The Phantom Light

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The Phantom Light is a "quota quickie" British film released in 1935, a comedy mystery/thriller directed by Michael Powell (most famous for later films made in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger - 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, etc). It is set on the Welsh coast, but was mostly filmed in the West Country.

The opening scenes (about eight minutes in length) show chief lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) arriving by train at Tan y Bwlch Station, where he meets Alice Bright (Binnie Hale). These were filmed in Autumn 1934, featuring a train comprised of Taliesin hauling two Bug Boxes and Van 2, driven by Tom Davies. It was recorded [1] that he recalled a second train being used to film the Fairlie from the front, perhaps Welsh Pony and two bogie waggons, but there is no such footage in the finished film; however the opening, at Garnedd Tunnel, could well have been shot this way. Filming featured various locations above and below Tan y Bwlch, and there is no attempt at continuity in terms of an Up or Down journey. The pictures below are in sequence.

No copyright is claimed in the screen grabs used here; reasonable grounds for use are claimed on the basis that the companies involved are long defunct (Gainsborough Pictures closed in 1951, and distributor Gaumont-British Pictures in 1936). These grabs originate in a second-generation VHS copy of what may be the film's only TV showing to date, on Channel 4 in January 1987.

On arrival Higgins encounters a Welsh stationmistress (Louie Emery) obviously inspired by Bessie Jones, only not friendly, and unable to pronounce her one line of monoglot Welsh at all correctly. As Higgins remarks: "Nice place, Wales."

Most of the shots showing Binnie Hale were filmed on a studio set including a reproduction of part of the old station building, as identified by the late John Harrison[2] - this is very obvious once the trick is noticed, but there is deft editing between location and studio featuring an exchange with a porter who has been "transferred from Clapham Junction". Why the studio set was needed is not at all obvious, as Hale is visible in a location shot as they depart in the "station car", a Model T Ford with Caernarvonshire registration CC4612 (perhaps belonging to Will Jones?). Perhaps some of the film shot on location was unusable?

This is the only known photograph of the coal compound, the 'roofless building' to the right of the drive. This was served from above by two drops beside the goods shed, upper right. The FR's end-door coal wagons were turned for unloading on a pair of wagon turntables. Will Jones, Bessie's husband, ran the coal round serving Rhyd and Maentwrog from here, using a horse and trap, to supplement the wage he earned as an FR platelayer.

The car is then seen travelling along what looks like the Llanfrothen-Maentwrog road, heading towards Tan y Bwlch, ending the FR section of the film.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 116, page(s): 006
  2. ^ John R. Harrison "The Phantom Light", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 118, page(s): 24
(both the above cite Major C.S.N. Walker, writing in FRM-019)
  • Michael Powell, A Life in Movies, London: Heinemann, 1986, pp.235-8, p.675 (says nothing about the FR sequence)
  • Michael Powell, unpublished letter of Summer 1987 to B.Fisher, in response to a letter quoting the material from FRM-116. States that Powell (and possibly cast/crew?) stayed at Portmeirion during the Tan y Bwlch filming.

More Information and Screengrabs can be found at an external link