Gallery: Oliver finds his station in life

Oliver Fosker is 25 but suspects he was born 40 years too late.

Steven Russell

Oliver Fosker is 25 but suspects he was born 40 years too late. He has a passion for classic films and adores the railways of yesteryear. Luckily, he's sorted himself a ticket to ride that combines both passions - and has produced a book to boot. Steven Russell heard about everything

OLIVER Fosker will be in heaven as the lights dim and the opening credits roll. He reckons to have enjoyed The Titfield Thunderbolt thousands of times, but never before on a full-size cinema screen. Sunday, March 29 will put that right. For good measure, the public showing in Woodbridge will coincide with the launch of his book: revealing what locations from the classic Ealing Comedy look like more than half a century on. It's been a labour of love over the past four or five years.

Oliver's a train buff, too. “I'm a big fan of films like the Carry Ons and some of the early Ealing Comedies. The Titfield Thunderbolt happens to be one of them. So mix films and steam together and I'm hooked. For me - sadly! - it's perfect.”

The idea to run the film at The Riverside Theatre was initially a bit of a whim - a treat to mark the culmination of the book project. “I said to the manager 'Would it be possible?' I'd pay to see it on the big screen. It was just going to be me sitting here by myself! Then things developed - 'What about a book launch?' - so that's what we've got now. It gives people the opportunity to see a film that hasn't been in the cinema for years.”

So what's the appeal of The Titfield Thunderbolt, which was shot in 1952 and issued the following spring? Is it the celebration of steam locomotion, the cheerful and whimsical tale, or what?

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“I think it's everything, really. Obviously it's a comedy, but the sense of village life and how things have changed is there. I was born 30, 40 years too late, I know that! I must have seen it over 1,000 times but I still find it amusing and I spot something different every time I watch it.

“I know I sound a bit of a nutcase but it's just a lovely film and a lovely story. There's typical British humour, which I love: the way the old characters were typical idiosyncratic villagers. You've got the old soak, the scruffy old tramp, the vicar . . . It just gives a sense of a community - so many characters bouncing off each other - and it makes for good comedy. Plus it's got steam engines in it, which can't be a bad thing!”

Oliver had long wondered where it had been filmed. Then a booklet called On the Trail of The Titfield Thunderbolt came to light in a book catalogue and his father asked him if he'd like it for Christmas. Would he heck. Simon Castens's volume detailed the locations.

“It turned out it was filmed mainly around Bath. It was June or August of 2004 that me and dad set off and had a good look round and found where the station was. I thought I'll do it for myself: comparative views, where it was filmed, what places look like now. It took me absolutely ages - a year and a half/two years - to put it on computer and write a little detail up for myself and print it all off. Then a friend said 'You ought to do that professionally. I'm sure it would sell.' I hummed and ha-ed, but it's come to me now doing it and it's finished.”

The Titfield Thunderbolt - Now & Then is self-published and has thus accounted for hard-earned funds. Lots? “It's enough; let's put it like that.”

Oliver made four trips to the Bath area, taking contemporary photographs to run alongside film stills showing the same scenes. Using Simon's booklet as a guide, and armed with an Ordnance Survey Landranger map, it was comparatively easy to find the right places.

“Some of them you would never recognise. One is now a horses' gallop, and you would never know it had been a track-bed. It's all overgrown.”

The film was shot on a former Great Western Railway branch line between Camerton and Limpley Stoke, which had recently closed because it was losing money. It wasn't a victim of the infamous Beeching Axe itself, which would swing a decade or so later, but was symptomatic of widespread unprofitability that saw track disappearing steadily from the 1950s.

Monkton Combe station was reborn as Titfield station, while nearby Freshford was the village itself. Bristol Temple Meads became Mallingford station.

The filmmakers had been offered Camerton-Limpley Stoke or Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, which ran for about 19 miles between Haughley and Laxfield and closed in the summer of 1952. The West Country won. “If it had been the Middy, it would have been easier for me to get shots; not four hours there and four hours back!” laughs Oliver, who lives at Martlesham. “But the Middy inspired Love on a Branch Line afterwards, so it did get its own claim to fame. This one suited the landscape better.” (Love on a Branch Line was a 1959 novel by John Hadfield in which a civil servant is dispatched to Suffolk to shut the Office of Output Statistics and finds himself enchanted by rural life.)

It's disloyal to utter it, but the West Country location certainly brought a touch of poetry that dovetailed with the tone of the film . . . there's Brassknocker Hill, for instance, and a stretch of line outside Monkton Combe known by locals as The Clang, because of the noise made by loose-coupled wagons.

“Brassknocker Hill is famous locally because it's a one-in-eight drop and the views are stunning. There was an old coach in the film; I honestly don't know how it managed to get up this hill! I had a job getting up in the car.

“The filmmakers came in and tarted the stations up. They put period stuff in, like adverts on the fencing, and really went to town. I've seen a picture taken a week after the filming and it's just desolate, because they've taken everything away. It was sort of 'Right; finished. Let's get out of here.'”

