The film charts the efforts of Titfield villagers to fight the closure of their local branch line. They exploit the fact that 1947 Transport Act had only nationalised existing railways so they can take over and run their branch line. Unfortunately the local Coach Company "Pearce & Crump" have other ideas and succeed in destroying the line's engine (GWR side tank locomotive 1401) just prior to a Whitehall inspection of the line, prior to the granting a Light Railway Order. In order that the inspection can go ahead, the "Titfield Thunderbolt" (alias real historic steam locomotive "Lion") is taken from the town museum and pressed into service. (This is the bit where the film rather loses the plot, possibly because what happens would never have been allowed in real life and in all probability, reflects a lack of passion for the subject from either the scriptwriter or the director). The train appears to run without brakes and the driver and fireman respectively are the local vicar aided by his friend the Bishop Welchester.
George Relph (The Vicar, Sam Weech), John Gregson, (Gordon Chesterford "The Squire"), Godfrey Tearle (Ollie Matthews, the Bishop of Welchester), Naunton Wayne (George Blakeworth, The Town Clerk), Sid James (The rogue "Hawkins" who drives the Traction Engine), Hugh Griffith (Dan a retired platelayer and the loco fireman) and Stanley Holloway (Mr. Valentine, the lines' alcoholic benefactor). Running Time: 84 mins. Georges Auric wrote the theme music.
Three sets of drivers and firemen were used in the making of the film: Bert Harris/Bob Stride; Sid Mitchell/George King; Ted Burbidge/ Frank Green. (These last pair, together with Guard Harold Alford were included in the film's credits. Reflecting the fact that they had small speaking parts). All were from Westbury.
The film was the first Ealing comedy to be filmed in Technicolor.
The night-time shots of the train being moved out of the station by Hawkins (Sid James) so that it free wheels down the line to crash, were filmed during the daytime using strong filters – the contrast and the shadows are the give away. (The crash was, of course, filmed in the studio using a scale model.
Along with HM The Queen, 2002 marked the Golden Jubilee of the location filming. Whilst March 2003 marked the Golden Jubilee of its release in both the UK and the USA.
That the film was inspired by the rescue of the narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway, a former slate railway, by a group of volunteers lead by railway author LTC Rolt.
That Titfield was a name created by the scriptwriter (TEB Clarke) from the adjacent Surrey villages of Titsey and Limpsfield. (
For me its little things like the parcel marked "Fragile" being dropped onto the platform to the sound of breaking glass.
Or in the scene where Valentine and Dan set off on a hand powered to steal a replacement locomotive, the pair of them whistle the Eton Boating Song. Which was also used as background music in "North West Frontier", another railway escapade story (staring Kenneth Moore).
When they discover that they're running the railway at a profit because it has suddenly become very popular – probably not very difficult if everyone was a volunteer!
Then the scene towards the end of the film where the villagers abandon the cricket match - although the batsman 'plays' the ball he misses and it clearly passes over the top of the wicket - yet the bails fly off as if they had been struck.
During filming, Lion's tender was damaged when the 'flatroll' wagon with the coach body that had been Dan's 'home' and a GWR 'Toad' Brakevan rolled down onto Lion after the coupling broke, following the Inspectors "emergency test". There was a heavy collision (clearly seen in the film), which bent the buffer beam.