Archive for the ‘Television’ Category


I’ve been watching and learning about trains and railways from television since I was a toddler. In past articles I’ve discussed the BBC series Making Tracks, which was a big influence, and The Train Now Departing, probably the classiest railway television series ever made. Many more documentaries like these were made, particularly during the 1980s, when railway enthusiasm was still bordering on the mainstream.

Today’s railway programmes don’t reach the major channels, but YouTube is your friend, both for contemporary videos and archive footage. The only problem is you have to cut through hours and hours of videos of people stood on the edge of a platform with a camcorder as Tornado flashes past to get to the real gems. I have a whole playlist of railway videos, ranging from classic British Transport Films from the 1950s and 1960s through to the bang-up-to-date All the Stations series. Here are five must-see documentary-length videos for any enthusiast:




In 1993, BBC One launched a new programme focusing on steam railways in Britain and around the world. Hosted by Bob Symes and Mary-Jean Hasler and produced by Lineside Location Productions, Making Tracks ran for three series with 18 episodes in total up until 1995. However, in years since, it seems to have disappeared from the radar, with very few clips and very little information on the internet.

Luckily I have 15 of the 18 episodes taped off the TV, and recently bought two of the VHSs from eBay, which each included two episodes. I decided to watch all the episodes I have and complete a review of each, so that there is at least some record online of what the programme covered.

Series One
The first six episodes, broadcast in autumn 1993, included between three and four features in the 30-minute programmes. At least one of these was at a major preserved railway in Britain, from which the programme would be hosted on location, and one of the other features was usually from Britain as well, either looking at main line action or another preserved railway. There would also be two features on steam abroad, produced either by Lineside Location Productions or by another company.

S1E1 from the Great Central Railway, Leicestershire (15/10/93, BBC1)
The first MT feature was a look at steam around the famous Wolsztyn depot in Poland, a rare hive of steam activity in Europe which still remains a mecca for rail enthusiasts. This was followed by the first of what would become a regular look at British main line excursions, which included 777 Sir Lamiel and 4771 Green Arrow on the Settle and Carlisle line, 60009 Union of South Africa on the Marches line, 6998 Burton Agnes Hall on Didcot-Oxford shuttles, and 4472 Flying Scotsman on shuttles between Cambridge and King’s Lynn. The main feature on the Great Central Railway was filmed during a significant gala, with ten locomotives filmed: 5231, 5593 Kolhapur, 7029 Clun Castle, 7760, 30926 Repton, 34105 Swanage, 35005 Canadian Pacific, 68009, 68088, and the replica of Planet. The episode was completed by a look at the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad in the USA, including spectacular footage of the railroad’s steam-powered rotary snowplough.

S1E2 from the Mid-Hants Railway, Hampshire (22/10/93, BBC1)
The show opened with the launch of a new steam-diesel locomotive on the Schneeberg rack railway in Austria. This was followed by a brief look at the preserved narrow-gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in Cumbria. The main feature was on the Mid-Hants Railway, again filmed in a gala with engines 7760, 30053, 30506, 34105 Swanage, 70000 Britannia, 76017, and one locomotive as Thomas the Tank Engine all featuring. The closing feature was the series’ first visit to South Africa, specifically focusing on the Cape Mountaineer 2 railtour.

S1E3 from the Middleton Railway, Yorkshire (29/10/93, BBC1)
I do not have this episode on tape, but as well as looking at the Leeds-based preserved line, it included footage of steam operations in Ukraine, British main line action including LMS Pacifics on the North Wales Coast line, and highlights of the 1991 Sacremento Rail Fair, which can be seen on YouTube.

S1E4 from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Yorkshire (05/11/93, BBC1)
The episode opened with a look at narrow gauge lines in the former East Germany, including the well-known Harz railway network. British main line action included a brief glimpse of 70000 Britannia at Warwick, followed by footage of 71000 Duke of Gloucester pulling into (and failing at) Stratford-upon-Avon, after which it was replaced by a Class 47 diesel. North Yorkshire Moors footage included 3670 Dame Vera Lynn, 6619, 30926 Repton and 80135, and the episode closed with the magnificently run-down Guayaquil and Quito Railway in Ecuador.

S1E5 from the Bluebell Railway, Sussex (12/11/93, BBC1)
Unfortunately this is another I don’t have, but aside from the Bluebell, it also included more action from Poland and a look at steam in southern Argentina.

S1E6 from the Kent and East Sussex Railway (17/11/93, BBC1)
The series’ second visit to South Africa focused on the De Aar-Kimberley line, which, until shortly before broadcast, had been a rare main line with significant steam action; among the engines featured included one of the distinctive Class 25 Condensers. The K&ESR action was again set at a gala, with 14 Charwelton, 23 Holman F Stephens, 26 Linda, 1638 and 32650 Sutton all spotted. The final section of the series was on steam in Pakistan.

Series Two
Just under eight months on, MT returned for its second series, with a largely unchanged format but slightly more polished and no longer exclusively looking at steam power. It also saw two episodes hosted from outside the UK, suggesting a bigger budget.

S2E1 from the East Lancashire Railway (06/07/94, BBC1)
The second series began with the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado, one of the most scenic lines in the USA. As usual, the preserved steam action in Britain was set at a busy gala, with 5224, 5407, 7828 Odney Manor, 42765, 46441, and 71000 Duke of Gloucester in action at the East Lancashire Railway, and there was also a glimpse of future main line star 6233 Duchess of Sutherland, which had become a play area for children while on static display. The final feature was on the Viceroy Special, a luxury steam-hauled excursion train from Colombo to Badulla in Sri Lanka.

