The Children's Film Foundation Collection: London Tales Review
The opening image is a familiar one: the fountains in Trafalgar Square; the pigeons; the accompaniment of the chiming bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This was the introduction to each and every one of the Children Film Foundation’s efforts, more than 450 in total if we include the shorts and the serial entries. It’s also something of a nostalgia trigger for those of a certain age. In my own case it brings back memories of Friday afternoon showings on the BBC in the mid-eighties and half-remembered movies involving a super T-shirt or Patrick Troughton as an eccentric professor. For others it’s the memories of Saturday matinees which are tweaked, whether than be in the fifties, sixties or seventies thanks to the CFF’s three-and-a-half decade reign.
Oddly enough, DVD producers have never really attempted to exploit this market. Network put out four long out of print double-bills during the format’s early days, each of which focused on the perceived ‘naffer’ side of their output: the likes of Dennis Waterman and Keith Chegwin putting in teenaged performances; cheap science-fiction entries like Egghead’s Robot. More recently, in 2010, Strike Force Entertainment have issued the jaunty early feature, Heights of Danger (dad and kids take part in a mountain rally in order to protect their garage from greedy businessmen), as part of their Motoring Collection. In fact, there’s no acknowledgement whatsoever of the CFF on the packaging; “the real star is the MG TD Sports Car,” claimed the sleeve.
Mere weeks after Heights of Danger hit the shelves so too did a pair of Famous Five serials the CFF put together in the late fifties and early sixties. Five on Treasure Island and Five Have a Mystery to Solve were both released by the British Film Institute’s DVD arm in a move that can now be seen as a testing of the waters. The BFI have since acquired the international rights to the entirety of the CFF’s output and will be slowly making much of it available through their Children’s Film Foundation Collection. The plan is to release themed sets at regular intervals beginning with the disc currently under review, London Tales.
This first volume compiles three features onto a single disc (each averages just under an hour in length so there’s no need to worry about there not being enough space) and supplements them with some documentary footage from the archive plus the expected BFI booklet of contextualising essays. The trio in question are The Salvage Gang from 1958, Operation Third Form from 1966 and Night Ferry from 1976. As you’ll notice from the production dates such a selection also provides us a balanced overview of the CFF output and a little insight into their changing attitudes and approaches over the years, but more of that in a moment.
Each of the films is remarkably simple, springing into life from the most basic of events. In The Salvage Gang a broken saw leads our group of kids across much of London as they seek to fund a replacement. Operation Third Form, on the hand, has a very young John Moulder-Brown (even younger than he was in Deep End) leave his homework behind at school and consequently find himself embroiled with a bunch of crooks and black market dealers. There’s villainy in Night Ferry too, in this case supplied by the bumbling duo of Bernard Cribbins and Aubrey Morris. If little Graham Fletcher-Cook hadn’t have been playing near the local shunter’s yard he’d never have stumbled across their plan to smuggle an ancient Egyptian mummy out of the country.
Simplicity was one of the watchwords of the CFF. There’s a no-nonsense approach to each and every one of their efforts, a desire to tell their stories with the minimal of fuss. Needless to say that goes hand-in-hand with the brisk running times making these London Tales a delightful means of whiling away an hour or two. The plots - and the humour, for that matter - may not be particularly sophisticated but that’s besides the point. These films understand their audience and tap into those areas which appeal. Operation Third Form does this especially well with its playing-detective storyline and use of hi-tech gadgetry (all rather quaint now, of course). There’s also the gang mentality aspect as the entire school year attempt to thwart Derren Nesbitt’s petty crim and a nod towards the displeasure in having to let your younger sister get involved too, here played by Roberta Tovey.
