The Finishing Line
Happy new year! I'm starting off the new year with a bang because while I've blogged about some weird shit on this blog over the years, this is the wildest thing you will ever see on here, so hold on to your hats. Caution: this blog post is about a broadcast dramatising railway accidents and may be distressing.
In the past I have briefly touched here on the notoriously scary public information films of the 1970s, at least as I remembered them. Perhaps the most famous of this genre are Apaches (also 1977) in which a number of children play in a farnyard and meet their deaths in various ways. and Building Sites Bite (1978) which bizarrely shows the same child repeatedly meeting his death in all the various ways a building site can offer. But these are as nothing to The Finishing Line (1977). Instead of merely shockingly depicting the dangers and the consequences of going near them, The Finishing Line starts by depicting a boy sitting on the edge of a railway bridge and voice over of a teacher telling the pupils not to play on the railway line because it's not the place for games. The boy then daydreams if a school sports day actually took place on the railway line and the events are the various things children aren't supposed to do on railway lines, but done competitively. It's barking mad, as if a school sports day were envisioned by Scarfolk Council (incidentally our current government are increasingly getting their policies from Scarfolk).
Perhaps I should say that while some of the adults in the film are actors, the kids are kids from three schools and the personnel from the St John's Ambulance were actual personnel from the local Hertfordshire St John's Ambulance. This just takes it into a whole new layer of weird. Apart from anything else, I want to see the consent letters that the parents signed: 'I consent to my child enacting a sports day on the railway line and understand he will be depicting serious casualties and fatalities'.
We start off with innocent footage of a seemingly perfectly normal sports day, with a band playing.
The first event is the Nine and Under Fence Breaking, in which the nines and under break through the fence and run across the track. Unfortunately one of the teams is disqualified because they end with an incomplete team, as one of the kids has been killed by a train.
The next event is my favourite, the Twelve and Under Stone Throwing, in which the teams stand right by the line and throw rocks at a passing train. They get marks for smashing windows, for injuring the passengers and one of the teams get bonus points for cracking open the driver's head. One of the announcers of the points will be familiar to readers of this blog as Jeremy Wilkin, and I can only wonder what his career was doing at this time.
Then the lacrosse team take part in the Last Across event, where they have about three seconds to run across the line in front of an approaching train, with their parents cheering them on. The St John Ambulance once again scoop up the bodies.
Finally, the remaining kids all take part in the full school event, the Great Tunnel Walk, in which they all walk along a three mile long tunnel. Do I even need to say that a train is coming the other way? The four or five survivors of sports day are seen staggering out the other end while the dozens of corpses are carried out by adults and lines up on the track while the band plays Lead Kindly Light.
Seriously, you have to see this, because it's bat shit crazy.
It was made by British Transport Films, who were all for it, including their in-house psychiatrist. You have to wonder why they would need an in-house psychiatrist, and I can only guess that scooping up enough dead children off railway lines would eventually blunt your sensitivity to how traumatic other people would find this.
First showings of the film (in schools - it was aimed at children between 8 and 11, and how glad I am that I was only 4 in 1977) were not promising. Children fainted or had to be carried out screaming. It was apparently also shown on television, with the result you'd expect, and was banned for twenty years as a result.
It's sheer impact is increased by it being clear that these are normal kids not actors, and that the real St John Ambulance feature. Its impact is not reduced by the reflection that actually leading a whole school into a railway tunnel in the line of an approaching train would actually result in far worse injuries than those seen on the kids. What on earth where they thinking?
I see that Roebuck Primary School (now Roebuck Academy) in Stevenage, Watton-at-Stone Primary School (you know where), and The Simon Balle School in Hertford are all still going today. Beyond being listed as having provided children as train fodder for this film, I have been rather surprised not to find any reminiscences by the kids online. Perhaps they were all required to sign NDAs or after years of counselling they've integrated this event in their childhood as best they can and don't want to be reminded. There are however, lots of memories by kids who were traumatised by seeing it as an 8 year old.
Apparently, director John Krish had been unwelcome at British Transport Films for some years before this, because of something he made for them in the sixties. I have looked on his IMDB page but remain unsure whether it's actually true that he was what we would now call 'shadow banned' or what he did to cause this ban. I also discovered that he was personally responsible for the colour titles for The Avengers and directed three episodes. If I tell you that one of these episodes was The Living Dead, perhaps I'd better stress that I'm not making this up. The others were Escape in Time and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station. But I just think that if you're returning to an employer after blotting your copy book and start with a film depicting almost a whole school being ploughed down by a train, that's gotta be some revenge right there and I love it.
It's a bit difficult to criticise constructively a show which you're not really convinced should ever have been made in the first place. But I personally think one improvement would have been having the actual Salvation Army band play in uniform. You didn't think I was going to suggest anything other than increasing the weirdness did you?
Oh go on, then. I know you want a clip, courtesy of Scarred for Life.
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