Rail buff whose films make it under their own steam

Gerry Troyna was never Director of the BBC — but it does give him endless repeat fees for his films

By Gita Conn, July 22, 2010
Gerry Troyna: “No matter how many times you return, India remains an impenetrable mystery. It challenges you in so many ways”

Gerry Troyna: “No matter how many times you return, India remains an impenetrable mystery. It challenges you in so many ways”

Gerry Troyna's passion for India, railways and films brought him a Royal Television Society Best Documentary Series Award last month for his Indian Hill Railways series, which the BBC repeated last week for the fifth or sixth time (he has lost count).

Looking more like a pop star in his shades, camouflage for blood-shot, jet-lagged eyes, he is full of praise for his far-away Indian team who, he says "actually make these films possible".

The difference between Gerry and those award-winning celebrities who rattle off a list of "thanks" in their emotional acceptance speeches, is that he actually means it. Master of his film-making craft, he also has a genuine affection for the people he works with as well as for the subjects of his films.

Troyna's style of documentary film-making is, he explains, "completely alien in India where documentary is a very poor relation to the pzzaz of glitzy adverts and the celebrity-studded glamour of Bollywood and TV soaps".

"This makes it very difficult to create a team of researchers, cameramen and co-ordinators who share your vision of how to make a film," he says. But he is convinced it pays off. "With an Indian team you gain a better understanding of the culture, the language and an insight into the people, which for me is a privilege. The added bonus is that over the years we've all become good friends, like an extended family."

It's a love affair which has lasted 30 years

This family feeling extends to the crew's relationship with the people they are filming - so obvious in their relaxed and open bonding with the camera and, therefore, the viewer.

AA Gill, an acerbic critic of sentimental steam railway nostalgia, uncharacteristically praised Troyna after seeing the Indian Hill Railways Series, saying "he used the individual as a candle to illuminate the human condition".

People fill his life. His and his wife Jenny's rambling house in Leeds is invariably bursting with friends, colleagues and family, now including visiting grandchildren. At the award dinner in Leeds, cameraman Keith Massey, who Troyna had never forgotten for giving him his first job, received the RTS Lifetime Achievement Award. "It was beautiful," says Troyna, "that 40 years later, here we were, standing on the stage together holding our trophies… and both still with our own hair!"

Leeds has been his home and work base since he left his home in Stamford Hill, North London, 40 years ago for a film course at the city's College of Art where he "indulged in the world of celluloid and experimentation". There he met Jenny; they had their first child in the final year of the course.

He describes his Stamford Hill childhood as "mostly happy, conventional and kosher; cheder four times a week which, like most kids of my era, I hated and attended only until my barmitzvah".

Happily, his parents loved the movies. With four cinemas in walking distance and, as a special treat, a visit to the Odeon Leicester Square followed by tea at Lyons Corner House, his fascination with film was born.

Troyna's apprenticeship at the BBC at a time of great opportunities and the arrival of colour TV gave him his start as a film director. However, when he proudly told his dad that he was a director at the BBC, it translated to the customers of his tobacconist shop that his son was the Director of the BBC. "He never really understood what I did," says Troyna.

Like any self-respecting "child of the '60s", Troyna was drawn to consciousness-raising and to India. When, after directing the pilot film with Sir Ludovic Kennedy for the BBC series Great Railway Journeys of the World, he was given his choice of country, he naturally chose India.

"It's a love affair which has lasted more than 30 years and it never disappoints," he says. "It's the richness of the culture and the spirit of the people that draws me back. No matter how many times you return, India remains an impenetrable mystery. It challenges you in so many ways - emotionally, intellectually and physically. You begin to question just about everything you thought you had worked out in life."

Although the railway is the ostensible subject matter of his films, it is the people who are most important to him and, consequently, they remain uppermost in the memory of the viewer.

Away from the railways and, in pursuit of that human contact, he has become firm friends with Carmel Berkson, a 90-year-old Jewish sculptress who is committed to supporting the dwindling Indian Jewish community.

She lives on the top floor of a Salvation Army hostel in Mumbai and she and Troyna meet in the Radio Club where she is the last surviving western member. "We talk about Israel, being Jewish and how the world she now sees has lost its humanity," he reflects. "It's an opportunity to use the few words I know in Yiddish and to listen to the words of a true artist and a great lady."

His friendship with Carmel has kindled his interest in a Jewish community dating back hundred of years. The Jewish cemetery containing the tomb of David Sassoon, a notable of the community, is likely to be a location for one of his next movies.

He has written the screenplay of The Boy who Started World War Two, based on the true story of Herschel Grynszpan, and he is now in pre-production for a BBC musical feature film, Samosa, set in contemporary Mumbai.

But he will probably always be best known for his railway films. Last year, the National Railway Museum in York showcased his work with an exhibition of film clips and photographs which can be seen at the New Walk Gallery in Leicester until August 15. And the BBC just keeps on repeating his films.

In India, the programmes are so popular that, not only are they endlessly repeated on TV, but they have all been pirated and can be bought in the market place for just 50 rupees (about 40p).

Troyna smiles: "I take it as a compliment!"

The series has been entered for a Grierson Trust Award in November. It will certainly be repeated again and you can catch up with news on www.gerrytroyna.com.

Last updated: 11:22am, July 22 2010