Wednesday 10 February 2016

The Finishing Line (1977)

Director: John Krish
Stars: Juniors and Seniors of Roebuck Junior School, Watton-at-Stone Primary School and the Simon Balle School, Hertfordshire, Peter Hill, David Millett, Jeremy Wilkin, Kevin Flood, Antony Carrick, Yolande Palfrey, David Howe, Don Henderson and members of the St John Ambulance Brigade, Hertfordshire

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

If One Got Fat was traumatising, and I’ve heard that adjective used a number of times, then The Finishing Line is nightmare-inducing. It’s a British short, made by John Krish for British Transport Films, on his return to work for them after a period on the blacklist, following his unauthorised commentary on the closure of London’s trams in 1953’s The Elephant Will Never Forget. He was asked to make a film that might help to stop children playing on railway lines and vandalising them. What he came up with, in collaboration with co-writer Michael Gilmour, was The Finishing Line, which surely features more maimed and dead children than The Hunger Games and Battle Royale combined. It proved immediately controversial (like, duh) and was debated on the TV show Nationwide. Some felt it was a tough film for a tough problem, while others worried about it traumatising their kids or even encouraging the very sort of vandalism that it purported to prevent. It was promptly pulled from circulation, replaced by a safe, inconsequential film called Robbie.

So what did John Krish do that so upset the British public in 1977? Well, contrary to every other example of a public safety film out there, he turned the problem at hand into a game. Well, not really a game. It’s a competition, a prominent school competition spawned from the sonorous words of a headmaster that resonate over the opening shots. ‘The railway is not the game field!’ he pronounces, so the one kid who sits dangerously on the edge of a stone bridge overlooking a railway line, immediately thinks, ‘Yeah, but if it was...’ He’d have lots of trains, a twenty foot scoreboard and even a brass band, which strikes up as we watch his twisted imagination at work. I grew up with British sports days and was six when this was released, so there’s much I remember here, from the bowl haircuts to having to restart the first race after some eager kid jumped the gun. The only bit that doesn’t feel familiar is when the folk from the St John’s Ambulance bring stretchers out of tents in preparation for what’s to come.
And off we go! We get four events, to be competed by four teams of kids. They’re each introduced by an announcer, eagerly explained by the anonymous kid on the bridge through narration and illustrated by a very basic diagram of what’s going to happen. It begins with ‘9 and Under Fence Breaking’, a particularly simple to explain event, in which the kids from each team have to run to the wire fence, break through it, get all their members down the bank, across the rails and up the opposite bank to cross the finishing line. Sounds easy enough, right? Well a train is due to drive through halfway just to spur some extra speed out of these kids, and you just know someone’s going to trip on a rail and lie sprawled on the track. It’s a girl from the blue team and his team-mates have to abandon him when they can’t summon up the strength to carry him away. ‘Blue are disqualified for failing to complete with a full team,’ mentions the announcer as everyone goes silent while the bloody corpse of this pre-teen is lifted onto a stretcher and hauled off.
Now you’re getting the idea? Well you have ‘12 and Under Stone Throwing’ next, then ‘Last Across’, with the ‘Great Tunnel Walk’ to finish things off. Each event wraps up with dead or maimed children and stone throwing adds disfigured adults to the mix. That involves simply throwing bricks, colour coded for teams, at a passing train from ten feet away from the track. There’s two points for each smashed window, we’re told, and four for ‘a direct hit’, which means a passenger. Yellow even score six for hitting the driver, who holds in his eyes while the blood pours out of them. Last Across ups the stakes, with two teams on either side of the tracks, fighting each other to get across before the oncoming train hits them head on. By this point I was counting myself and can swear there are twelve kids sprawled in the train’s wake, even if the announcer only claims five injured and five dead. The Great Tunnel Walk is when it gets really serious; as Krish told Fangoria, he wanted to make it ‘look like the Somme from 1914.’ And yes, it did.
It’s utterly surreal to watch this and realise that it was commissioned by a government department. Krish pitched the concept to British Transport Films, which he had co-founded decades earlier before his stint in the wilderness, and their in house psychiatrist loved it. ‘This is exactly what we need!’ he announced. So Krish made it, with the expected audience to be schools, screening to children between the ages of eight and eleven, as it was felt that older kids might see it a little differently. It played in some schools, always to a ‘very silent’ audience, with a few kids needing to be taken out partway through. Krish describes them as ‘the nosebleeders - the ones who are going to faint at anything’. Then the controversy that built up led to it being screened on TV and, to quote Krish, ‘there was a riot afterward,’ so British Transport withdrew it from circulation and banned it for 21 years. The next time anyone saw it in public was in 2003 as part of the Krish retrospective that was organised by the British Film Institute.
Anyone immediately surprised by the boy sitting on the wall of the bridge at the beginning of the picture, in a long shot that zooms into him and clearly shows that there’s no safety equipment underneath just in case he falls off, won’t be too surprised to hear stories of the shoot. According to Krish, he was given 175 kids for five days in the last week of term before the holidays. Given that the line was active, he couldn’t get onto it until 9.30am and he had to be back off it by 3.30pm. He had to finish by the Friday or all those kids would vanish and some of the extras with them, as none of the parents were there. The final shot of the massed dead had to be shot in only twenty minutes, because the production office had cut costs with the sign for the Great Tunnel Walk. They’d printed ‘Start’ on one side and ‘Finish’ on the other so, running out of time, Krish had to shoot the beginning, pull the sign down, transport it through the three and a half mile tunnel and put it up the other way round so he could shoot the final scenes.
I was six when The Finishing Line was made, so I didn’t see it in school. I vaguely remember seeing a few films but not what any of them were, which is a shame as apparently the seventies were strong for public safety films in Britain. Donald Pleasence voiced Lonely Water as the Grim Reaper, warning kids about the dangers of playing near rivers. Apaches was made in 1977 by John Mackenzie, who would go on to helm The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins; it features kids playing Cowboys and Indians in the countryside, only to fall prey to a host of hidden dangers, like suffocating in grain pits or burning alive in hayrick fires. Perhaps part of this came from the techniques being borrowed from the horror and exploitation films that dominated the late sixties and early seventies, as Katy McGahan, a BFI curator, suggests. This is helped by the BBFC, the censors whose scissors got busy in the video nasty era, as they left public safety shorts alone. They didn’t even ban this which, like A Clockwork Orange, was voluntarily withdrawn.

The Finishing Line can be watched for free on YouTube.

Kier-La Janisse - School of Shock: Q+A: John Krish on Railway Scare Film 'The Finishing Line' at Fangoria.
Jude Rogers - Consider Yourselves Warned: Public Information Films at The Guardian

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was also six and have only just searched online to see whether my fleeting memory of seeing such a ghastly show on tv is real. And bingo it is. I must have watched that Nationwide show live and now remember being horrified by what was happening. They were very odd in them days.