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Children's Film Foundation, The: London Tales

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
John Krish
David Eady
Bottom Line: 

First set up in 1951 by distributor & producer extraordinaire J Arthur Rank (owner of the Odeon and Rank cinema chains) and later funded by way of a special grant, paid for through the 1957 tax on British cinema box office receipts known as the Eady Levy, the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) was an industry wide, non-profit making initiative -- intended by Lord Rank (who grew up with strong Methodist inclinations) as a means of promoting an enduringly upstanding, resolutely wholesome brand of home-grown family matinee entertainment, aimed squarely at the nation’s Saturday morning cinema-going youngsters. The Foundation’s heyday came with the late-fifties/early-sixties, when the kids’ Saturday cinema club phenomenon was at its apogee, its weekend screenings supplying a rip-roaring programme of continuing cliff-hanger adventure serials, American Westerns and cartoon shorts, all supplemented with the veritable plethora of live action second features that were soon to become the CFF’s stock and trade, regularly commissioned by the Foundation for a fixed rate utilising a suite of independent production companies.

Shot on miniscule budgets but often employing the talents of some of the most skilled and dependable mainstays of British cinema (The Archers themselves, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, even revived their partnership for the final time, in 1972, under the CFF banner!), as well as offering a platform for a pool of upcoming still-in-short-trousers young British acting talent which came to include the likes of Dennis Waterman, Michael Crawford, Susan George, Keith Chegwin and Frazer Hinds, among many others – these charming, nostalgic reminders of a bygone age in film history, usually running for little more than an hour each in total, offered a cheery diet of adventure and comedy and routinely featured likable ‘groups’ (the dreaded word ‘gang’ being deliberately avoided) of well-meaning child protagonists, rubbing up against the occasional much-loved British thespian, who could be often spied appearing for minimum rate between ‘proper’ jobs.

These films’ canny young screen protagonists -- who were usually to be played by well-spoken, middleclass, stage school-trained child actors from the Italia Conti stable -- were invariably depicted in a compliment of familiar and formulaic screen scenarios during which they would become embroiled in, say, foiling dim-witted robbers or kidnappers; experimenting with wildly implausible gadgets; or else generally acting as enthusiastic young ambassadors and promoters of civic virtue between bouts of humorous misadventure. As journalist Andrew Roberts writes in a recent piece for The Guardian, for many middle-aged viewers the Children’s Film Foundation’s voluminous output, which spanned a period of thirty years at often six films per year between the mid-fifties and the mid-eighties (when the abolition of the Eady Levy finally dealt its production ambitions a terminal blow), has come to feel like as integral a part of the texture of our experience of growing up in the post-war years as Hammer Horror films or the Carry On series.

Despite this, the CFF’s work never really escaped the suspicion that its mission to entertain in a healthy, non-threatening and rather jolly fashion was all rather prim and middleclass in the execution, even though it gradually made efforts to address this image as the films’ protagonists’ hair and trouser leg widths grew increasingly bigger in tandem with the turn of the sixties and then the dawn of seventies. We can see something of this attempt to move with changing times inadvertently captured in the stylistic differences between the three films collected on this, the first of a planned series of themed DVDs coming from the BFI over the next few years, which will be gathering together the best of the CFF’s output for the first time. The three films seen on “London Tales” span the fifties, the sixties and the seventies and all prominently feature various landmarks of London as a backdrop to their wholesome tales of adventure, which are prefixed by the CFF’s distinctive logo superimposed over an image of the fountain in a pristine looking Trafalgar square, pigeons taking flight across a cloudless blue sky and ringing cathedral bells on the soundtrack.

