Under Night Streets (1958)
Director: Ralph Keene
Cast: Leslie Dwyer
Synopsis: Documentary film about the track workers and “fluffers” (track cleaners) who maintain the London Underground system every night during the few hours when the trains are not running.
Few of us give much thought to the work that goes on behind the scenes so that we can go about our daily lives. When you think about it, every aspect of our lives relies on the toil of countless strangers whom we never meet and for whom we rarely spare a thought. Ralph Keene’s 1958 documentary Under Night Street attempts to redress this by chronicling the work carried out in the labyrinthine network of tunnels that make up the London underground.
Apparently 1119 labourers toil in these tunnels — or, at least, that was the number in 1958 when the film was made — clearing debris from the tracks to reduce the chance of fire, sweeping soot from the walls of the tunnels to ensure satisfactory levels of ventilation, or checking and replacing ageing or broken sections of track. And back then it’s apparent that there was no such thing as Health and Safety — there isn’t one face mask or a single pair of goggles in sight. Lord only knows how many lives all that grime and soot cut short after finding and settling in their lungs.
I vaguely remember watching a TV documentary on the same subject, and the impression given was that it was a job from hell, working in dark, unpleasant surroundings in which rats roamed freely, but none of this is imparted in Keene’s documentary. The workers we see are all cheery Cockney types, as is the un-credited narrator, all of whom seem to love their jobs working in tunnels deep under the ground while the rest of the country sleeps.
(Reviewed 8th December 2013)