Shoestring on the West Somerset Railway

Nick Jones reports...

The idea that the WSR in its early days was 'run on a shoestring' will not surprise anyone. However, the idea that 'Shoestring was on the WSR' takes a little more explanation...

Eddie Shoestring, played by Trevor Eve, was a fictional private investigator employed by the equally fictional 'Radio West' in a BBC TV series which became hugely famous in 1979/80.

Shoestring's role was to take-on listeners' mysteries, and solve them; he was a 'private ear'.

The first series (11 episodes) was first transmitted between September and December 1979. Shoestring re-appeared for a second, final, series of 10 episodes in the run up to Christmas 1980.

The 50-minute programmes were the creation of Richard Harris and Robert Banks-Stewart. Richard Harris is a renowned writer of TV crime and adventure programmes: his credits include episodes of 'The Saint', 'No Hiding Place', 'A Touch of Frost', 'The Sweeny' and, more recently, 'The Last Detective'. Robert Banks-Stewart is well known for his involvement in a wide range of TV drama, including 'Bergerac', 'The Darling Buds of May' and 'Dr. Who'.

The first showings were on Sunday evenings; they attracted audiences of up to around 21 million. The early episodes were first transmitted by the BBC at the time of a strike on ITV, which no doubt boosted the BBC's audience. The second series was transmitted at the same time as ITV regions were screening 'The Professionals', leading to slightly lower audience figures for Shoestring. But when the second series was repeated by the BBC in early 1982, audiences of around 12 million were regularly tuning-in.

The WSR featured as a location for two Shoestring programmes. The first of these, 'Higher Ground', was episode three of series one. A sequence of shots filmed at Bishops Lydeard involves Eddie Shoestring in a combative conversation with Major Hansford, played by Glyn Houston. As well as the canopy-less, signal-less station, there's a fleeting glimpse of one of the WSR's Park Royal 2-car DMU sets and, in the distance, an un-restored ex-GWR 2-6-2T loco, almost certainly 5542.

The sequence was filmed in Late June or early July 1979, not long after the WSR had reached Bishops Lydeard in the progressive re-opening from Minehead. I remember discussions with the BBC's location's arranger to facilitate this filming. We had some experience with Southern TV and the location filming of 'The Flockton Flyer' a couple of years earlier, and at the same time I was negotiating with other BBC people about the use of Crowcombe and the ex-Butlin's 'Terrier' locomotive for the recording of scenes for an entirely different series of programmes ('A Question of Guilt: Constance Kent'). However, discussions with the BBC did not go entirely smoothly; they fully lived up to their reputation for being miserly with the licence-payers money. This nearly meant that the BBC went elsewhere for the location filming, as the WSR's directors insisted on my asking for a fee substantially higher than the BBC wanted to pay. However, all was resolved and the filming proceeded.

The episode itself has a plot full of twists. Glyn Houston plays Major Hansford, an ex-Army officer who's set up a boarding school with his wife, near Bristol. The Major has become the target for malicious acts, and his wife calls Eddie in to investigate. Some of Eddie's own past, in a psychiatric hospital, is revealed, but the history of the Major's service in Northern Ireland is of greater interest to the detective.

'Higher Ground' was first transmitted on 21 October, 1979. The screen shots show Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve) and Major Hansford (Glyn Houston). The Producer was Robert Banks-Stewart and the Director was Marek Karievska.

The penultimate episode of the second series, called 'Where Was I', included a few sequences filmed on the West Somerset Railway. Williton is strongly featured, as is one of the WSR's first locomotives, Bagnall 0-6-0ST Victor. WSR personalities in the clips are Don Haynes (driver of Victor) and Chris van den Arend (Signalman at Williton). Not evident in the pictures is Paul Conibeare, who was firing Victor.

The story is about Keith, who goes out on a hiking weekend and is attacked after accidentally finding himself in a jailbreak practice run. Keith looses his memory after being hit on the head, and Shoestring is asked by his family to discover what happened. The 'outside' jailbreak gang are concerned to silence Keith, so he cannot reveal their plans. Shoestring finds himself retracing Keith's steps to the wilds of the westcountry moors, via a trip on the 'Western Steam Preservation Society'.

The episode includes a number of shots of both interior and exterior at Williton, Victor at Williton and in the countryside between there and Stogumber, and shots taken inside the one-coach train, formed of BSO 9278.

'Where Was I' was first transmitted on 14 December 1980 on BBC1. The screen shots show Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve), Ticket Seller-cum-Guard (James Charles), Denise (Hilary Ryan), and Keith (Philip Bond). The episode was produced by Robert Banks-Stewart and Directed by Jeremy Summers.

The series was released on VHS tape in the mid 1980s, and again in 1991 for WH Smith. Up to the time of writing, there has been no DVD release. The programmes have had an airing on UKTV channels on BSkyB satellite, but some parts of them were cut. This may have been for scheduling reasons, or it may have been because of some issues with performance rights.

It appears that there could be a number of rights issues in the way of a DVD release, as the programmes made use of a lot of contemporary music, and the suggestion is that clearance from the rights holders of this music might be difficult.

Information about the cast and crew for all the series can be found at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) at: uk.imdb.com.

Nick Jones, December 2006