The first film up, “The Salvage Gang” (1958), typifies the ‘old-fashioned’ image the CFF found itself tarred with in later years: its Chief Executive at the time, producer Mary Field, was responsible for promoting the RP pronunciation of the CFF’s diminutive stars and the upbeat tone of these works throughout the 1950s, and there’s also the obvious overt influence of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series detectable in the depiction of the four young children at the centre of this particular film; but at the same time, a hint of some kind of progressive agenda as well -- at least in the group’s inclusion (without comment on the fact) of a black character in the shape of little Ali (Ali Allen), who otherwise conforms to the cheeky scallywag part of the kids’ gang formula (complete with precariously perched school cap and dishevelled uniform) in contrast to its flaxen-haired head boy Freddie (Christopher Warbely), who we later see lives on a posh-looking street of whitewashed Edwardian terraces, despite his holey jumper. A young and floppy haired (and unrecognisable) Frazer Hines is also on hand as Kim, the group’s practically-minded but bull-headed element; and Amanda Coxell is Pat -- the baggy shorts-wearing token tom boy girl who’s as determined to throw herself into hijinks as the boys of the group. The fifth member is Pat’s pet Labrador Sally, and the story is kick-started when, while hanging out in Pat’s dad’s spacious garden shed, where they’ve been occupying themselves making a rabbit hutch to house animal-loving Pat’s other pet, Kim accidently damages the teeth of the saw after hitting a nail during some overenthusiastic DIY-ing (‘Crumbs! That’s torn it!’ exclaims young Kim, truthfully). This despite Pat having pointedly reminded everyone earlier that they were not supposed to touch her dad’s tools!

These kids aren’t ones to accept their fate lightly though: determining that they need to earn at least a pound in order to replace dad’s damaged saw, they set out to do just that. An ill-advised painting job on a barge soon leads to woe ,and the bargeman they attempt to help wakes from his afternoon kip to find himself floating adrift on the canal (after Pat thoughtlessly unmoors the barge to better paint around the tethering pole!) and unable to move for being trapped amid slippery wet paint. The kids then set out on various separate projects:  Ali (wearing a homemade cardboard sandwich-board with an advertisement scrawled on it appealing for ‘Dirty Dogs’) and Pat decide on waylaying unwilling dog walkers with their impromptu dog bathing service (‘wash yer dog, mister?!’); and Freddie and Kim manage to almost completely dismantle an Italian tea vendor’s old car while attempting to clean it for him. Eventually, the group comes up with the idea of embarking upon a door-to-door scrap metal collection service and is even imaginative enough to think of printing up some leaflets to distribute in people’s letterboxes. Unfortunately, things once again don’t quite work to order; Freddie’s family just happen to be moving house on this very day, and while Freddie chases Sally the Labrador (whose probably gotten fed up by now with Ali and Pat’s constant stream of ‘demonstration’ bucket washes) as she scarpers down 1950s London streets and thoroughfares almost surreally lacking in traffic or parked cars, the rest of the gang mistake Freddie’s brass bed-frame (which has been left outside his front door while waiting to be moved by a trio of slightly feckless removal men) for scrap metal, collect it up, and happily go off to sell it at the Salvage depot!

The second half of this film, which barely stretches to 50 minutes in total running length and is the shortest of the three features included here, possesses a slightly less hurried, much dreamier tone as the gang set out to retrieve their mate’s lost bedstead. They pursue a scrap merchant, who’s already bought the frame from the depot by the time they realise their error, from the top deck of a London bus, on a journey which takes them past some of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, such as Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. After catching up and explaining all to the -- as it turns out -- eminently reasonable driver, the gang are then faced with the problem of wheeling the heavy bedstead all the way back home on foot. Director John Krish, a former documentary maker, imbues this part of the movie with all the heightened ambience of a lovingly shot travelogue advertisement -- never failing to exploit such an ideal opportunity for portraying the city’s splendour with elegant compositions simply rendered with crisp black and white photography. Nevertheless, the kids’ adventurers alternate between affluent-looking streets which belong to Harold McMillian’s Never-Had-It-So-Good generation, and the rundown bombsites that still crater many sections of the city even at this point in time.

Jack Beaver’s music is percussive and rambunctious (if rather traditional) and all of the child performers seen here are a complete delight throughout. Of the adults, Richard Molinas stands out playing a stereotypical comedy Italian role; Pat’s dad (Charles Ross) is the traditional ‘50s cardie-wearing patriarch, who appears at the start and during the film’s ironic coda (where he is presented with a gleaming new saw after the gang’s luck finally takes a turn for the better at last); and then there’s a pre Albert Steptoe Wilfred Bramble, essaying a dialogueless, Chaplinesque role as a tramp who takes a liking to Freddie’s bed while the group is still trying to wheel it back home. Doctor Who completests who buy this disc for Frazer Hinds, Roberta Tovey and Bernard Cribbins’ participation, will be amused to note a real-life, honest to goodness police box can briefly be spied in the background at one point! The children may be deliberately all togged up in baggy, ill-fitting hand-me-down clothes but their perfect pronunciation plays to the middleclass-catering stereotype which soon attached itself to the CFF’s work from this era onward. Rather than the usual comedy criminals who end up as the antagonists in a great many such features, the working class adults seen here are all affable enough, although many are either lazy (the Barge owner) or feckless (the the removal men), while the four well-spoken children at the centre of events are always enterprising and inventive, if slightly untutored in directing their energies, a fact leading to most of the amusing incident which peppers the film. 

