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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Heart of the Angel on DVD - Meet the Tube Fluffers

I was kindly sent a review copy of Molly Dineen's eye-opening documentary about 48 hours in the life of Angel London Underground station -
Heart of the Angel. She filmed station staff, engineers, travellers and overnight cleaners - or fluffers as they were called - in 1989 before the station had a major rebuild with spacious new platforms and installation of the longest escalators on the Tube.

Angel Fluffers - From Heart of the Angel

What struck me was how historical the film looked, even though it was only shot just over twenty years ago. The Tube at that stage seemed like another world, punks larking around on platforms, pre Oyster card, extremely manual, dusty, constantly breaking down, frustrated (mainly bespectacled & big haired) commuters sweating as they walked up and down huge flights of stairs - actually - it's not that different from today in many cases. When the film first came out, the Evening Standard claimed that "long suffering commuters demanded that the film be made required viewing for every member of the board of London Underground." It certainly makes an interesting counterpoint to TfL's current glossy videos of engineering work upgrades.

Angel Tube 1989 - From Heart of the Angel

The station staff were funny yet totally frustrated at the same time. Dineen's gentle questioning made the staff into the real stars of the film, seeming to speak their thoughts aloud. Mr Simms who manned the lift (on the few occasions it worked) acted like he owned the lift and questioned the passengers who entered it, with philosophical questions like: "Is the world round or flat"?

Derek, the station assistant had been working for 45 years and was aware he wouldn't achieve anything more in his life. He spent his time counting out piles change and giving directions to tourists "If you get lost come back and I'll tell you again for nothing." When making a cup of tea in the dilapidated staff room he said: "I'm never miserable, I've just got that sort of face. When I'm asleep I'm happy". What would you have liked to achieve Dineen asks, "I'd like to have been taller", Derek replied.

No lifts in service - Angel Tube 1989 - From Heart of the Angel

The station manager was aware of how badly the station needed refurbishment but his mind was also elsewhere as he showed Dineen his paintings and sketches of where he's rather be "Lonely places, hilly places". He actually got excited when he was shown drawings of the new station. "It'll be in poshest station in London. Course they won't have little turds like us in charge of it".

Angel Fluffers 2 - From Heart of the Angel

I was fascinated watching the underground crews of mainly female workers who changed on the station platform and then spent the evening picking out human hair & rubbish from the tracks by hand. Much of this is done by machines now (although some cleaning is now men with brushes), but though the fluffers knew their work was backbreaking & almost soul destroying, they went about it with a sense of camaraderie (helped by the fact that many of them were related). At times they came out with poetic thoughts "My days are nights and my nights are days", when they weren't singing or occasionally worried about the sense of something else being underground with them!

There were two lovely pieces in the 10 minutes of extra footage which was never shown on 40 Minutes (where it was originally aired). Firstly, a very fluent Customer Service Assistant explaining how both staff & passengers got frustrated with the system and how this boiled over into other aspects of their life outside the Tube. "It's a currency of aggrevation, that gathers value with incredible ease".

Finally, under the spotlight was a sweaty engineering worker who'd been moving new tracks overnight. "This is not today is it. This is Victorian. I thought it would be a bit more modern than a pick and a shovel. You're not telling me this is the 21st century and we're doing it like this. You can't tell me in 100 years time there's blokes like us doing this. There's got to be a better way to do this and they're not even looking.

What happens when the government finally says run it financially on your own. What are they going to do then?
"

What indeed?

Heart of the Angel is one of four films in Volume One of the Molly Dineen Collection and available from BFI Filmstore.

You might also like
Down in the Tube station after Midnight
Are these cleaning Tubes?


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