S2E2 from the Talyllyn Railway, Wales (13/07/94, BBC1)
The episode began in Paraguay, where the railway network was still dominated by steam; this included comic attempts at trying to use a steam-powered water pump on a bridge to refill the engine. The British main line steam feature focused on 34027 Taw Valley, first looking at a run over the West of England line to Yeovil Junction and then another special in the snow from Didcot. The main feature was on the Talyllyn Railway, the world’s first preserved line (where Bob Symes was among the original team of preservationists). Surprisingly, only one engine – 7 Tom Rolt – was seen in action hauling trains, though 1 Talyllyn, 2 Dolgoch, 3 Sir Haydn and 4 Edward Thomas (as ‘Peter Sam’) were all shown. The closing feature was on narrow gauge industrial lines in India.

S2E3 from Austria (20/07/94, BBC1)
This was the first episode hosted from outside the UK, and with no Briitsh preserved railway action. It began with a look at the Postlingbergbahn tramway in Linz, which has since been upgraded. There was a brief feature on British main line steam, with Southern Railway S15 828 in action at Sheffield. After this, there were two further features on Austria: firstly looking at Das Heizhaus, a railway museum in Strasshof, and secondly at the Mariazellerbahn. Finally, there was coverage of steam action on the now-closed Barkly East branch in South Africa.

S2E4 from the Severn Valley Railway, West Midlands (03/08/94, BBC1)
The opening feature was on a railtour on the windswept Esquel line in Patagonia, Argentina, which now has a much brighter future than it did at the time of filming. British main line action featured 45596 Bahamas at Shrewsbury and on the Marches line. 45596 then also popped up during the Severn Valley Railway feature, which again took place in a gala – other engines featured include 4422, 5029 Nunney Castle, 6024 King Edward I,  46443, 46521, 48773, 80079 and 80080, as well as 600 Gordon and 7325 lurking in the background of shots while static. The final feature was the first of two memorable looks at steam in Indonesia, the first being on the island of Java around sugar mills; this has since largely disappeared.

S2E5 from Ljubljana, Slovenia (10/08/94, BBC1)
Again, with the episode based abroad, there was no action of British preserved steam. It opened with another visit to South Africa, this time to another since-lost line: the MacLear branch. This was followed by another look at British main line steam, opening with a look at 6024 King Edward I on a special through Bristol Temple Meads and then another from Kidderminster to Didcot. The King was compared with 5029 Nunney Castle, though the footage used was from the Severn Valley feature seen in the previous episode. After this, there was a brief look at 46203 Princess Margaret Rose and 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley en route to working in the Farewell to BR specials on the North Wales Coast line, and eventually 46203 hauling one of those services through Llanfair PG. After this was the feature on the railway museum in Ljubljana, and then finally a look at industrial lines in Sumatra, serving the Indonesian island’s oil palm plantations; as with the Java lines, these are now largely history.

S2E6 from the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, Yorkshire (17/08/94, BBC1)
This is the last of the episodes I do not have on tape, but from the preview given in Episode 5, I can tell you that as well as a look at the K&WVR, there were features on a tramway in Verona, broad gauge steam action from India, and British main line action include 80079 and 80080 working excursions in Devon around the Exeter rail fair.

Series Three
A year on and MT returned for its final run. Though relegated to BBC Two, episodes were packed with more features, including a regular feature looking at British miniature railways.

S3E1 from the Foxfield Railway, Staffordshire (19/07/95, BBC2)The series opened with the first of three visits to East Asia with a steam excursion in western Japan and a preserved line near Nagoya. British main line action included 777 Sir Lamiel and 828 on D-Day anniversary shuttles between Salisbury and Southampton Docks, and 96 Normandy returning to the docks for the first time in preservation. It also included more of the Farewell to BR specials from North Wales, with 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley, 5029 Nunney Castle, 828, 46203 Princess Margaret Rose, 71000 Duke of Gloucester all in action. 46203 was then shown leaving London Paddington on a further Farewell to BR special. The first miniature railway feature was on the Eastbourne Miniature Steam Railway, with a brief look at Bob Symes’ live steam model railway. After this came a look at the Foxfield Railway, and the closing feature was on working industrial steam in, yes, South Africa.

S3E2 from the Paignton and Dartmouth Railway, Devon (26/07/95, BBC2)
The episode opened with a look at steam on the steeply-graded Chengde Steelworks Railway in China. This was followed by what was essentially a double-feature on British main line steam. The first part was on Steam on the Met, with 69523, 80079 and L99 seen running the 1994 trains. This was followed by a look at 70000 Britannia (as 70014 Iron Duke) at Dover, and 80079 and 80080 on a special on the now-closed Folkestone Harbour branch. The miniature railway series was continued with footage of the Exmoor Steam Railway in Devon, now no longer open to the public. The main feature was on the Paignton and Dartmouth Railway, with only two engines in action: 4920 Dumbleton Hall and 6435. Finally, there was a three-part feature on Ireland, looking at the nascent Cavan and Leitrim Railway, the Bord na Mona railway network, and the Sea Breeze excursion between Dublin and Rosslare Harbour via the streets of Wexford.

S3E3 from St Florian, Austria (and the South Devon Railway) (02/08/95, BBC2)
First up was a feature on the first preserved railway on mainland Europe, the Blonay-Chamby Railway in Switzerland. The feature on British main line specials was once again longer than usual, with 46441 on the Hope Valley line, 70000 Britannia working through from Waterloo to the Mid-Hants Railway (with help from 30506 and with 92203 Black Prince looking on) and later on the Marches line at Abergavenny, and finally 5029 Nunney Castle on a Didcot-Worcester special. The miniature railway feature was on the much-missed Dobwalls Miniature Railway, while the preserved railway feature was on the South Devon Railway, featuring 7714 and 68011 Errol Lonsdale in action, and glimpses of 1369 under overhaul and LSWR Beattie Well Tank 3298 and broad gauge engine Tiny in the museum. The feature from Austria covered the Florianerbahn tramway, and to close the show, there was a second feature on steam in Switzerland, looking at the Furka Mountain Railway.

