Ian Hislop Goes Off The Rails, BBC4

by | Oct 4, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A passionate and largely even-handed analysis of the decline of Britain’s railways in the 1950s and 60s, delivered by the engaging Ian Hislop.

What was good about it?

• Ian Hislop began from a position of bias; he was on the side of the poets, chiefly John Betjeman who romanticised the influence of the railways on the pastoral purity of English life. But like any good journalist, Hislop enabled his perspective to be swayed by the facts and opinions he encountered on his odyssey.

• By the end, although still favouring Betjeman’s viewpoint, he had realised that the railways in the 50s wasn’t the nirvana-made-flesh of poetic voices, that Beeching’s job was to save taxpayers’ money from funding redundant modes of transport, and that in this case, like almost all other instances in the history of the human race, the real blame lay not with Beeching himself – he was merely the tool to effect change – but with government and incompetent myopic administration determined by selfish short-term goals to satiate a lust for power.

• Hislop kneecapped Betjeman’s mythological halcyon days of British rail travel almost straight away. He noted how the poet sat in first class as he watched the blurred verdant pastures whizz by beneath the wispy clouds swimming in the azure skies – meanwhile, everyone else was crammed into “dirty” second class carriages, grumbling, as they do today, about late trains and high ticket prices.

• The history of the expanding British rail system was well-illustrated with the tracks snaking all over the country in the mid-19th century, before sprouting bounteous tributaries around the turn of the last century. Before the near-epitaph of the contraction of lines post-Beeching, which left huge expanses of mid-Wales, Scotland, Cornwall and the north of England stripped of all lines. London, naturally, was hardly affected despite being home to 97% of all the country’s bankers who should for the next five years be compelled to crawl to work on their hands and knees.

• Hislop lucidly exposed the inefficiencies of the nationalised rail industry, explaining how many of the lines simply did not earn their keep. He also revealed how Tony Hancock had been bribed to indulge the government’s wishes by using his popularity to turn public opinion against the remote, decrepit stations due to be demolished with the same craven sensibilities as a similarly popular contemporary icon might be employed to vilify the Human Rights Act by a tabloid newspaper.

• While the point was disputed by Charles Loft, one of the talking head experts, Hislop’s willingness to largely absolve Dr Beeching for much the culpability for the policy meant he could instead turned his sights on the minister responsible – Ernest Marples. As befits the cynical verbal gait of an editor of Private Eye, Hislop peppered his commentary with references to how Marples had made a fortune from the road-building industry, which was directly responsible for the collapse of a profitable rail system, and so was not averse to shutting down railways and building more roads.

• Hislop acting out scenes from the 1862 guide to etiquette on a train – ‘Keep a sharp look out to make sure you don’t miss your station’, ‘Place a token, such as a book, on a chair to show the place is engaged’ – it wasn’t relevant to the documentary at all but offered a sparkling antidote to what was a dry if interesting subject.

What was bad about it?

• The awful edit as Hislop stood on the Scottish Highlands lamenting the closure of the Carlisle to Edinburgh line. Unfortunately, the production team’s research at the time was incorrect about the year the line was opened, an error evidently only discovered in post-production.

• This meant that rather than go to the expense of re-shooting the footage, the correct year – 1862 – was dubbed over Hislop’s original delivery. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but ‘Hislop’ sounded as if he’d been sucking on helium so the ‘2’ resembled one of those sterilised-for-ITV films where a grizzled New York cop’s curse of “motherf***er” is diluted to “mother-funster”, with the “funster” patched on by a Prussian aristocrat.

• Rather than take a wider scope of satirical criticism of Beeching, Hislop kept referring to how Private Eye reported the issue. Perhaps Punch or the BBC didn’t bat a sardonic eyelid, but much like Betjeman’s idealistic vision of Britain’s railways in the 50s, so Hislop drew an equally partial impression of the state of British satire in the mid-60s.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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