“The Salvage Gang” has its roots in classic 1940s, Blyton-style children’s literature, courtesy of Mary Cathcart Borer’s original story; but by 1966’s “Operation Third Form” the familiar kids-foil-criminal-plot formula was nicely fixed in place, but now with attractive contemporary dressing as well. Directed by CFF regular David Eady (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Hindle Edgar) and shot in a crisp black and white which displays a day-to-day London rather than the trendy sort so usually highlighted in British films of the period, once again we’re presented here with well-off kids  as our protagonists, from a North London suburbia of well-trimmed hedges and clean-looking urban streets; but this time they’re boisterous enough to get themselves embroiled in all sorts of trouble from the off, after main offender Dick (a mop headed John Moulder-Brown, later of “Deep End”) smashes a school window by accident during a game of ball with his two friends during the home time rush. Later that evening he realises he’s left a text book he needs for his homework in his form room desk and so he sneaks back to the school (the modern looking St David’s ‘of Hornsley’ gets a ‘thank you’ for the loan of its premises in the credits) after dark to fetch it, unwittingly disturbing and scaring an old local rag-and-bone man, and friend of the lads, called Paddy (Sidney Bromley), who was earlier instructed by the school caretaker to pick up some old junk left out for him at the end of the school day near one of the changing rooms. Believing the school to be haunted because of the noise and palaver created by young Dick, Paddy exits the building in such haste that his lorry accidently backs into the gatepost outside the school which displays the prestigious school bell -- an item once donated by its benefactor, Admiral Hennessey (William Sherwood), and which comes from his decommissioned WW2 ship, the HMS Dolphin (which also provides the school with its name). It falls into the back of Paddy’s truck with all the other junk he’s collected, and is only discovered the next morning by his spivish partner at the scrap yard, the brylcreemed London wide boy Mr Skinner (Derren Nesbitt) who immediately realises its historic and monetary value and determines to pass it on to a criminal contact of his known only as ‘the Boss’ (George Roderick). When the bell’s disappearance is finally noticed back at the school, it’s immediately presumed stolen and Dick (who’s already in trouble for breaking the window) gets the blame because the caretaker recognised him leaving the site the night before. Told by the headmaster to go home until Monday morning, Dick and his two friends realise they have only the weekend to find out who really pinched the historic bell and bring the true culprit to book.

Running at a pert 56 minutes, “Operation Third Form” is pacey, humorous and likable and benefits enormously from stylish direction and a strong cast of both youngsters and experienced stars. Harry Robertson’s modishly swinging theme music accommodates brittle ‘60s spy movie tremolo guitar riffs, jazzy vibraphone chords and flute flourishes, and Eady showcases a penchant for atmospheric noir lighting, especially during the shadowy sequence where Dick visits the darkened school after hours, gets tangled up in the skeleton in the science lab while hiding from the caretaker and accidently gives Paddy a scare. Elsewhere, Robertson provides a Steptoe-esque ‘clip-clop’ theme -- highly reminiscent of Ron Grainer’s original -- which appears whenever the dishevelled Paddy and his horse and cart are seen on screen. Derren Nesbitt (soon to take his biggest ever screen role in the big budget war movie “Where Eagles Dare”) is superbly smarmy as the London villain on the make, capable of fooling gullible police constables but not the gang of third formers who are soon recruited by Dick and his pals to bring him to justice after the trail leads them first to the junkyard and then to a golf course outside the Admiral’s Highgate house. Sidney Bromley plays a traditional mainstay of CFF features: the likable, roughish, bearded rag-and-bone man who ends up joining the kids in their plot to trap Skinner and his crime lord boss after discovering the criminal duo are plotting yet another caper -- once again targeting the unfortunate Admiral Hennessy who, it turns out, also happens to own a valuable portrait by Goya of an naval ancestor of his who once served with Nelson at Trafalgar.

