At one time, childhood was a different proposition entirely. For those of us who grew up back then, it involved long stretches of roaming freely across the neighbourhood and engaging in all sorts of useless enterprises, to return, with dirty knees, just in time for dinner. This non-connected, DIY, and at times frankly grotty experience is magnificently evoked in the BFI’s highly enjoyable Children’s Film Foundation bumper box. Here, self-confident, dynamic sprogs track down criminals (an obsession of children at one time, including this viewer, although it seems odd in retrospect), disappear into mine shafts, steer boats up and down the Thames, take a circus elephant into protective custody, and rescue a kidnapped yeti —displaying exhaustingly high levels of physical energy throughout.
The Children’s Film Foundation itself was an interesting organisation. Now the Children’s Media Foundation, it was founded in 1951 and one of its top executives was Frank Richard Wells, son of H. G. Like many of the organisations which sprang up in the immediate post-war period, it was a not-for-profit body underpinned by an earnest public service ethos (to provide children with appropriate film entertainment, instead of the diet of Westerns and pirate films that they consumed in cinemas every Saturday morning). The wild and zany manner in which it fulfilled its brief is, therefore, rather surprising —there is no pedestrian worthiness on this set. One of the Foundation’s leading lights, Mary Field, apparently believed that as children enjoy running around and engaging in violent behaviour towards one another, this is what we should give them as cinematic entertainment, and indeed there is a startling amount of argy-bargy and fisticuffs in these films, commented on with bemusement by a film historian in the accompanying special features. In 4D Special Agents (1981) a sweary and initially terrifying tiny Cockney played by Dexter Fletcher routinely issues blood-curdling threats against the other children (not surprisingly, his bargee grandad is a well-known fence), but he naturally turns out to have a heart of gold in the end.
The imagination and quirkiness on display throughout are remarkable. Indeed, two films in this collection are so bizarre that they deserve a special mention. The first is a strange fable from 1971 about a little girl and her adult-sized selectively visible white rabbit friend, Mr Horatio Knibbles (the ‘k,’ of course, is silent). This is a bit like a juvenile version of James Stewart’s Harvey, with the important difference that the rabbit is unfortunately not invisible to the viewing public as well as to the child’s parents. Knibbles is a morbid apparition, quite scraggy about the chops, and all the avuncular charm of Anthony Sheppard (the actor wearing this outfit) cannot banish a distinct feeling of unease. The central drama revolves around a misunderstanding concerning the disappearance of jewellery belonging to the little girl’s mother, of which the child is initially suspected. However, it transpires that it was actually nicked by a bird to whom Knibbles regrettably refers as Mrs Maggie Pie. (Sorry.) The other extraordinarily weird offering on this set is The Zoo Robbery from 1973, in which a yeti named Yen-Yen is stolen from London Zoo, leading to a boat chase. The Yeti costume has to be seen to be believed. In keeping with the era in which the film was shot, it is a head-to-toe jumpsuit in burnt orange fluff, extremely fussy and wispy. The credits note that the yeti was presented by two actors, making the viewer wonder whether —given the creature’s extreme girth— they were both trapped inside this costume at once.
My personal favourite in this collection is the delightful Cup Fever (1965), an urban fairy tale in which a boys’ football club get to train with Manchester United stars, including a very young George Best. They later win a junior championship against another local team and are handed the cup by a beaming Bert Trautmann. (Matt Busby —Man U manager at the time— also has a rather stiff cameo welcoming the boys to Old Trafford.) This is one of the loveliest films about football ever made: when the boys clatter out onto the pitch in their boots, the atmosphere is electric with their excitement, while the crowds of children at the championship game scream their lungs out in a truly heartwarming spectacle, suggesting that by this point they had quite forgotten that they were acting. Least interesting was Pop Pirates (1984), which somehow lacks narrative tension in comparison with the other films.
One of the most delightful things about this selection is the fact that the film-makers evidently took care to ensure that all sections of the junior viewing public felt included. Child actors from a wide range of regional, class and ethnic backgrounds are given proper parts, including leadership roles, consistently across most of the films. (Vic Pratt notes with approval in his programme notes that following 1959, when there was a change of leadership at the CFF, “scruffier, hairier kids” began to be cast.) For example, in 1956’s Peril for the Guy the central role of the Guy is played with grim determination by tiny Ali Allen, for whose safety the viewer often becomes alarmed in the course of the various dangerous goings-on in the film, even though it is clear that he will ultimately triumph. Anoop and the Elephant features a sweet and naturalistic performance from young Anoop Singh, who rallies his friends to save circus elephant Ranee from being sold to someone who can only be described as a very nasty man. The CFF’s gender politics, on the other hand, took considerably longer to progress. In Cup Fever the girls (including a very young Olivia Hussey and Susan George) want to come to the training session with the United stars, but instead must sew new shirts for the boys’ team, at which one can only harrumph. By 1981, however, the fearless lead role in 4D Special Agents was played with great aplomb by Lisa East.
All told, this is a marvellous set. Special praise is due for the interviews conducted with modern children, in which they were asked for their take on CFF films. Overall, the reactions are astonishingly positive and sometimes extremely perceptive, suggesting that what may appear old-fashioned to adults can still appeal to children today. (Though I am not quite sure why one extremely young interviewee was so excited by a character in one film dressing up as “first a vicar, and then an UNDERTAKER!”) These are films that all generations can enjoy, lovingly restored and exceptionally well presented.--Isabel Taylor