Friday, 13 January 2012

The Titfield Thunderbolt

The well-known poster for the film by Edward Bawden.

All of the 'Ealing Comedies' series of films are well-known and well-loved. But 'The Titfield Thunderbolt', released in colour in 1953, is surely one of the most affectionately remembered. This is partly because of the use of a genuinely old locomotive called 'Lion' which, for the benefit of the film, was renamed 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' and turned out in a fairly striking livery.

In the 1950s, I think I saw the film four times in the cinema so, even at that tender age, perhaps my later association with railway preservation could have been predicted. In fact, it was not until I was in my mid-40s that I actually got involved in preservation, first becoming a member of 'Lion's' Supporters Club, the Old Locomotive Committee (OLCO) and later becoming involved with a number of railways and preservation initiatives.

The film's gentle, but witty, screenplay from T.E.B. Clarke was supposedly inspired by volunteers having taken over the running of the Talyllyn Railway which, in 1951, became "The World's First Preserved Railway".

My favourite dialogue from the film comes when the Vicar declares that they must not allow the Titfield line to be closed and the Town Clerk replies that they closed the historic Canterbury and Whitstable line. With full ecclesiastical gravity, the Vicar retorts:-
"Perhaps there were not men of sufficient faith in Canterbury".

There's more about the film in an article on Wikipedia.

From time-to-time the film is still repeated on television and I'm glad to report that it's still available on DVD.

The film screenplay was adapted as a stage play by Philip Goulding and in 2005 a professional stage production of 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' toured theatres in Horncastle, Coventry, Windsor and Eastbourne. It was great fun but nothing like the film, of course. I saw the production in Coventry with the Old Locomotive Committee (OLCO) President and his wife and my review (below) first appeared in the OLCO newsletter 'Lionsheart'.

by our occasional drama critic, Jan Ford

No, there's not been much call for a drama critic in OLCO. But when 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' is adapted for the theatre, we had to check it out.

How can you adapt one of the best of the Ealing Comedy Films for the stage? Well, the 'Telegraph' drama critic Charles Spencer, having seen the production at Hornchurch, commented "You can't, but you can have a lot of fun in trying". His review encouraged me to see the staging in Coventry.

It's a strange mixture of the familiar and the new. Chunks of dialogue taken straight from the screenplay, interspersed with all sorts of plotlines not in the original, yet all done with such apparent affection that it remains true to the spirit of the original.

The original John Gregson role, Squire Chesterford, is transformed into Lady Edna Chesterford, played in "jolly hockeysticks" mode by Kate O'Mara. The Reverend Weech becomes much younger, as played by Steven Pinder and the Union Representative at the Enquiry, Mr. Coggett becomes Miss Coggett. A number of these changes are predicated by the multiple roles adopted by the actors – five actors cope with fourteen roles, involving some amusing on-stage quick-changes. The sheer gusto and good nature of the cast soon dispels any thoughts of wobbly sets or improbable plotting.

The short season (Hornchurch, Coventry, Windsor and Eastbourne) is now finished but, if there is another season, and I certainly hope that there will be, I strongly recommend that you check it out for yourselves.

The cover of the Programme for the 2005 production in Coventry of 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' starring Kate O'Mara and Steven Pinder.

I believe the stage play has since become a popular choice with dramatic societies. At the time of writing, I've just learnt that Southport Dramatic Club have a production running from 27th January 2012 to 4th February 2012 and I'm delighted to copy their playbill below:-

There are a number of articles in my blog about the locomotive that starred as 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' and the locomotive's "Supporters' Club", OLCO. You can find them here.