In many ways this is a strange film. Part documentary, part light romance, part propaganda. It is also quite possibly the most beautiful depiction of English canals on film you will ever see.
Filmed in 1945, with Britain still at war, it is ostensibly the story of the lives of two families who work and live on cargo-carrying canal boats. The young woman on one of the boats is attracted to the young man working the other boat. We follow their romance. We also follow many aspects of life on the boats, which then had barely changed since the canals were built. The boats are shown with their tiny living spaces, their traditional flower and castle decorations, moving gracefully along the cut at barely walking pace; one of the boats is still horse drawn, the other motorised. But also shown is the realism of the sheer hard graft of working the boats. For example, there is a fascinating depiction of a boat being 'walked' through a long canal tunnel; the horse being taken across the hill over the tunnel whilst the remaining crew lie on boards across the boat and propel it by literally walking along the tunnel walls. From time to time there are shots of the industry the canals were supplying; the characteristic bottle kilns of the Potteries; a huge steelworks with the canal passing right through the middle (Shelton Bar?); the famous Anderton Boat Lift connecting the Trent and Mersey canal down to the River Weaver.
There is a strong documentary feel in places; from time to time a narrator comments on what we are seeing, and there is even a short section where we are given in effect an illustrated history lesson. And there is very much the feel of everyone pulling together, all classes, men and women, for the war effort. But there is an unmistakeably optimistic feel to the film; this was mid 1945 and victory was clearly on the horizon. (I don't know if it is my imagination but the (many!) boat children shown seem a very happy lot indeed).
I agree totally with reviewer 'Silver Fox' that 'charm' sums this film up. Although we still have canals, now used for leisure purposes, we will never again see the old way of life, the old factories, the old pace of life.
And all this was filmed by one of Britain's greatest cinematographers, Douglas Slocombe, in a glorious summer where the sun seemingly always shone. There is really no need for colour when the beautiful images throughout this film are caught in such lustrous black and white.
The picture quality is very good for its age (don't judge by the opening aerial shot which is poor) and the sound generally clear. There are no extras. The one extra I would have liked to have seen is some sort of reference to exactly where the film locations were; the BFI for example often include a booklet with their historic releases. There must be canal historians and enthusiasts who could identify most of these.
But this is a minor issue; this really is a fascinating film (one of the lesser-known Ealing films), gloriously evocative of a way of life long gone.