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Capital Idea! Children's Film Foundation: London Tales Explored
Adrian Lobb , July 28th, 2012 04:11

Adrian Lobb enjoys a new BFI DVD compiling three features created by the Children's Film Foundation, which shows London, its youth and stories for kids gradually evolving. Still from Operation Third Form

Once upon a time, the Saturday morning matinee was king. A staple diet of feel-good comedy, sing-along-a-silliness, not-so-wild Westerns and cartoon capers kept kids coming back to their cinema clubs, establishing the movies as the most magical of mediums. But during its 1950s heyday, along came a big, bad postwar moral panic about juvenile delinquency that was said to be fuelled by imported entertainment: from the horror comics that would be removed from newsagents' shelves in 1954 to the new generation of screen idols.

In the nick of time, a brains trust of the British film industry - led by J Arthur Rank, whose cinema chains had most to lose if the lights were to go out on the matinee - came together. Their solution? The creation of the Children's Film Foundation, which planned to avert the delinquency crisis courtesy of not-for-profit, home-produced children's films that were full of wholesome pluck, derring-do and good clean fun.

Funding from a levy on cinema tickets was ploughed back into filmmaking, with the resulting half-hour features focusing on kidnapped scientists, dastardly villains and even space exploration. Nostalgic, middle class-centric and too wholesome by half? In the early days, when regional accents were banned, most certainly. But the CFF at least attempted to move with the times, and a look at the three releases here reveals a surprising diversity – albeit alongside an innocence which, by the time of the last of the films included, 1976's Night Ferry, must have appeared out of step.

CFF productions gave an early break to future stars - from Dennis Waterman to Keith Chegwin (as the title character in 1975's Robin Hood Junior, also featuring Andrew Sachs) via Phil Collins, Susan George, Richard O'Sullivan, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost and Gary Kemp - before the Saturday morning television of Tiswas, the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Saturday Superstore finally killed off production in 1987. This collection groups together pictures from 1958, 1966 and 1978, showcasing the trusted formula that would see a group of children taking on fiends in the adult world with little or no help from bumbling beat bobbies, teachers or parents, before rounding up the bad guys – who would probably fall into a pond – just in time for tea.

The Salvage Gang (1958) features the young Frazer Hines – who would go on to play Doctor Who companion Jamie McCrimmon (Patrick Troughton's trusty sidekick) and Emmerdale's Joe Sugden – as one of four plucky youngsters who, gasp, break father's favourite saw during an attempt to construct the perfect rabbit cage. Their bid to raise the funds to buy a replacement takes them on a rollicking adventure through the streets of London, undertaking odd jobs including car washing and barge painting before settling on collecting scrap iron as a money-making scheme.

The caper includes one of the most charming chases imaginable. The hapless have-a-go-heroes, having accidentally sold Freddie's bed for scrap, set off in pursuit of its eventual buyer through the city on the 78 bus, with the view from the top deck offering tantalising glimpses of the newly prosperous city – all Vauxhall Crestas, television aerials and towering cranes. Once the bed is retrieved, they push it back home, via Tower Bridge, St Paul's, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum and a run-in with a homeless man played by Wilfrid Brambell, apparently using the film as a dress rehearsal for playing Old Man Steptoe.

The inclusion of Ali (Ali Alleney) as an accepted, unexplained and unmoralised part of the gang is a happy surprise as depicting racial diversity was hardly high on the filmic agenda back then, indicating the CFF's attempts to move with the changing times. With shots of the city streets beautifully framed by director John Krish, the incidental music augmenting the tone of the comedy and the deserted cityscape perfectly, the film serves as a delightful depiction of a London emerging from the shadows of wartime and austerity.

Fast-forward to 1966, and Operation Third Form appears to straddle two distinct eras. The tone and accents would be more at home in a 1950s Boys' Own adventure, as would the tale of a missing school bell. Yet the groovy theme tune, super-stylish baddie Mr Skinner (Derren Nesbitt) – a thieving rotter with the look of a young Tom Jones – and Batman comics and Gaggia coffee makers on display are all further evidence that the CFF was modernising, slowly but surely.

Another bus chase offers more snapshots of modern London. And a stakeout of Regent's Park, as the gang of ingenious third formers use phone boxes to call the ops room, where flags are pinned in the wall-mounted map to track Skinner's movements, is riveting, with a scene-stealing performance from future Time Lord's granddaughter Roberta Tovey plus some snappy dialogue: "You silly nits!"

By 1976, the comic capers of meddlesome kids must have seemed a little old hat. Filmed around the railway arches at Clapham Junction and Victoria Station, Night Ferry (directed, like Operation Third Form, by David Eady) again features mildly rebellious children - Jeff is caught flying his kite on the railway tracks - taking on dastardly, comic book bandits. The action centres on the pre-Eurostar sleeper train from London to Paris, via the Dover-Calais ferry, with a villainous Bernard Cribbins plotting to use the service to escape with a priceless Egyptian mummy – but not before disguising himself as an undertaker, a medic and a priest.

The DVD's bonus material includes an edition of the US television show Topic discussing Saturday Morning Cinema Clubs and the GB Club (at which good citizenship was taught), as well hearing from director John Krish about his mission to avoid patronising viewers, and the need for ingenuity when shooting on a miniscule budget. More themed releases of surviving films are planned, with the landscape and story style sure to be expanded beyond capital city adventure stories. But these London tales offer a welcome and tantalising glimpse of the evolution of both childhood and the city.

Children's Film Foundation: Volume One: London Tales is out now via the BFI.