S3E4 from the West Somerset Railway (14/08/95, BBC2)
This episode began with a return to Sri Lanka to briefly look at the then-narrow gauge line from Colombo to Avissawella, since converted to broad gauge; it featured a Sentinel steam railcar, now the subject of a preservation bid. The British main line feature covered two engines owned by the NELPG: 60532 Blue Peter in action in Scotland, and 2005 on a special between Darlington and Newcastle. The miniature railway series covered the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, and there was another visit to Austria to look at the tramway museum and Vienna and its royal imperial saloon. The episode closed with the main feature on the West Somerset Railway, with five engines seen in action: 4160, 4561, 7802 Bradley Manor, 75069, and industrial tank Kilmersdon.

S3E5 from Bolzano, Italy (18/08/95, BBC2)
The series returned to Eastern Europe for the first time since the first series with footage of the Baltic Coast Express railtour in Russia and Estonia. The British main line section was devoted to 44871 in action on two railtours in Scotland. Next up was an interview with a miniature locomotive engineer from Belgium, before the regular miniature railway feature focusing on the now-closed Mull and West Highland Railway. The main feature was a look at the scenic Rittnerbahn Tramway in northern Italy, and the episode concluded with industrial steam around Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and a Garratt-led railtour on the East Nicholson branch.

S3E6 from the Midland Railway Centre (24/08/95, BBC2)
The final MT episode saw yet another feature on South Africa, this time looking at main line steam on the line to Johannesburg. British main line steam included 48151 on an excursion from Carnforth to Scarborough, and the double-headed railtour from Glasgow to Fort William with 2005 and 3440 The Great Marquess. The final British main line action of the series was a sequence showing 4468 Mallard in action in 1988. Two miniature railways were covered: the Moors Valley Railway at Ringwood, and the sadly closed Gorse Blossom Railway in Devon. The main feature was on the diverse Midland Railway Centre at Butterley, with 46203 Princess Margaret Rose, 47327 and 80080 all in action on the standard gauge line. The final feature was back where the series started in Japan, looking at an excursion in the east of the country.


In October 2013 I wrote about the rise and fall of Robot Wars, one of the great television series of my childhood. Well, after over a decade off the air, it’s back – BBC Two have commissioned a new series of six hour-long episodes to be screened early this year, restoring it to its rightful place after moving first to BBC Choice and then on to Channel Five before its eventual demise in 2004.

This isn’t meant as a full formal article (as I’d be repeating what I wrote last time) but a few points:

What is hopelessness? There can be numerous answers to this, but people who have seen Threads are likely to all give the same one.

It’s amazing to think a television drama as bleak and terrifying as Threads was ever broadcast. Written by Barry Hines (best known for writing the book and then script of Ken Loach’s Kes) and directed by Mick Jackson, it is, to put it bluntly, a depiction of what happens during a nuclear bombing. But that is just the basic premise. The entire 110 minutes of it is far more than about an act of war.

In Cold War terms, the 1980s is known for its escalation of tensions after the election of Ronald Reagan as US president, with his administration seeking to build up the Soviet Union as a serious threat once again after a decade of détente. Paranoia about nuclear attacks, which had been a feature of the 1950s, returned with a vengeance, but it was now nearly 40 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which somehow felt distant.

In 1982, Jackson directed a 30-minute episode for the BBC’s documentary Q.E.D. series called A Guide to Armageddon. Narrated by the uber-serious Ludovic Kennedy, its overriding theme was that, for all the advice given by the government in terms of preparation for nuclear attacks such as in building shelters or whitewashing windows, there was nothing members of the public to genuinely prepare yourself for a nuclear holocaust; it would be entirely futile. Even if you were to spend a five-figure sum in building a shelter that could somehow withstand the triple threat of hazards from nuclear explosions – fire, blast and fall-out – the reality is you’ll largely be left on your own in a world that bares no resemblance to the one we live in.

While the programme had enormous gravitas, there’s a constant undertone of irony within it, pointing out how ludicrous much of the advice given out actually was – most of the recommended techniques and shelters were completely useless, essentially implying that the matter of life or death was out of the hands of the vast majority of the population.

After his work on this, Jackson was commissioned to make Threads two years later, and again there are similar themes. Combined with the writing of Hines, it makes for a brutally honest portrayal of events through the lives of ordinary working class characters in the city of Sheffield, deemed a likely target due to the proximity of the nearby RAF Finningley (now Robin Hood Airport). The plot and details were based on considerable research conducted in the years prior to this on what might happen in the event of a nuclear holocaust, with a real effort being made to create an accurate representation in film.

This had been tried once before, but 1965’s The War Game, made for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series of high-quality television dramas, was deemed so unsettling that it was locked away and never broadcast for fear of causing a sizeable chunk of the population to take their own lives (and I’m not even joking here). Nearly 20 years on and the climate was slightly different; indeed, the critical and popular success of Threads led to The War Game finally being broadcast on the BBC in 1985.

The plot of Threads itself is fairly basic. The first 45 minutes is scene-setting, establishing the characters of the two families at the centre of the story connected by Ruth and Jimmy’s relationship, amidst the backdrop of escalating tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union over conflict in Iran. This slowly builds to a crescendo 45 minutes in, when the Soviets launch a surprise nuclear attack on various NATO targets. The next six minutes is spent on the horrifying realisation that attacks are happening, and eventually the bombing of Sheffield itself.

But while this isn’t necessarily ground-breaking itself, the remaining hour is uncharted territory for television, as viewers get all the gory details of the days, weeks, months and years after the attack, including the effects of a nuclear winter and the total breakdown of society. Britain’s population declines to medieval numbers, the education system collapses, and the country is governed by a faceless totalitarian police state.

Those ordinary people all die. Nearly all the main characters either die in the blast or in the weeks after from radiation poisoning or, in one case, murder by looters. Only the heavily-pregnant Ruth survives the first few months, and eventually gives birth to a daughter, Jane. Ruth does eventually succumb, though, having aged prematurely and been blinded by cataracts caused by the breakdown of the o-zone layer. In the second half of the film, she barely says a word, like most of the characters – those who lived through the blast are left numb by the experience, with a harrowing lack of dialogue portrayed only by magnificent acting. By the end, you’re left wondering whether it might be worth surviving at all. Western civilisation is finished.

