‘Children’s Film Foundation: Bumper Box #3’

❉ Mark Cunliffe reviews the latest time capsule of CFF classics from the ’50s into the ‘80s.

“Legend will tell you that towards the end, with the days of Saturday morning pictures over, the CFF had started to wane… In truth, films like Breakout and Exploit at West Poley, show a significant upturn in both quality and ambition. Breakout feels more contemporary too, with fight scenes, bloodletting and even shots being fired, but it all ends happily ever after.”

Ah, the Children’s Film Foundation. Mention that name to someone of a certain age and they’ll not only instantly know what you mean, but they’ll be transported back to a time of Findus crispy pancakes and Rubik’s cubes, to Friday afternoons from 1985 to 1989 in which the Childrens BBC broom cupboard gave way to the Friday Film Special slot, broadcasting any of the scores of films it made from the early ’50s onwards. Mention the Foundation it by its abbreviation, CFF, and if that person of a certain age still knows what you mean, then you’ve just met a kindred spirit. It’s those types who will no doubt be purchasing this, the third volume of collated titles from the BFI.

Disc One

The box set kicks off with a feature that feels very much like a comic strip in The Eagle or Hotspur brought to life, and not just because the dialogue is occasionally very stilted! 1953’s The Clue of the Missing Ape was written and directed by James Hill, whose work also included more adult fare like an adaptation of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen (1961) and, most famously of all, Born Free (1966). The Clue of the Missing Ape is also known as Gibraltar Adventure which is a very apt title – it’s set and shot on location in Gibraltar and it’s a rattling good adventure!

The Clue of the Missing Ape is a relatively early production for CFF and it serves as a good template for the movies and how they should be done. It doesn’t believe in talking down to children, and delivers some thrills and spills for its young audiences, though it knows that the sight of grown men attempting to murder its juvenile leads is somewhat unsavoury. Away from the derring-do, this surprisingly expensive-looking film serves as a pleasant picture postcard and valuable time capsule of Gibraltar as it was in the post-war years, a time when a trip there seemed impossible for British children. I can well imagine kids bundling out of the doors of the picture houses on a Saturday morning in 1953, their minds racing with the adventurous story in an exotic faraway locale that they had just witnessed. Rousing stuff that suitably ends with Rule Britannia. Brexiteers will love it I’m sure 😉

Next up is 1954’s Adventure in the Hopfields. Twenty years before he tackled The Towering Inferno in Hollywood, British director John Guillermin was shooting Mandy Miller and Melvyn Hayes in a disused windmill in the Kent countryside set ablaze in the finale of this delightful little hour from a more innocent, halcyon time. Mandy Miller, a hugely popular child actress of the day, stars as Jenny Quinn who sets off for Kent and a week’s hop-picking with her friend’s family, leaving only a note for her mother explaining her intentions. It’s hard to imagine what kids today would make of it all – I would imagine the bulk of the film would be taken up explaining just why London families decamped to the country for a working holiday in the first place! You see what I mean about more innocent times?

Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne, Hilda Fenemore and Russell Waters make up the adults in the cast, but look out for an uncredited and very young Anthony Valentine and Jane Asher as kids.

The first disc is rounded off with 1954’s Tim Driscoll’s Donkey, a tale as twee and hokey as that title implies. After the first two offerings, I have to admit this sentimental story of the eponymous Irish orphan (David Coote) and Patchy, his beloved donkey, was a disappointment. If The Clue of the Missing Ape was celluloid’s answer to a Boy’s Own style comic then this offering from director Terry Bishop (who had previously made Five Towns, a Stoke-based 1947 drama documentary looking at the heritage of the Staffordshire Potteries and the post-war reconstruction of the area) was the prose story reserved for the back pages and the doe-eyed attentions of your animal-crazy kid sister.

Disc Two

Disc Two repairs the disappointment of its predecessor’s final offering with the excellent, star-studded adventure Runaway Railway. This 1966 film is directed by Jan Darnley-Smith who was responsible for CFF classic A Hitch in Time (1978) starring former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton and 1964’s Go Kart Go featuring Troughton’s Doctor Who companion, Frazer Hines. The Doctor Who connections continue here too, as the cinematic universe’s Susan Foreman (Roberta Tovey) comes face to face with the third incarnation, Jon Pertwee, in the film’s denouement.