It appears that Dolphins school must be putting something in the school water supply, as the entire third form proves itself to be especially well versed in the means & methods of espionage and strategic planning: they set up HQ in one of their dad’s garages, monitor their suspects from the upper floor of a neighbouring flat with binoculars and send undercover ‘agents’ to follow them and report hourly from the red telephone boxes that dot every street corner. They manage to figure out the target of the coming robbery by pocketing a napkin which has an imprint of the map the Boss draws for Skinner during their café meeting; and they set up a trap, to be sprung during the couple’s Regent’s Park rendezvous, with the aid of a wall-mounted map and coloured flags with which to mobilise their forces. Dick’s loyal friends Tom (Kevin Bennett), Alan (Michael Crockett) and Brian (Ronnie Caryl) are pivotal in organising the plan of attack, but the group as a whole is slightly less keen on allowing Dick’s little sister Jill (played by Roberta Tovey -- Susan in both of the ‘60s Peter Cushing Doctor Who films) to play a role in the operation, despite her success in earlier providing a diversion while Dick explored the junk yard where Skinner, at the time, had the bell stashed. They only reluctantly allow her to sit in on their first meeting in Tom’s garden shed, eventually deciding she can stay ‘as long as she keeps quiet’. Once the gang of boys have a proper HQ organised she’s told in no uncertain terms to ‘push off’ -- until it is realised that they will need to try and tape-record Skinner and his Boss’s secret meeting, and that Jill’s toy dolls’ pram  would make an ideal place to conceal the recording device. Realising the boys will try and exclude them from the coming showdown in Regent’s Park, Jill and her friend decide to turn up anyway, and their presence in fact proves pivotal in the cornering of both criminals, who end up getting a classic comedy soaking in the park pond while the assembled kids stand by laughing. Almost all the film is shot on location around London to keep the budget down, rendering the piece a wonderful time capsule of the capital in the mid-sixties; but the tone is Boys’ Own comic book adventure and, despite their mischievousness and scruffiness, the child heroes are once again middleclass kids from a well-off area, who get rewarded for their civic minded officiousness at the end with an extra days’ school holiday.

Young Dick first comes into adventure after being falsely accused of a crime (although he is responsible for accidently breaking a school window, and recklessly breaks another one in the film’s final moments) but by 1976, the young protagonist at the centre of the third film included here, “Night Ferry” (once again directed by David Eady) is initially guilty of a slightly more serious offence than the prankish, comic book high-jinks which kick start “Operation Third Form”. There’s an air of those grim 1970s Public Information films which aimed to warn adventurous young kids about all the fatal accidents that could befall them in the summer holidays should they ill-advisedly ignore any ‘No Trespass’ signs while out playing etc. Young Jeff (Graham Fletcher) certainly looks more like your average Comprehensive school kid of the 1970s, with his long hair and brown stripy jumper; and the Clapham streets through which he roams (and which provide the backdrop for the first half of the film) seem a great deal less salubrious than the clean and uncluttered North London surroundings we saw in the 1960s film. By the mid-‘70s urban London looks in dire need of a lick of paint and a proper sprucing up: the streets are all grubby and littered; store fronts look careworn and tatty; and those red telephone boxes, which looked so shiny and pristine in “Operation Third Form”, are now chipped and old looking -- with cracked windowpanes and peeling paintwork: the film may be in colour but the film presents an environment which is unremittingly grotty and weather-beaten. In the opening first few minutes, the hero Jeff gets into bother when his toy airplane drifts onto a railway track, and the youngster naughtily ignores a ‘Danger’ warning sign to crawl through a gap in a wire fence and venture onto the tracks while some rolling stock is being moved along the rails. Some guards try to chase him off when they see the danger the lad is in, but one of them falls and injures his leg as Jeff makes his escape.

However, the lad inadvertently witnesses a bizarre robbery as he’s leaving the premises: two undertakers (Bernard Cribbins and Aubrey Morris) transfer an Egyptian sarcophagus from an armoured van into the back of their hearse and then misdirect a pursuing police car. Later, the boy learns from his older friend Nick (Engin Eshref), whose dad runs a coffee stall near the Clapham arches, that the famous mummy of the boy Pharaoh Nematut has been stolen from a London museum, and is even more shocked when he notices that Cribbins and Morris have also just moved into one of the vacant lots under the arches, where they’ve set up shop -- apparently running a supply store. Jeff’s dilemma now is that he feels he can’t go to the police with this information because of his involvement in the accident on the railway tracks earlier on. Already distraught to learn that someone was injured because of his irresponsible actions, he soon feels even guiltier when he finds out that it is the dad of one of his and Nick’s best friends, young Carol (Jayne Tottman), who actually suffered the broken leg during the pursuit along the tracks. Before we as the audience can be allowed to endorse the errant lad as the hero of the film then, he first has to confess his wrongdoing to Carol and her father and be forgiven for it (indeed Carol’s dad decides not to shop him to the railway police, who are still hot on his trail at this point) and Carol joins Jeff and Nick in their covert plan to find out how Cribbins (who goes by the assumed name Pyramid) and his gang plans to remove the mummy from the country.

