doing so today.