The shadow of Dr Beeching and the Great Train Robbery, significant figures and events of recent years, loom large over the narrative of Runaway Railway. This is a really enjoyable and well-paced affair, boasting some surprisingly good train work, a sense of peril and some strong comedy from the likes of Ronnie Barker, Jon Pertwee, Graham Stark and Hugh Lloyd.

 Runaway Railway’s juvenile lead, John Moulder-Brown, returns for the second helping of disc two, Calamity The Cow, though your eyes won’t really be on him. Instead they’ll be fixed on a sandy-haired, well-spoken older boy who looks mightily familiar. He’s credited as one Philip Collins but in reality he is that one and only gnomic Genesis drummer-turned-frontman Phil Collins! Rumour has it that the reason why his character disappears for a significant chunk of the film, despite being the owner of the titular bovine lead, is because the future rocker hated being in it and managed to wangle his way out of the middle section. Nothing changes; it is said that the film continues to embarrass Collins to this day.

Concluding disc two and bringing a splash of technicolour to the boxset for the first time is 1968’s Cry Wolf from writer/director John Davis, a genuinely intriguing attempt to update the Aesop’s Fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Like 1949 Hollywood movie The Window and predating the Mark Lester vehicle Eye Witness made two years after this film, Cry Wolf focuses on a young boy’s claims that he has uncovered a dastardly plot falling on deaf ears. Our young hero is Tony (Anthony Kemp) who discovers a group of insurgents intend to kidnap no less a figure than a commonwealth Prime Minister during an official visit to the seaside resort Tony and his pals call home. Only one grown-up seems to believe Tony, and that’s Judy Cornwell’s Stella, a glamorous reporter who’s arrived in town in her groovy Mini-Moke to cover the VIP visit. But wait, why is she talking into her camera? Oh no, she’s in with the bad guys too and she means to harm Tony with a Mickey Finn-infused cola. Unlike the bad guys earlier, there’s no pratfalls or comic relief on display with her villain – she’s ice cold!

As you’ve probably guessed from this outline, Cry Wolf is a slightly more mature affair than one would expect from CFF, almost like a Hitchcock for kids. It’s a feeling that is enhanced by a mournful harmonica score from Cliff Adams and a succession of guest stars like Ian Hendry and his wife Janet Munro, Adrienne Corri and Walter Gotell who were arguably more familiar to adult audiences. Steptoe and Son’s Wilfrid Brambell and fellow sitcom fave Pat Coombes also appear as a milkman and char lady respectively.

Disc Three

The third and final disc in this boxset sees the CFF on the cusp of the 1980s, which means that this bumper volume has completely skipped the prolific 1970s era. It’s a strange decision, but there we are. Disc three opens with 1979’s Big Wheels and Sailor. Take a good look at the rather spoddy-looking bespectacled adolescent playing the part of Simon. Look familiar? That’s because it’s none other than daytime TV disgusted of Tunbridge Wells-baiter Matthew Wright, then burning just fourteen candles. And why am I suddenly using CB speak? Because the titular Big Wheels and Sailor are two trucks. Yes, this is the CFF capitalising on that curious ‘70s craze for trucking. It’s all here; the trucks themselves, the open roads of the South East’s motorway system, the CB lingo that was sweeping the notion, and a toe-tappingly Convoy-esque score for the wonderfully named Wes McGhee.

Nigel Humphries stars alongside Julian Curry, arguably the most cut-glass speaking trucker ever to grace a Little Chef or pack a Yorkie, as two hauliers behind the wheels of the eponymous rigs, but they’re packing more than just their cargo – they’ve brought their kids along too, including the aforementioned Master Wright. Which is just as well, as they’ll need all the help they can get to defy the machinations of a ring of hijackers led by the fiercely diminutive Mother, played by Curry’s ex-wife Sheila Reid, now most famous for playing leathery senior citizen Madge in the inexplicably popular and long-running ITV sitcom Benidorm.

Legend will tell you that towards the end, the CFF had started to wane. The days of Saturday morning pictures had pretty much gone, leading to the CFF rebranding itself as The Children’s Film and Television Foundation; a name that signalled their growing reliance on getting their products on TV in the shape of the BBC’s Friday Film Special, a slot that ran on Friday afternoons from 1985 to 1989.

