Letter from Europe

Terminus - a 1961 documentary

Issue no. 2021/12

Picture above: The iconic clock at London's Waterloo station makes a cameo appearance in John Schlesinger's 1961 film Terminus (photo © Phartisan / dreamstime.com).


The film director John Schlesinger was largely unknown when in 1960 he was persuaded by Edgar Anstey to make a documentary for British Transport Films (BTF). Terminus went on general release in 1961 and provoked a very positive response from the public. Its setting was London Waterloo station.

Dear fellow travellers

This spring marks the 60th anniversary of the release of a film which deserves to be better known. 1961 was of course the year of Westside Story, but there was another 1961 film which is pure gold when it comes to heritage cinema.

The film director John Schlesinger was largely unknown when in 1960 he was persuaded by Edgar Anstey to make a documentary for British Transport Films (BTF).

Anstey had worked with the pioneering Scottish documentary maker John Grierson - the man who in 1926 had coined the very term ‘documentary’. As the father-figure of an emerging genre, Grierson became the guru for a number of talented young filmmakers, among them Edgar Anstey. That wider group of documentary makers shared Grierson’s commitment to keeping cinema in touch with social realities and using film to communicate shared values about citizenship. It was Grierson’s team which made the 1936 classic Night Mail, a wonderful film enlivened by music from Benjamin Britten and poetry by WH Auden. Grierson himself was one of the narrators in Night Mail.

At his work with BTF in the 1950s and 1960s, Anstey built on that Grierson documentary tradition. And it was Anstey who gave John Schlesinger a real breakthrough with that invite to write and direct a BTF documentary.

Schlesinger suggested “something on Sussex, Brighton perhaps.” Anstey countered with a proposal that a documentary on a large railway station might be good.

Still clinging to the idea of Sussex, Schlesinger suggested the busy terminus at Brighton as a strong candidate. But in the end Anstey pressed the case for Waterloo station in London. Interestingly, BTF did later make a very fine documentary on Sussex, so perhaps Schlesinger sowed the seed of an idea there. By the time Down to Sussex was released in 1964, Schlesinger had secured professional recognition with his first full-length feature films: A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963).

With the BTF contract agreed in early summer 1960, Schlesinger spent many long days (and nights) roaming the concourse and platforms at Waterloo. The 33-minute film called Terminus is a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary which is a wonderfully empathetic piece of cinéma vérité; it ranks alongside the best of British New Wave cinema of the period. It received a BAFTA and foreign recognition with an award at the Venice Film Festival.

Sixty years ago, filming was not as lightweight and agile as it is today, and there were particular challenges in recording live sounds in busy settings such as at a London railway station. So some of the scenes were staged, although Schlesinger insisted that these recalled incidents he had seen during his August 1960 research at Waterloo. “It was scripted to a point,” recalled Schlesinger later in life.

So we see the comings and goings of boat trains, the shuffled movement of manacled prisoners, a lost child and the waves of commuters - the latter including a cameo appearance by Schlesinger himself.

“The prisoners going off in chains was something it never occurred to me that I’d see on a station,” said Schlesinger. So in Terminus we see Schlesinger the acute observer. And we see in Terminus how Schlesinger navigated the dramatic potential of the railway. In a later interview with his nephew Ian Buruma, Schlesinger spoke of his delight at the public response to Terminus. “I was thrilled,” said Schlesinger. “It was the first time I had made something that was going to be shown on the circuit at the cinema.”

Terminus did indeed go on general release where it was hugely popular. Schlesinger went on to greater things, but he never forgot trains. And he returned to another London terminus to shoot the final scene in Billy Liar - a film about life, hope and imagination in gritty Yorkshire. In the closing sequence of that film, London Marylebone stood in for a Yorkshire station in a plot that reminds us how getting on a train - or sometimes not getting on it - really can change your life.

Watch a day in the life of London Waterloo in John Schlesinger’s Terminus. The entire documentary is currently available on youtube.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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