One Way to Necropolis: The coffin trains beneath Waterloo Station

BBC Radio 4 Extra's documentary about the coffin train which ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetary makes for sombre theatre, writes Antonia Quirke.

A documentary about a coffin train that ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking between 1854 and 1941 (3 August, 7.30am) told us of the subterranean waiting rooms and lifts, the coffin workshops and porters going quietly about their business, careful not to pant and strive like the platform employees in the main station – they were instead caught up entirely in the sombre theatre of their tasks. “Corpses, pauper: two shillings and sixpence”, an in-carriage advert informed us. “Corpses, artisan: five shillings.”
 
Female passengers were by law devoid of any ornament. Black and perfectly plain was the dress code – nothing to capture the gaze, nothing to shiver or shine, no thin lines of beads sewn into the fabric, no lucky opal winking on their finger. (Was even the folded handkerchief, ready for a surreptitious dab, black, too?) At Waterloo – in the 1850s the biggest station in the empire – general passenger and freight trains chugged day and night, dominating all human life. Moving into death with the London Necropolis Company and its dedicated trains and countless coffins and mourners was inevitable. “Everybody would take this train at some point,” someone said, almost under his breath.
 
The voice of each person interviewed – a historian, a gravedigger at the modern Brookwood Cemetery, a former tea lady at the café who served passengers in the 1920s – was faded out rather than cut, sliding away sweetly and politely, a fantastic way of putting the programme into a kind of swoon or trance, as though its makers were acknowledging that we all have something important and interesting to say but sooner or later blood pressure or hypertension or an unwise dash into traffic gets the better of us and our voices stop.
 
Or do they? There were moments that sounded almost like radio frequencies getting muddled, earth-side and nether-side (as packed, perhaps, as a mainline station at rush hour with the bored and irritated deceased) crossing wires. But none of it was depressing or disconcerting. There was no under-note of corrosion and damp; there were no places you’d rather not be.
 
The programme was more like a low, mass sigh and never more so than when someone came across a grave in Brookwood of a Victorian bookseller who had died at 27. “Young in years,” read his epitaph, “but old in sad experience.” It was such a tragic sign-off that the person reading it was forced to repeat the phrase in different, increasingly prosaic ways, as though querying a grocery bill. Some things are better unsaid.
A Parisian funeral tram - with coffin compartment on one side. Photograph: Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Show Hide image

Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue