In the early 1960s the realisation was dawning—on some at least—that Britain needed to do a bit more in the way of innovation, in the application of science, engineering, industrial organisation and related policy in order to keep abreast of the competition from Europe and from emerging markets like Japan.
Indeed, perhaps the best known quotation from Harold Wilson, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1964 -70 and 1974-76 came in October 1963 when talking about scientific and technical change and the need to embrace it, rather than resist it. as “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry”.
You can see elements of this, arguably, in the advances made by Britain’s motor industry – the Mini, BMC 1100, Rover’s ideas for a turbine powered car, in aerospace (Concorde was conceived at this time, for example) and in the railways, with electrification and advanced diesel locomotives. Wilson became Prime Minister a year later, and part of his programme was to build on this thought, and commit to develop a wider and deeper industrial strategy. There was slow hanging fruit as well as big projects, but how do you communicate all this effectively?
I have said on CC before that I am not a great film buff, but the Curbivore in me makes an exception for this – the only survivor from a fleet of seven mobile cinemas built for the UK Government’s Ministry of Technology in1967. The ministry included an agency, known as PERA (or the Production Engineering Research Agency, whose role included promoting latest and best practices in industrial techniques and processes to British industry. What better way than to have a mobile cinema and lecture space?
The idea was first tried in 1963, with this prototype, which featured the dramatic and arresting Perspex dome over the cab, and which housed the projection equipment.
There was no actual need for it to be Perspex – in fact the light it let would have been a detriment to easy projection – but it undeniably said modern, technology, innovation, and attracted the attention of those it sought to contact.
It is based on a 1966 Bedford SB coach chassis, which dated from 1950 and remained in production, until 1987, albeit in small numbers and largely for export of markets in developing nations. It was front engined, with driver sitting above and beside the engine, almost directly above the front axle. Power came from Bedford petrol or diesel engines, although some were built with Perkins and Leyland engines. Gearbox was either four or five speed.
Bedford built the chassis, and the coach bodywork then built by one of several bodybuilders. Probably the most common in the UK was Plaxton, and this vehicle has the front cab of a Plaxton Panorama coach (above), probably the most common in Britain at the time. The rear bodywork and the dome were built separately by Coventy Steel Caravans, a company founded by William Walmsley, original partner in Jaguar with Sir William Lyons, as was the trailer.
The driving cab was therefore a pretty much standard, albeit not upscale, coach and the external appearance dominated by the dome.
The interior featured a small cinema, with a raked seating arrangement and a screen on the inside of the rear doors. The vehicle has now been restored, and as part of this, some pre-war cinema seats have been fitted. The originals were much more modest.
The trailer was originally fitted out with a typical training room set of chairs and tables, and was lit partly from the roof windows that matched the style of the dome.
The fleet went into service in 1967, and was working until 1974 when the vehicles were all sold.
This example was bought to accompany the Flying Scotsman on its travels round the country in the mid 1970s, before going into a preservation trust. It was sold on in 1990, and fell into disrepair and was almost lost more than once. Eventually a full restoration was completed in 2010, with a Bedford diesel engine, a five speed gearbox and more modern air brakes, and the Vintage Cinema was in business.
It is now travelling the country, and Europe, showing films at fairs, shows and town events, with the film tailored to the area. Private hire is also available.
We saw it in Peterborough, in eastern England, in July at the city’s Festival, and the films based on old newsreels featured, among other things, Royal Navy officers visiting the Perkins diesel engine factory during WW2, brick making and the potato harvest.
But the highlight was the cinema and the idea that showing industry films in the back of a converted coach would lead to swift technological progress. Indeed, was this the white heat of technology?