A lot is left to the imagination. We don’t see who ‘wins’ the war, because it’s largely irrelevant, and we get no clue about who governs the survivors beyond that it’s effectively a dictatorship. Barry Hines said that the intention was to ‘step aside from the politics’, to point out that there can be no winners in a war that leads to the destruction of human society. Sheffield, and Britain as a whole, is collateral in a war started and ended by anonymous politicians and bureaucrats.

It is the stylistic features make the film so effective, though. Hines and Jackson opted for social realism, depicting how this would effect ordinary people. For this, they chose relatively unknown actors and actresses to depict the characters, to limit preconceptions. The first half sees them go about their largely mundane lives, or at least try to beneath the threat of impending conflict.

The attack scenes then demonstrate the dislocation, as within a matter of seconds you see the panic and terror develop – in one of the most famous scenes, a woman urinates herself in the street after seeing a mushroom cloud from the bombing of RAF Finningley; she is credited on IMDB as the character Woman Who Urinates on Herself. Scenes are rapidly cut between and there is no music for added effect.

The film is largely shot from the ground, so that it is from the point of view of the people involved, and it rarely leaves Sheffield. We never get to see how the war affects other cities, which in some ways is more effective, in the sense that this is just one city being obliterated by one single megaton bomb. We are told in stark captions, another chilling feature of the programme, that 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry is dropped on Britain, with an overall total of 3000 megatons exchanged between both sides – if one megaton did this much damage…

Brand names are common, but they are used for effect rather than for product placement. We see Woolworths and British Home Stores being blown to pieces, and a few notable logos survive the carnage to emphasise the destruction of society, such as the tin of Bachelor’s soup and the ruined Standard Life advertisement. Later, we also see an episode from the BBC’s Words and Pictures series, a damaged but surviving fragment of the ruined education system.

The disaster film or programme has become commonplace in the years since, from Roland Emmerich’s portrayals of various forms of apocalypse to BBC dramas like The Day Britain Stopped, Supervolcano and the End Day series. Many of these use similar techniques to Threads, emphasising central characters within a wider disaster and providing cultural reference points for audiences.

All play on fears of various unlikely doomsday scenarios, but they usually emphasise drama over realism. The most effective aspect of Threads is that this was a realistic scenario at the time – nuclear war seemed (and technically still could be) a real possibility, and this was based on considerable scientific research. The use of objective facts in those cold blue captions gives it an air of objectivity – no one knows what will happen if there is to be a nuclear conflict, but at the very least this is a pretty educated guess.

This is what makes it so frightening: it’s unremittingly bleak, but not for the sake of it, because this is probably what would happen. And as mentioned earlier, this is just one city. Not only would Sheffield end up like this, but also Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Coventry, Glasgow, Liverpool, Plymouth, Leicester, Birmingham, Newcastle, London and anywhere near a key military base; basically, the entire country, and probably most of the Western world, would be bombed back to the fourteenth century, along with the key cities of Soviet Union and its allies. Millions would perish; the survivors would live out a nightmarish post-apocalyptic existence unable to talk. It would be hopeless.

As part of my most recent thesis research, I’ve been looking at ‘greatest’ lists in music. It’s fascinating to compare the critics’ choices of the greatest albums and songs ever with the general public’s – while the critics of the likes of Rolling Stone and the NME lean towards white rock, the public’s taste is generally broader and more diverse, although women and black performers are still under-represented and recent hits are promoted above where they will probably end up being considered 10-20 years down the line (see ‘Groovejet’ by Spiller being ranked as the 9th-greatest number 1 of all time in a 2001 Channel 4 poll, ahead of anything by Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Rolling Stones – each to their own, I guess).

But alongside those, Channel 4 also did a poll to find the 100 greatest pop music videos, which was eventually revealed in a programme in 2005. Of all the lists I’ve found, I think this is probably the closest music (well, theoretically) list to being bang on that I’ve ever seen.

100. Musical Youth – Pass the Dutchie
99. Supergrass – Pumping On Your Stereo
98. Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy
97. Cornershop – Brimful of Asha
96. So Solid Crew – 21 Seconds
95. The Cardigans – My Favourite Game
94. Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart
93. The Rolling Stones – We Love You
92. Herbie Hancock – Rockit
91. The Specials – Ghost Town

90. The Pet Shop Boys – Go West
89. Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight
88. Elton John – I Want Love
87. Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime
86. The Streets – Fit But You Know It
85. Sex Pistols – My Way
84. The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays
83. Shakespear’s Sister – Stay
82. 50 Cent – In Da Club
81. Ultravox – Vienna

80. Radiohead – Just
79. New Order – True Faith
78. Godley and Creme – Cry
77. MC Hammer – U Can’t Touch This
76. The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever
75. Duran Duran – Rio
74. Wu-Tang Clan – Gravel Pit
73. Basement Jaxx – Where’s Your Head at
72. Robert Palmer – Addicted to Love
71. Bjork – All is Full of Love

70. The Police – Every Breath You Take
69. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Two Tribes
68. Madonna – Ray of Light
67. The Beastie Boys – Sabotage
66. Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues
65. Aphex Twin – Windowlicker
64. Bjork – Human Behaviour
63. George Michael – Outside
62. Blur – Parklife
61. The Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up

60. Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
59. ABBA – Knowing Me, Knowing You
58. The Cure – Close to Me
57. Meat Loaf – I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)
56. Eminem – Without Me
55. Fatboy Slim – Praise You
54. Daft Punk – Around the World
53. Wham! – Club Tropicana
52. Massive Attack – Teardrop
51. Run-DMC – Walk This Way

