The Railway Children Review
In today's hard bitten, cynical world it's truly wonderful to find that a film about a bygone age still has the kind of charm that can hook in an audience.
'The Railway Children' puffs its way on to UK Blu-ray to mark its 40th anniversary and it looks better than it ever has before.
Based on the book by E Nesbit, the screenplay was adapted and directed by Actor turned Director Lionel Jeffries. Many will remember him as the eccentric grandfather in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' (bring on the Blu-ray release) but 'The Railway Children' was the first time he stepped the other side of the camera - and he did a very good job indeed. The film was nominated for a few BAFTAs in 1971 for Best music (Johnny Douglas), Best Supporting Actor (Bernard Cribbins) and Best Newcomer (Sally Thomsett).
Apart from being a lovely period piece set in 1904, it is also a train spotter's paradise with several steam locomotives being featured prominently in the story - so have those notebooks and cameras ready at the end of the platform.
'The Railway Children' had been made as a BBC TV series in 1968 starring Jenny Agutter, so it was a bit confusing to find that she reprised her role in the big screen version just a couple of years later.
So what's it all about, then?
The Waterbury family are enjoying a chintzy, comfortable middle class life in London when one night a couple of Policemen call and take the father (Iain Cuthbertson) away leaving the mother (the lovely Dinah Sheridan) to look after the three children - Bobbie (Jenny Agutter), Phyllis (Sally Thomsett) and Peter (Gary Warren who later appeared in the 'Catweazle' TV series). No reason is really given to the children for their father's disappearance, but with the bread winner missing the family have to get used to 'being poor' and this means relocating to a Northern village (they know how to do poor in the North) which just happens to be near a railway station. So begin the adventures of the trio as soon as they meet the Station Porter turned Station Master Mr Perks (Bernard Cribbins) - a very likeable chap who's deemed to be poor by the children so they have a whip round for his birthday, involving everyone in the village. Now Perks may be poor but he's proud and he takes some persuading that he's not in receipt of charity. With that out of the way the children get on with averting a derailment due to a landslide, reuniting a Russian gent with his missing family as well as rescuing a young lad who is injured during a paper chase and then has to be nursed back to good health. While this is all going on, they wave to trains and befriend a rather well to do passenger, the Kind Old Gentleman (William Mervyn) who attempts to help them find their father. Will he succeed? Will the children ever see their father again? Will there ever be buns for tea again?
You'll need to watch the movie to find out - and I'm confident that there's a whole new generation who will never have seen the film before. What better way than to see it first in High Definition on Blu-ray?
The cast turn in very good performances. Dinah Sheridan as Mrs Waterbury looks as if she smells of Pears soap and displays a stiff upper lip while maintaining standards even when she falls ill. Jenny Agutter as the eldest daughter, Bobbie, exhibits a talent for involving the audience with her emotions, such as in the final scene on the railway platform (I'm still not giving the game away). Sally Thomsett as Phyllis is very often the instigator of the adventures and is the loveable, mischievous one. Meanwhile Gary Warren as Peter just knows when he's outnumbered and generally keeps his head down - although credit is due to him for nicking coal from the station to keep the home fires burning.
The real tour de force comes from Bernard Cribbins as Perks who we immediately like for his comic ability and warmth towards the children. William Mervyn as the Kind Old Gentleman is perfect casting and I seem to recall him from a TV series called 'Mr Rose' on ITV in the same era. The supporting cast such as Mrs Perks (Deddie Davies) all have those great period faces that we've seen so often on TV or in other movies. Even David Lodge (You'll know him the moment you see him) pops up as the frustrated bandmaster.
Another star of the movie just has to be the English countryside, as filmed by Director of Photography Arthur Ibbetson. It looks like a rural idyll. So lush and so verdant that it makes you want to get away from all built up areas and smell the fresh air - that is apart from the permissible smoke from the steam trains.
In terms of direction, Lionel Jeffries has the gift of being a good storyteller. His style is conventional but caring and he manages to get the best out of his cast and even allowed Bernard Cribbins to ad lib a few lines. Many first time directors are so desperate to make a name for themselves that they jeopardise the story through the use of choppy editing or wide-angle photography in an attempt to create their own 'style'. It also says a lot for the man that everyone who worked on the film enjoyed the experience too. As I recall, he went on to direct such masterpieces as 'Wombling Free' and 'The Water Babies'. Ah well, you get a name for directing family movies and it sticks.
'The Railway Children' is probably the ultimate family film that celebrates kindness, love and helpfulness - basically the best in people. It does not have CGI effects, neither does it have car chases with bullets pinging off walls or gut wrenching explosions. Given the choice, I'm sure that many of today's children would rather watch something else but if they were to sit down and start to watch this movie, then I'm sure that even the most case hardened heart could not fail to be captivated by this timeless classic. Well done Optimum Releasing for bringing it to the attention of the world.