Although the setting feels much more realistic and urban this time, and the young actors are no longer expected to conform to the standards of Received Pronunciation maintained so rigorously by the CFF previously, the storyline itself and the adult foes our child heroes are ranged against still conform to that of the usual comedic formula witnessed in so many of the Foundation’s 1960s films. Bernard Cribbins and Aubrey Morris (“A Clockwork Orange”, “The Wicker Man”) make an excellent comic criminal duo, with Cribbins (yet another “Doctor Who” connection!) in particular, as the mastermind of the plot, donning a series of disguises which enable him to hide behind the respectability of certain pillars of the establishment throughout – first an undertaker, then a Catholic Priest and finally a French physician – while he and his gang fashion their fiendish plan to smuggle the mummy out of the country on the London to Paris Night Ferry (a pre-Eurostar sleeper train which once linked the two capitals via Dover and Calais).

The second half of the film makes use of the services of the Southern and Eastern regions of British Rail to provide a realistic backdrop for the increasingly absurdist action as Jeff hides inside one of the crates the gang have used in order to smuggle the mummy’s sarcophagus across the channel by making use of its false bottom (customs think they’re transporting shop store mannequins) and Carol tracks Cribbins as he meets with Mlle Duval, who’s the French representative (played by Carole Rousseau) of the collector who is to take possession of the mummy in France, at Victoria station. Their plan for transporting the mummy is quite simply enjoyable comic book fluff in the end, and relies on some exceptionally unobservant customs men in order for it to work; although Pyramid also reveals a much darker side to his villainous plotting when he captures Nick and contemplates disposing of him on the line after he and Duval have first used him in their plot, as a means to help disguise the mummy’s location: in none of the other films in this collection do the villains actually go so far as to threaten the lives of the child protagonists. Even so, a superficially ludicrous plot harbours classic comic capering by Cribbins; and Morris plays an amusingly gullible fool, his superstitious beliefs regarding a possible mummy’s curse proving to be the weak link Jeff is eventually able to exploit (in a scene which essentially repeats the skeleton sketch from “Operation Third Form”) in order to help him foil the entire Pyramid operation.

The three films are housed comfortably on one DVD9 disc. All films are featured in an unmated 1.33:1 aspect ratio which appears to be accurate, and all have been re-mastered in High Definition and look quite splendid. Also on the disc is a 14 minute episode from a COI-Foreign Office series called “Topic”, which was made in the late-fifties for US TV audiences. This is a rather peculiar little film  in which middle-aged married interviewing team Jane and Julian Evans explore the ‘topic’ of Children’s Theatre by attending a Saturday morning picture show (in which we get to see footage of 1950s kids singing along to their club song before the film programme starts) and then interview  J Arthur Rank, who sits behind a vast mahogany desk and makes witticisms the duo chuckle along to as he explains how and why the Children’s Film Foundation came into being. Then they chat to Mary Field, who really does give the impression of being a Miss Marple-like character, intent on improving the moral worth of the nation’s tots. As a whole this is a splendid addendum to the three films, and even features the couple attending the shoot of “The Salvage Gang” and interviewing director John Krish about the low budgets and two-week shooting schedules he has to work within.

Finally the disc also comes with a mini-booklet with written appraisals of each of the films in the collection as well as several short essays on the Children’s Film Foundation in general by Andrew Roberts, Vic Pratt and Sonia Genaitay. Although all three films contain many formula elements in common, they do also track the changing face of London over three decades and provide a concise snapshot capturing subtle variations in the representation of child behaviour on screen during this thirty year period of time. The films are short, sharp and punchy and while obviously dated, they remain a surprisingly watchable form of comedy adventure exemplifying a type which rarely finds its way to the screen these days. A worthwhile watch.

Read More from the Black Gloved One at his spiffy blog, Nothing but the Night

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