50. Paul Simon – You Can Call Me Al
49. Jamiroquai – Virtual Insanity
48. Johnny Cash – Hurt
47. The Prodigy – Firestarter
46. Adam and the Ants – Prince Charming
45. Aerosmith – Crazy
44. Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out of My Head
43. Dire Straits – Money for Nothing
42. Bjork – It’s Oh So Quiet
41. The Spice Girls – Wannabe

40. Missy Elliott – Get Ur Freak On
39. Pulp – Common People
38. Fatboy Slim – Weapon of Choice
37. Guns n’ Roses – November Rain
36. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Give It Away
35. Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U
34. The White Stripes – Fell in Love With a Girl
33. U2 – Sweetest Thing
32. Chris Isaak – Wicked Game
31. Eminem – Stan

30. Weezer – Buddy Holly
29. Electric Six – Gay Bar
28. Foo Fighters – Learn to Fly
27. David Bowie – Ashes to Ashes
26. TLC – Waterfalls
25. Madness – Baggy Trousers
24. Radiohead – No Surprises
23. Britney Spears – Baby One More Time
22. Justin Timberlake – Cry Me a River
21. Queen – I Want to Break Free

20. Gorillaz – Clint Eastwood
19. Madonna – Material Girl
18. Beyoncé ft Jay-Z – Crazy in Love
17. Blur – Coffee and TV
16. OutKast – Hey Ya!
15. R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts
14. Christina Aguilera ft Redman – Dirrty
13. Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)
12. Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson – Scream
11. Coldplay – The Scientist

10. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
9. Madonna – Vogue
8. The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
7. Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
6. Robbie Williams – Rock DJ
5. Madonna – Like a Prayer
4. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
3. a-ha – Take on Me
2. Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer
1. Michael Jackson – Thriller

I’ve compiled a playlist including all 100 videos. It’s about 7 hours long but it’s good to dip in and out of.

Certainly the top 10 is broadly positive, although Rock DJ would probably be lower if it was re-run today. Any of the top four could legitimately claim to be the greatest. I begun to consider some notable omissions but I really struggled:

Billy Joel – Uptown Girl
Blur – Song 2
The Darkness – I Believe in a Thing Called Love
Destiny’s Child – Survivor
Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen
Fugees – Ready or Not
George Michael – Careless Whisper/Faith/Freedom ’90
Manic Street Preachers – A Design for Life/If You Tolerate This…
Michael Jackson – Black or White
No Doubt – Don’t Speak
Oasis – Don’t Look Back in Anger
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication
Robbie Williams – Let Me Entertain You/She’s the One
Wham! – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

But I think I’m scraping the barrel to an extent. The vast majority of videos on this list are worthy of their place. However, there’s been a decade’s worth of videos released since this that would find their way into this list if a new vote was run, or at least be worth serious consideration:

Beyonce – Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)
Britney Spears – Toxic (technically before the 2005 poll, I know, but it has more of a legacy now)
Gotye ft Kimbra – Somebody That I Used to Know
Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball
Nicki Minaj – Starships
Pharrell Williams – Happy
Psy – Gangnam Style
Rihanna ft Calvin Harris – We Found Love
Taylor Swift – I Knew You Were Trouble/We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

Obviously this is quite pop-centric, as I’m struggling to think of any big rock videos of the last decade. No doubt what would actually happen is Channel 4 or whoever would fill it with Coldplay and Snow Patrol videos instead. Oh and probably Blurred Lines too (ffs). But the last decade has been pop’s for me, something I don’t really see changing any time soon.

Any other suggestions?

When I was in my early years, I enjoyed watching trains on television, to the point where my mother taped just about anything that appeared that included a steam engine. At the time, it was just nice to see those fascinating machines over and over again, but more recently, it’s provided me with something to look at from a more grown-up perspective, because some of it was actually quite good.

One such programme that my mother taped was the final episode of the series The Train Now Departing, a documentary series produced by the BBC in 1988 and then shown again a few years later. Yes, back then even with only four channels programmes were screened again years later; one other programme that was taped as an episode of Wynford Vaughan-Thomas’ series Great Little Trains of Wales on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, which it turns out was actually originally produced in 1976.

TTND was produced to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the end of steam on British Railways, and the six episodes focused on various aspects of this, along with the Beeching Era of closures and cutbacks, and the resulting railway preservation movement. The sixth episode of the series focused exclusively on the latter, covering the restoration of Southern Railway Merchant Navy Class locomotive Port Line, the Woodham Brothers’ Barry scrapyard (which still retained some engines at the time), the early days of Peak Rail, and the current state of the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway.

But a few years ago I came into a VHS copy of the entire series – up until that point I didn’t even know there had been a full series. It is also currently available on BBC iPlayer.

The most impressive thing about the series was the feel of it. Unlike many more recent railway documentaries, the contemporary footage was filmed in almost cinematic quality. There is also an abundance of archive footage used, most notably the opening sequence which showed the transition of Low Gill Viaduct on the Ingleton Branch from active railway to footpath. Anthony Smith’s witty narration was intelligent without being complex. The series had a grandeur that I’ve not seen from other railway TV series.

This is reflected in that last episode, which I’ve watched dozens of times. Beginning with archive footage of the final steam specials over parts of the Great Western Railway, it included atmospheric footage of the scrapping of steam engines, the rusting hulks of Woodham’s, the decline and demolition of Swindon works, the peace and tranquillity of the dales once served by the Buxton-Matlock line, and the ageing North British Railway engine Maude thundering through the forest beyond Bo’ness. It could work as a stand-alone 30-minute documentary, but it was also the appropriate end for the series, showing the progress made over the previous twenty years and the promise of the future – even if a full Buxton-Matlock restoration remains a dream.

Two rusting Southern Railway express locomotives at Woodham Brothers scrapyard

But watching the other episodes suggests it wasn’t even the high point. The first episode focused on the battle to save the Settle & Carlisle Railway in the 1980s, one of the greatest tales of British railway history. The episode was filmed shortly before Transport Minister Michael Portillo overturned the government’s decision to close the line, a decision since vindicated by the enormous success the line has seen in the years since. With more atmospheric footage of the windswept Pennine moors, quaint signalboxes and grand viaducts, it is more than a bit subtle in supporting the case for it to stay open, even if it was meant to be impartial. They even show minister David Mitchell warming to the railway.