Whilst there’s some merit in the idea that the CFF’s day was over, I don’t necessarily think the quality of their output dipped at this time. In truth, films like Breakout and the final film on this disc, Exploits at West Poley, show a significant upturn in both quality and ambition. Both films for example are based on books, in this case Bill Gilham’s A Place To Hide. Two young boys David (Simon Nash) and Stephen (T-Bag’s John Hasler) are out in the woods for a spot of birdwatching when they stumble across two escaped convicts, Keith (Ian Bartholomew) and Donny the Bull (Jackson), who force the kids to accompany them on their break for freedom. Where Breakout succeeds is in a truly brilliant performance from Jackson, a veteran Liverpudlian actor arguably best known for playing the mighty Gan in Blake’s 7 and Irish decorator Brendan O’Shaughnessy in Only Fools and Horses. Breakout feels more contemporary too, with fight scenes, bloodletting and even shots being fired, but it all ends happily ever after.

Exploits at West Poley is probably CFF at its most ambitious, taking as its source Our Exploits at West Poley a short story written by Thomas Hardy in 1883 and subtitled ‘a story for boys’. The first thing to say about Exploits at West Poley is it looks impeccable. Boasting fine location shooting in the Chilterns, the film is also blessed by being helmed by Diarmuid Lawrence who went on to specialise in televisual period dramas such as Desperate Romantics, Peter Bowker’s breezy biopic of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Production values ensure that this is absolutely on a part with those prestigious costume drama serials and, just like them, Exploits at West Poley boast a fine cast too; future Casualty star and Oscar winner Brenda Fricker appears as Aunt Draycott, whilst Anthony Bate takes the role of the enigmatic prodigal villager known only as ‘The Man Who Has Failed’. Thomas Heathcote, Jonathan Adams. Frank Mills, George Malpas and a young Sean Bean co-star whilst the juvenile leads are taken by Charlie Condou (Jonatton Yeah? in Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s increasingly relevant Nathan Barley), Noel O’Connell (who played James Garbutt’s younger self in When the Boat Comes In) and Jonathan Jackson, who looks rather like a pubescent Ray Winstone.

The film went on to win 1st prize at the Portugal Film Festival and 2nd prize at the Chicago Film Festival but, at a time when kids were flocking to see the popcorn epics of Steven Spielberg and the teen comedies of John Hughes, it could be argued that, in making an adaptation of an obscure Thomas Hardy tale, CFF were becoming increasingly out of step with current trends – something that they certainly weren’t way back with The Clue of the Missing Ape at the start of this volume.

There are several extras scattered across this set including two slapstick shorts starring Carry On favourite peter Butterworth entitled That’s an Order and Playground Express, both from 1954, and an interesting little documentary that looks at the ecological prescience of 1977 CFF The Battle for Billy’s Pond with director Harley Cokeliss though – given that that title does not feature on this set – it seems rather curiously placed here. It does feature on the first volume of Children’s Film Foundation from BFI though – a canny move to convince buyers to go back and make a purchase!

Special features

Our Magazine No 2 (1952, 10 mins): newsreel aimed at youngsters

Carry On laughing with Brit-comedy legend Peter Butterworth in three rare slapstick comedy shorts: Watch Out (1953, 18 mins), That’s an Order (1954, 18 mins) and Playground Express (1954, 16 mins)

Before Its Time: The Battle of Billy’s Pond (2021, 13 mins): in this new mini-doc, CFF alumnus Harley Cokeliss revisits his eco-aware film for the Foundation from 1976 (featured on the first Bumper Box)

Illustrated booklet with an essay and notes on all the films and extras by BFI Video Producer Vic Pratt and a Screen Test quiz.

‘Children’s Film Foundation: Bumper Box Vol 3’ was released by BFI Video on 23 August 2021. Total runtime 505 mins. Cat. no. BFIV2132 / Cert PG. RRP: £29.99. Order Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box Vol 3 from the BFI Shop here. BFI DVD/Blu-ray releases can be ordered from home entertainment online retailers or from the BFI Shop at https://shop.bfi.org.uk/

Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.

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