Trainfall (Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes, 2012)

The Beauty of Transport finds itself a bit behind the curve this week, as I’ve only just caught the latest James Bond film on DVD. I missed it on the big screen for various complicated reasons, and then had to wait an inordinate amount of time between its release on DVD for purchase and its release for rental.

But I’ve finally seen Skyfall, and putting aside the arguments over whether or not it’s the best James Bond film for ages, it’s certainly the best James Bond film for public transport in recent memory. Well, why else would I be talking about it here?

Spoilers for the film follow, so if you haven’t seen it yet and wish to do so without foreknowledge, look away now.

Skyfall. Via the “Downloads” section of the official movie site, here.

So (as Benedict Cumberbatch asks in a different film altogether*) …shall we begin?

There’s a sequence early on in Skyfall during which Bond uses a digger to break into a moving train (not that I’d encourage such behaviour in the usual course of this blog). Later, there’s an ‘interesting’ (i.e. not a proper) red and white London Bus parked on Vauxhall Bridge as the MI6 building is blown up. This is a sure way of spotting that the bridge must have been closed to normal traffic during filming and that the vehicles on it were all brought in specially. A real London bus does make an appearance later on in the shape of one of those terrible New Bus for London models, so local transport authority Transport for London must be pretty happy about that.

But before that is an extended sequence on the London Underground. The villain of the piece, Silva (not a villain of the “I will blow up the world unless you pay me a ransom of [insert lots of money in contemporary prices] as memorably sent up by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers films, but rather one who simply wants revenge on Bond’s boss M for some vaguely-explained reason) has escaped from MI6’s underground reserve headquarters into – gasp! – subterranean London. This is demonstrated by a rather swizzy CGI map of the aforementioned subterranean London, extracted from Silva’s laptop by Bond’s realisation that the decryption key is “Granborough Road”, a closed Underground station. Bond really knows his stuff. Granborough Road was on the Metropolitan Railway’s long extension into rural Buckinghamshire, and Verney Junction in particular. It closed in 1936 – who knew James Bond was such an expert on London Underground arcana?

Disguised as a police officer, Silva makes his way along what is supposed to be the District  Line from Temple station towards Westminster, chased by Bond. However, the trains featured are very clearly tube trains of the sort used on the Northern and Jubilee lines, rather than sub-surface trains normally seen on the District Line. For those unfamiliar with the London Underground, tube trains are smaller in width and height than the larger sub-surface trains used on the District /Circle /Hammersmith & City / Metropolitan Lines. That’s because filming for Skyfall took place on the disused Jubilee Line platforms at Charing Cross (rendered redundant when the Jubilee Line was extended from Green Park to Stratford in the late 1990s), redressed as several different stations during the course of the sequence. It wouldn’t really have been possible to accommodate a filming schedule of several weeks on the actual District Line, and it’s only geeks like me (and possibly you, if you’re a regular reader of this blog) who would notice.

At one point, Bond pursues Silva into a cavern below the Underground. Is it supposed to be part of the London sewer system, which contains many impressive brick structures? Or is it, as one of the commenters on Going Underground’s blog suggests, supposed to be the Embankment substation chamber? Silva blows up the roof of the chamber, leaving Bond puzzled momentarily as to why Silva has failed to kill him in the blast. In true James Bond fashion though, a villain would never choose an easy way of killing Bond when a more complicated way presents itself, and this is indeed the case here. In one of the most memorable images from the film, a tube train falls through the hole and crashes into the cavern to dramatic effect (though Bond escapes even this – he was minding the gap, I expect).

Luckily for TfL, who must otherwise have been worrying about the effect of this sequence on nervous passengers, the train is empty and the destination display tallies with this by displaying “Not in Service”. It’s jolly decent of Silva to have chosen an empty train to wreck, rather than one packed with passengers (he’s a caring sharing Bond villain for the 21st Century) but I did feel sorry for the train driver.

According to Kate Reston, head of London Underground’s Film Office, “Nothing identifies a location as being in London quicker than the inclusion of an Underground station or train. It’s a unique and instantly recognisable backdrop.” TfL further explains that all monies raised by making its network available for filming are reinvested into the London transport network. More information on the London Underground Film Office can be found on its website, which has lots of information about films shot on the Underground, as well as the top filming locations. Fascinating stuff.

I must admit I’m in two minds as to whether Skyfall acts as a positive advertisement for public transport in London. On the one hand, it does feature very prominently. On the other hand, the defining image is that of a tube train crashing to its doom. But they do say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

There’s a further link between Skyfall and transport. To promote the film, a complete UK East Coast intercity train was wrapped in special vinyls during February 2013 to promote the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray. Locomotive 91107 was temporarily renumbered 91007 as part of the fun and the train was launched at platform 007 at London King’s Cross.

East Coast's Skyfall train, from the media download page, here
East Coast’s Skyfall train, via the media download page, here

The work was undertaken by sign-making, printing and vehicle-wrap company Aura Graphics, which took only a few days to transform the train. The work didn’t stop at the outside, as it also included on-board table top graphics, and a wrap transforming the buffet counter into a cocktail bar, as you can see here.


* For those interested, it’s here (the ‘announcement’ video is the relevant one)

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