It doesn’t take much to make a great Settle & Carlisle documentary, because the story of the line is uniquely remarkable itself. Similarly, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make a great documentary on the West Highland Line, another of Britain’s great railways. But TTND‘s approach makes it stand out all the more in arguably the best episode of the series.

It focuses on the enigmatic West Highland driver Callum MacRaild, who normally drove the regular diesel-hauled services on the line, except for in the summer when he was the lead driver for the West Highlander specials, later known as The Jacobite after privatisation. Callum is used as a lens for looking at the context of the line: its unique nature, beautiful scenery, and the then-new radio signalling system, all in the context of the history and culture of the area and its future (with shots of the new road to Mallaig under construction).

The closing shot of Callum venturing out onto one of the lochs in a small boat with his West Highland terriers (of course), stating in the voiceover that he was looking forward to retirement but would miss the railway, is made all the more poignant in the knowledge that he sadly died ten years later after suffering from motor neurone disease, just a year after driving a steam engine for the last time.

LNER K1 Class no. 2005 on one of the West Highlander specials between Fort William and Mallaig

The third episode has a very different feel without losing any of the series’ charm. The central figure is middle-aged train buff Barry Smith, who used to travel down to Exmouth for summer holidays on a Southern Railway express when he was a child and is eagerly anticipating following the same route again, including part of the journey behind Southern West Country Class express locomotive City of Wells.

However, in contrast to the upbeat nature of the other episodes, which all suggest hope for the future, the journey proves to be an enormous disappointment for Barry. It is clearly evident that the journey has lost its charm, summed up the vastly reduced Exmouth station, now just a platform in place of the former vast structure and layout. Adding insult to injury, City of Wells is unavailable for the steam special, which is instead pulled…*gasp*…by a LMS 8F freight engine – ‘an alien machine from quite another line’, as Anthony Smith says. You can feel ‘horrified’ Barry’s indignation from the other side of the screen 26 years on.

It may all seem a bit petty on the surface (and even the narrator seems to be having a slight dig), because it’s still steam, a novelty in itself. But you can tell it meant something to Barry, because he grew up with these engines and wanted to recreate this childhood journey, something that was doomed to failure with one disappointment after another the closer he gets to the Devon resort. It’s easy to sympathise, because it encapsulates the decline of Britain’s railways into relative soullessness in the aftermath of Beeching. This makes it one of the most memorable episodes of the series.

After that, there are two relatively specialist episodes. The first covers the various heritage railways of the Isle of Man, charting the rise and fall of the Isle of Man Railway in particular, which, like its counterpart on the mainland, also experienced losses and closures in the 1960s. It is perhaps the oddity of the series, not really fitting within the context of the other five episodes and the theme of twenty years since the end of BR steam given that it was never part of BR. Nonetheless, it works on its own, though perhaps it would have been better as a stand-alone documentary; it feels like it could go on for at least another 15 minutes.

The fifth episode of the series focused on industrial lines. Beginning with a look at the surviving steam locomotives at Castle Donington Power Station, probably the last to be in regular service for this purpose, Amberley Museum and Rutland Railway Museum, it also uses extensive archive footage, and highlights the attempts at trying to learn about and document former industrial sites now long demolished and covered up. It is an interesting idea to cover this, but it is perhaps for the rail aficionado than the other episodes of the series.

The Southern Railway had four branch lines in East Devon, serving several towns and coastal resorts. Only the line from Exeter to Exmouth survives, and, as Barry Smith finds out, even that is a shadow of its former self

If there are overarching themes, they are largely celebratory of a golden age of rail travel, suggesting that there is an inherent magic in steam engines that diesels and electrics don’t have. It raises questions about the idea of ‘progress’ – one Settle & Carlisle signalman says that it is getting towards the time for him to retire as new staff were coming in and they had different ideas, reluctantly intimating that this is progress, while it is clear that Anthony Smith isn’t a great fan of contemporary trains.

The series seems ambivalent towards Beeching and the changes he oversaw, with a couple of people including Barry Smith suggesting that some closures had to happen, despite the romance associated with branch lines and steam engines. Certainly Anthony Smith implies Beeching was an almost comical villain, drawing attention to ‘that familiar moustache’, seemingly an allusion to another much-hated figure and maybe implying that his overall image counted against him. It is at least a diplomatic stance, which fits with more recent approaches to the Beeching Era in railway history.

The heroes are those who set out to film steam engines and lines while they were still in service, particularly Ivo Peters whose collection provided most of the archive material, and the preservationists. If there are true villains, it is subtly implied that it is the contemporary government(s) for not investing enough in BR at the time – the post-steam era is now generally considered to be a disappointing period for Britain’s railways due to the lack of care of lines and facilities, and the missteps taken in producing new trains.

But the greatest theme is the question of why: why are we so fascinated by our railway history, and in particular, why do we love steam engines and why do we want to preserve them? As Anthony Smith asks during the final episode, ‘have we become a nation of museum-keepers hating to throw anything away?’

The iconic station site at Bo’ness and NBR 0-6-0 Maude

Unlike the similar but subtly different Classic Trains series on Channel 4 which aired in 1997 and was a general thematic history of Britain’s railways, there are continuing returns to the idea of the romance for steam and the aesthetic quality of it, now largely lost but still being maintained by preservationists.

While Classic Trains, with its John Peel narration and more modern format, was slicker, broader and more consistent, TTND would perhaps be more enjoyable for a general audience purely for its slightly superior atmospheric quality and human appeal; it reached a higher peak with the episodes that focused on individual case studies: the Settle & Carlisle, West Highland, London to Exmouth and Survivors episodes.