Despite the passage of half a century, seeing the settings in the flesh was a real thrill. “You see the Titfield station, which you've seen hundreds of times in the film, and you think 'Wow, I'm here.' Then you try to spot things like crossing-keeper's gates - the posts are still there - and fencing.

“The last couple of times I've been there I got chatting to one of the neighbours whose house is built on a track-bed. He gave me access to his back garden. I went round and said 'There's another scene . . . there's another scene.' I would never have found it unless I'd been allowed in.”

On a couple of occasions he equipped himself with a portable movie player on this forays. “It's nice to play the DVD and think 'Ah, there it is' as you watch the film.”

A spot he hasn't managed to capture is where a duel sequence takes place between a steam-roller and the train. “The whole place has been tipped with Bath's rubbish and become landfill. There's also a scrapyard on top of it. Every time I've visited, it's been locked. According to Simon, though, you'd never find a comparative view, which is a pity. There's no defining feature.”

Other locations posed their own challenges.

At Temple Meads a friendly British Transport Police officer lent a high-visibility jacket and escorted him to an area usually out of bounds to the public. The platform shown in the film is now a ballast siding.

Meanwhile, a stylish office building in London “took me a heck of a trek to find”. Used in the 1950s and '60s by British Olivetti Ltd, it turned out to be in Berkeley Square. The long frontage is now divided into shops but, other than that, the only substantial change is the removal of concrete columns at the front - replaced by a big glass window.

“I was wandering round and asked a couple of policemen if they recognised the place. 'We think it's down Park Lane . . .' So I wandered down there. No, I can't find it. Someone said 'You want to look over there,' so I went down some more backstreets . . . A couple of weeks' research on the internet and suddenly, bingo, I'd found it.”

Then there was The Imperial Institute, behind the Royal Albert Hall. “The building has actually been demolished; nothing apart from the big central tower remains, and the area is completely confusing.” The demolition made space for the Royal College of Music. He was shown an old picture from 1893, when the institute was built, showing where the road was, and from that he worked out where the entrance - featured in the film - would have been.

All things considered, one can see how his dream has eaten up time. “It's taken me a lot of hours on the computer. You can start at nine o'clock in the morning, fiddling about on a day off, and suddenly you look at the clock. 'Blimey! It's five.' You can't help it, because you get so engrossed.”


Ticket to ride

The special showing of The Titfield Thunderbolt is at Woodbridge's Riverside Theatre on Sunday, March 29. Tickets cost �3.50. Box office: 01394 382174. Doors open at 1.15pm and the film will start at about 2.30pm. Oliver Fosker's book The Titfield Thunderbolt - Now & Then costs �8.95 and the author will be signing copies.

The train now standing . . .

OLIVER Fosker's love of trains undoubtedly comes from father Michael, who as a 15-year-old started work at Peterborough on steam engines in the late 1950s. “As a kid we used to visit the steam museum at Bressingham and the steam railways. I was brought up on them - and listening to his tales as well,” remembers Oliver, who moved to Suffolk with his family in 1985.

In 2005 Michael organised for his son a footplate experience on the North Norfolk Railway, running from Sheringham to Holt. “It was a lovely surprise for me. And then a year later I joined up as a volunteer and I'm now a fireman myself.”

He's also been a railway worker by profession for the past year or so, after switching from a coach-driving job. A guard, he works on eight routes between Ipswich and Peterborough, Cambridge, Felixstowe, Harwich International, Norwich, London, the East Suffolk line, and across from Lowestoft to Norwich.

Movie magic

OLIVER Fosker is a big film fan, with Ealing Comedies up there at the top. (They were a series of films made by Ealing Studios between about 1947 and 1957, and include classics such as Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets.)

The Titfield Thunderbolt is probably his favourite - along with The Ladykillers, in which Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers are part of a gang of robbers.

Then there's the Carry On series. A favourite? “Oh, there's so many of them. Probably Carry On At Your Convenience. It probably doesn't ring a bell with many people - most people think of Up the Khyber or Camping - but I like the different ones because they're more amusing: the 'works day out' idea is very effective.”

He's also keen on James Bond. “I'm not into modern films; I'll go and see them, but I like the older style.” Oliver's watched and enjoyed a lot of Laurel and Hardy . . . and also films like Oh, Mr Porter! - a 1937 comedy starring Will Hay and also featuring a railway.

“Like I say, I'm born 30/40 years too late!”

Getting all steamed up: The Titfield Thunderbolt

The story centres on the villagers of Titfield, who are rocked when the Government announces it's closing their branch line. The vicar suggests supporters run it themselves and the Ministry of Transport agrees to a month's trial. But the bus company isn't happy and underhand tactics come into play.

The script was written by Thomas “Tibby” Clarke and the film was directed by Charles Crichton. The cast included Stanley Holloway and Sid James.