Heathrow in 1950s 3D: “Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly.”

Douglas Adams on Heathrow

Not a whole lot of people like airports. Personally, I dislike JFK (my local airport) – but I downright loathe Atlanta. Indeed, the “dental experience scale” which best matches peoples’ experiences in airports seems to range from “dental office waiting room” (JFK) to “receiving multiple root canals from a drunken drifter with a drill” (Atlanta). Heathrow seems to have a particular degree of hatred attached to it; the only person I know who didn’t mind it is my wife. And she’s the sort of person who marries the sort of person who collects VistaScreen almost fanatically. So let’s not trust her judgement. Perhaps one of the most prescient critics of Heathrow, the much-missed Douglas Adams opened a novel as follows:

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.”

Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only exception of this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001), The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Adams’ hatred of Heathrow did not appear out of the aether. While book tours are certainly still important to authors – especially green ones – they were orders of magnitude more important pre-internet. Thus, Douglas had to do five tours in the late 70s and early 80s alone – invariably taking international flights out of Heathrow. So he was in a position to know. And yet, in the 1950s, a certain British stereoview purveyor released a set of stereoviews on the airport…

VistaScreen Series C.48 “London Airport”

A logical release?

An early VistaScreen set shot at Heathrow, Series 44 “Aeroplanes”, was a tremendously popular offering from the company. And it still is – while the average VistaScreen series complete in box goes for around £5, “Aeroplanes” usually nets the seller at least £10. Thus it was entirely logical for Staley Long and his compatriots to release another series – maybe shot later, probably shot on the same day. (If you’ve not noticed, Long tends to shoot as much as his plate supply allowed on each subject – see the three-part series on Bertram Mills Circus. Note also that at least 4 sets were produced at ZSL London Zoo.)

And while it’s entirely likely that Long had shot more aeroplanes during his trip to Heathrow, these would not form the next aviation set. Instead, the airport itself would be the feature. Some time in between the appearance of the first supply lists and the second round of lists, “London Airport” debuted. The reason it was called “London Airport” instead of “Heathrow” is simple: it was named London Airport until 1966. On the early lists, “Aeroplanes” received the “Children’s Interest” subheading and the series bore the corresponding “Junior” red box. The later lists have both sets, under “General Interest”, and both came in the standard black box.

Since we have so little information on VistaScreen and its inner workings, we can’t determine why an airport was chosen over more jets. It’s certainly a weird choice. I can understand how both children and adults would want to see aeroplanes – especially in the 1950s. Huge passenger jets were new and cool. I can’t for the life of me see where the demand is for stereoviews of Heathrow. Especially when the focal point of one image is a rubbish bin, and the stereo anchors for many are railings.

An unpopular release.

As it turns out, more aeroplanes were probably in order. While both sets remained on supply lists until the very end, “Aeroplanes” must have been far more popular. I had already added the red-box version, the black-box version, and the matte-finish French E-prefix version to my collection before I came across a spare copy of “London Airport”. Of the people I’ve corresponded about VistaScreen with, I’ve been asked about “Aeroplanes” numerous times – not so much with the Heathrow set. It apparently didn’t achieve popularity when it was released – based on relatively few copies floating around. Nor does it seem to be of much interest to current collectors attempting to arrange trades with me.

Part of the reason might pertain directly to the thrust of the Douglas Adams quote: airports are ugly. Heathrow was ugly. There are a couple of good stereoviews in here, but most of them feature far-away buildings. The stereo anchors for these are usually railings or ceiling beams in the foreground. Not exactly something that needs to be seen in 3D. And not only are airports ugly, but they’re rather banal. Churches can be appreciated purely on the basis of their history and architecture. Caverns can be appreciated in the wonderment at their natural formation, their eeriness, the ingenuity of lighting them. But Heathrow? Why not take 3D photographs of a bus terminal? Or, more seriously, an old, interesting rail station? But before we wonder more, let’s look at the views:

The “London Airport” Stereoviews

A likely reason “London Airport” failed when released

Of the stereoviews in this series, four succeed on their own as quite good stereoscopic images. These are the two images taken inside the control tower, the view of the roof garden (featuring a rubbish bin), and the Passenger Entrance to Central Building. Of these, the latter two are not of interesting subjects. But the two featuring the controllers at work, as well as the final, behind-the-scenes stereoview inside the British European Airways engineering base, are of interesting subject. I suppose transportation fanatics might enjoy the double-decker bus bound for Brussels. But honestly, from the point of view of a contemporary viewer – these must have been terribly boring!

And even as a modern viewer looking back through time, there are thousands of stereoviews I’d put into a viewer and stare at before this selection from Heathrow Airport in the 1950s. It’s not that they’re “Chi-Chi bad”. It’s just that, as images, they’re not terribly enjoyable. And this was the Heathrow that Douglas Adams wrote and complained about, not the modern airport that stands today. Perhaps the new version is more visually interesting. For me, the only two images worth seeing as 3D images are the peeks inside the old control tower.

Why “London Airport” is more interesting today than it was 60 years ago

Thus, I have finally acquired a relatively useless set of VistaScreen stereoviews, correct? (I’m not going to repeat what my wife has said about VistaScreen in general.) Well, no, incorrect. Because these Heathrow views have something now that they didn’t have 60 years ago. What do they have now? The 60 years which have elapsed.

Many of my previous blog posts have focused on how stereography is an interesting window into history. These views of an airport – London Airport then, Heathrow now – are no different. Most of the buildings pictured don’t exist anymore. This includes the Queens Building, inaugurated by the current monarch just 3 years into her reign. The Control Tower is gone too – and in the two (quite good) stereoviews showing the air traffic controllers at work, we note a distinct lack of computers or other high-tech equipment. In other words, we get to see things how they were – and will never be again.

Why documentary stereography matters

Another thing that regular readers of Brooklyn Stereography might have noticed is that I tend to focus on topics which pertain to the way things were. There are a ton of stereoviews out there featuring forests, waterfalls, animals, and so on. I don’t tend to enjoy them terribly much. I’ve hiked the Adirondacks and been to numerous zoos and aquariums – admittedly, not as innovative as the Blue Grotto Aquarium. But in any case, I’ve not only seen a llama in 3D – I’ve seen one in person, in motion. Llamas today look just like llamas in 1957 or llamas in 1865.

But I’ll never have a chance to pop my head into a now-demolished control tower in the Heathrow of the 1950s. I’ll certainly never be a soldier in the Great War. Not that I’d want to, but I wouldn’t be able to take part in the 1937 Nuremberg Rally if I did. But the former topic is the primary subject on this blog, and the latter (as explained in the post) will be coming soon. As the Doctor would say, these are fixed points in time. So these images are our only way of seeing these people, places, and events in 3D.

Documentary stereography is much like documentary filmmaking – substituting 3D still images for flat moving pictures. One power that both share is the power to show us a past state that will never exist again. Whether you’re a weirdo like my wife, who likes Heathrow, or normal like every person who’s complained to me about the old London Airport, you can no longer see it in this form – except through the lens of Stanley Long. So, let’s take at these images once again with the documentary angle in mind – when viewing the anaglyphs below, concentrate more on the history and less on the immediate awesomeness, and see if that doesn’t put a new shine on these rather old images.


Since this was posted, a frequent correspondent of mine challenged me that if this set had merit, then so too did “Chi-Chi the Giant Panda”. If that were the case, then by extension every VistaScreen set was worthwhile. Hence, I rebutted her by posting the atomic bomb of bad VistaScreen – Series 49 “Dogs”. Go have a look, if you have a good sense of morbid curiosity or a bit of a masochistic streak.


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