Despite the production of TTND being more distant than the end of steam was to TTND, it is still a fascinating series, because we can all relate to the human stories being told. This essentially makes it a timeless classic.


So why don’t we see this sort of series being made any more? Yes, the BBC have done series on railway history – Dan Snow’s Locomotion aired last year and Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys has lasted for five seasons. But these cater more for a mass audience in that generic BBC documentary style, and Portillo’s series in particular is less about the railways themselves than features surrounding them. As much as anything TTND was also a social history, but in the sense of how the railway directly affected people’s lives, be it in living in rural or marginal areas or just going on holiday.

It is telling that TTND is available on iPlayer under the heading of BBC Four when the original series was broadcast on BBC Two at 8 pm, before later being repeated on BBC One in the middle of the day (1990), in the morning (1991) and late at night (1993). Today a series of this quality would be considered high brow enough for BBC Four, or rather too high brow for BBC One and Two, which perhaps suggests the problem – in the digital era, BBC One and Two are considered mainstream, and trains aren’t.

There’s no opportunity for a series like this to be broadcast to a wide audience because of this pigeonholing; even in this era of audience fragmentation, BBC One and Two still get a lot more viewers than BBC Four, as force of habit means a lot of people tend not to deviate away from the traditional channels. The creation of BBC Four hasn’t made the BBC produce more quality programming; it’s just made them shove the quality programming they did make onto a separate channel to fill their main channels with more cheap, derivative tat.

I’d like to think that TTND is about more than the trains, which is what makes it so appealing – not in the same way as the Portillo series as the railways are still central to the episodes, but in terms of our relationship with them. It’s something that anyone of a certain age can relate to, and something that we should be educating not anyone of that age about – the BBC’s mantra is to educate, entertain and inform, after all.

Maybe I’m naive but I do think another quality documentary series on Britain’s railways would be popular – providing there’s good material. The question, of course, is whether that old way of life from the steam era has now gone for good, lost due to progress, privatisation and the passage of time. There’s a great difference between 20 years after the end of steam and nearly 50, but maybe that upcoming anniversary will spur them into something. Maybe if I get writing…

This picture at Low Fell Viaduct was taken at the same time as the archive footage in the intro

Images used in the spirit of fair use

Last February I wrote an article on Dan Snow’s documentary series Locomotion, which was quite good until the last episode when he reduced the previous few hours of analysis of the history of Britain’s railways into a part of a grand political narrative about empire and global superpowers. At the time, I said “for a moment I thought I was watching a Niall Ferguson documentary.” Well, it seems I may not have been too far away from the truth.

Snow, the BBC’s go-to history television presenter at the moment (I mean they call him a “historian” but a first at undergrad level at Oxford doesn’t make you one), recently put his name to this article on World War I for the BBC website. Entitled ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked’, the general ideas of it are:

– feel sorry for posh people too, as they also have feelings

– Britain is great and matters more than any other country

– the war wasn’t that bad

All of this was compiled with a smarmy tone of “you plebs should believe this because you’re wrong but you don’t know any better so that’s fine”. I was astonished that the BBC would allow such an arrogant and callous article to be published, but in the current climate, I’m not surprised.

We’re in a time where the centenary of the start of World War I is fast approaching. We’re in a time where the Education Secretary is making sweeping changes to the history curriculum in schools to put Britain back at the heart of it (after all, who wants to learn about all those other backward countries? It’s not like Britain has any immigrants or anything) and emphasise how great we all are. We’re in a time where British forces are fighting and dying in a rather pointless war we have no business being involved in in Afghanistan. We’re in a time where a referendum is soon to be held on Scottish independence.

All of this is coming together to form a situation where certain factions are trying to revise the history of World War I to suit the political ideology of those in power in order to influence public opinion. This is not a new thing – indeed, it is often said that history is more about the present than the past – but it is particularly concerning given that it seems to be happening without much effort to stop it, especially when it’s gaining credence with the national broadcaster, whose founding mantra is to inform, educate and entertain.

Instead of the established narrative of it being a pointless war in which hundreds of thousands of people were needlessly slaughtered over the period of four years for very little gain, it’s now being re-framed as a large jolly in which everyone had a good time (apart from the poor victimised posh people, evidently, who have suffered for so long in the words of those evil lefty academics) and Britain proved it was the best country in the world ever. Those Scots don’t know what they’ll be missing out on if they go their separate ways this year.

At the heart of this is Niall Ferguson. When not refusing to apologise for the atrocities of the British Empire, being a homophobe, worshipping money or killing babies, Ferguson has been attempting to re-write the history of World War I by using the same argument both Michael Gove and Dan Snow have evidently stolen from him. Funnily enough, he’s also one of the best-known historians involved in creating the new history curriculum for schools…

Gove’s recent claims have already been covered well by my mate Joe Harrison, who’s also a history postgrad, but I’m going to tackle Snow’s article.

As E.H. Carr wrote in his seminal text What Is History?, before looking at the facts, you have to look at the historian, and it’s not surprising that Dan Snow would be sticking up for the elites. Aside from being a posh television presenter who is the son of another posh television presenter, his great-grandfather was a general in World War I, and his wife is the daughter of the Duke of Westminster, the richest British person in the world.

With that in mind, here are the points he says he debunks:

1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point
Snow argues that it wasn’t, because higher numbers or percentages of people died in other wars, as if this means something. “Oh well, it couldn’t have been that bad, because other wars were worse” isn’t a valid argument for anything; two or more wrongs don’t make a right. The English Civil War might have killed a higher percentage of people, but back in the seventeenth century, you could die from cholera. You can twist statistics like this to suit whatever argument you want.

2. Most soldiers died
Snow argues that they didn’t, again implying that means something. The implication is that if you didn’t die, obviously that was fine, even if you had your legs blown off or were left with PTSD for the rest of your life. It’s a totally unnecessary thing to say, and misses the point. It’s also playing upon the general public conception of World War I as just the Western Front, when actually it was fought in a far greater variety of locations; in the horrific battles on the Western Front in the Somme and Ypres, huge numbers of people were killed which distorts the balance of overall figures, something Snow doesn’t acknowledge. Again, you can twist statistics like this to suit whatever argument you want, especially if you don’t engage with them.

3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end
Snow argues that they didn’t, implying that the whinging proles should be grateful for the fact that they didn’t have to live in trenches for years on end. Again, it’s missing the point: the fact that trench warfare existed at all, let alone essentially continue for four years with new soldiers lined up every few weeks to replace the cannon fodder that had already been lost, in a supposedly civilised society should be enough.

4. The upper class got off lightly
Snow argues that a higher percentage of the poor old posh people were killed, ergo we should feel sorry for them too. This is ridiculous on several levels.

Firstly, he makes no attempt to explain where the idea of the upper class “getting off lightly” came from to begin with. You’d struggle to get decent marks at A Level for that.

Secondly, once again he does not attempt to engage with the statistics he’s presenting; he doesn’t place them in context, or attempt to explain why the upper class was hit disproportionately hard (aside from that they were often first over the top; those brave, brave posh people…), instead just saying that they were and that you should feel sorry for them.

Thirdly, even Blackadder Goes Forth, despite being beaten with Michael Gove’s stick a few weeks ago, reflects that posh people got killed too by including the character of George, who has already lost all his public school friends and eventually dies himself. If Blackadder is one of the primary reasons why the popular conception of WWI has developed, surely that suggests that, er, this supposed myth isn’t really that significant.

Fourthly, it completely ignores the fact that all those posh people who did survive (and remember that Snow was just arguing that not that many people died, therefore making the whole thing OK) could go back into normal society with their education from public schools or degrees and walk into (or back into) their respectable well-paid jobs, while the working class people who survived had to go back to working on farms or in heavy industry for next to sod all a week – at least until the General Strike. But then I imagine Snow will come up with some reasons for why that and the Depression hit rich people hardest of all as well…

5. ‘Lions led by donkeys’
Snow argues that his great-grandfather and friends weren’t all that bad, and that it wasn’t their fault anyway. Essentially, it’s a bourgeois version of the “no, really, it’s the system that’s to blame” argument. The problem is this works for working class people because they have no power, but the middle and upper classes making the same argument doesn’t work because they are responsible for that power structure being in place. They are the ones whose petty disputes led Britain into the war.

The implication of this argument as a “debunking” of a “myth”, as proposed by Niall Ferguson and other historians of his ilk, is that they are fighting a brave, noble battle against a narrative that has always been in place. On the contrary, the initial dominant narrative in the immediate post-war period was that Haig and the other generals were heroes. It wasn’t until the 1960s that this began to be revised when people sat back and thought “hmm, maybe sending thousands of men into no-man’s-land to be gunned down by Germans wasn’t such a good idea after all”. Ferguson and co want to take us back to that traditional narrative.

I’m sure there were some “good” generals – that much is obvious. But the thousands of people killed in each of these battles, or even over the course of one day, says it all.

6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders
Snow basically says “hey, lots of British people died at Gallipoli too. More than the Anzacs too, which must mean it should matter more to us than them”. Considering he was more than happy to use the “disproportionate casualty” argument when talking about posh people, it’s odd (and, in some ways, amusing) to see him just walk over this argument when talking about foreigners. So not only are poor people irrelevant, but Australians and New Zealanders too. How about we tell him that some of the Anzacs that died were rich too? Perhaps he’ll change tack. Or perhaps he’ll continue to think that British people dying is a lot more of a travesty than someone from an inferior country.

7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure
Snow argues that tactics and technology improved, ignoring that trench warfare continued throughout the war right up to 1918. The technology did improve, yes, but only served to reinforce the method of warfare that was already being used. Either way, it’s pretty irrelevant, because whatever name you want to give the method, the men fighting the war were still getting slaughtered like animals. Another non-argument.

8. No-one won
Well yes, Dan, officially the Allies did win, but, y’know, this is a figure of speech meant to represent the huge waste of life on both sides for what was ultimately very little gain. It’s about the futility of war, a concept you don’t seem to understand.

In any case, the war was fought to a relative stand-still very early on and it took the introduction of the Americans to tip the balance in the favour of the Allies after four years of slogging and slaughter. Even then, it took German mutinies to settle it. After the millions of deaths and incomprehensible levels of damage caused, can we really talk about victory? According to Dan Snow, we can, because Britain is the best.

9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh
Snow argues that it wasn’t for some bizarre reason. Yes, we’ll just ignore the huge amounts of territory taken away, the occupied regions, the demilitarisation of the Rhineland, the banning of Germany from having an army, and the gazillion pound reparation bill which John Maynard Keynes thought was too high. We’ll also ignore the resulting recession Germany was sent into for the next decade and a half and the use of all of this by the Nazi Party to exploit the German public and gain power, leading to another costly, bloody world war. No, it wasn’t enough – we should have occupied the whole country, split it into four, billed them for every war ever, and taken all their children from them to be re-educated and integrated into civilised society.

10. Everyone hated it
So, unsurprisingly, after spending the whole article playing the war down (apart from for the posh people), Snow delivers the coup de grace – he says the war wasn’t that bad because some people enjoyed it, as it wasn’t as bad as conditions in Britain and they got “sexual freedom”.

Never mind what Harry Patch and other people who actually fought in the war said about it – “legalized mass murder” and all that. Yes, apart from the millions of deaths, thousands of wounded or traumitised people, the emotional loss for their relatives, the catastrophic damage, the loss of priceless cultural artefacts of historical importance, the development of barbaric tools for destruction, and the cause of the rise of fascism in Western society, the massacre of Europe’s Jewish population and a second global war which ultimately led to some of the worst aspects of world society today, it wasn’t that bad because some toffs got the opportunity to rape a few French village-dwellers without the fear of reprisal.

This is the BBC in 2014.

Images used in the spirit of fair use