Much the same comes through in The Salvage Gang (just look at the title) and the amateur detective work of Night Ferry, though we do see some shifts as we move across the decades. The latter is bit more rough and ready than the others. The kids in question are bit more working class than their predecessors with Fletcher-Cook also a touch on the androgynous side; they’re not quite so clean-cut even if their adventure is. The youth of the seventies, as summed by a local bobby in one of the early scenes, are out there “vandalising, trespassing, pilfering” - a far cry from the best behaviour of the fifties kids or even the sixties schoolboys (although Moulder-Brown does accidentally smash a couple of windows). Interestingly, however, the mixed-gender, multi-ethnic group of Night Ferry finds an echo in The Salvage Gang, though neither film makes a fuss about such things.
There’s a strong likelihood that viewers will pick a favourite of the London Tales based solely on which decade, and which generation, they identify with most fully. Because otherwise there’s little to choose between the three. The CFF regularly employed from the documentary industry for its talent and a number of prominent names pop up on this disc. Most notable is John Krish’s presence as director of The Salvage Gang (his feature debut; he would make another two films for the CFF in the early eighties), though eagle-eyed viewers will also spot a few other key names. James Allen was the cinematographer on that picture having previously worked for World Wide Pictures, one of the major producers of industrial documentaries as well as the first two titles on London Tales. Its composer was Jack Beaver, who had started out on the Secrets of Nature series (review) and scored such important works as Paul Rotha’s Shipyard. Operation Third Form and Night Ferry, meanwhile, were both shot by Jo Jago, a regular cinematographer on John Eldridge’s underrated wartime docs. There are plenty more examples besides and across the entire CFF filmography too - indeed, just take a look at the BFI’s post-war documentary set Shadows of Progress (review) and you’ll find, time and again, names who took time out from non-fiction to work on a children’s feature or two.
Their contribution was not only a means of working quickly but also skilfully. The CFF didn’t have the greatest of budgets to play with so who better to make their films than those who were used to working in a brisk, often off-the-cuff fashion. One of the side-effects was a terrific eye for detail, an aspect that London Tales (as the title suggests) makes full advantage of. The Salvage Gang, in particular, offers up a great cinematic record of the capital: St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge and the still visible scars of the Blitz. Operation Third Form, on the other hand, stages its finale in Regent’s Park, whilst Night Ferry spends much of its time around the Clapham Arches. Such familiar landmarks can only aid in the overriding feeling of nostalgia.
Of course, the London connection has been timed to coincide with the impending 2012 Olympic Games. The BFI have their Wonderful London (review) collection out this week too, plus there’s a tenth British Transport Films volume on the way, again to be capital-themed. Yet such associations shouldn’t be seen as a flash-in-the-pan tie-in hoping to ride on the wave of interest and ever-loudening media coverage. Indeed, let’s not forget that London Tales is just first instalment in the Children’s Film Foundation Collection, an undertaking that should hopefully become a key component in the BFI’s DVD output. After all, there are over 450 features, shorts and serials - and a major part of our cinematic heritage - to delve into and plenty of half-remembered childhood encounters to reignite.
The three London Tales and their 14-minute accompanying documentary sit perfectly well onto their dual-layered disc. The Salvage Gang is just 50 minutes in length, Operation Third Form is 56 minutes and Night Ferry totals 58 minutes meaning there are no issues to be had with space. Indeed, all three look absolutely terrific. The BFI National Archive holds the original film elements for them all and has provided brand new HD transfers for this disc. Occasional - though incredibly minor - instances of damage or age may make themselves known from time to time, but it is often staggering as to how good a shape these films are in, whether they’re in black and white or colour. Original aspect ratios are adhered to (1.33:1 in all cases) as are the original mono soundtracks (equally crisp and clean). Note, however, that there are no optional English subtitles.
The additional documentary comes from Topic, a COI-sponsored series which brought aspects of British life to an American audience. This is one of the rare surviving episodes (made in 1959) and focuses on both the CFF and the Saturday matinee. As Patrick Russell notes in his booklet piece this is “film history gold” - not only does it take the viewer inside one of these weekend screenings but also provides fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of The Salvage Gang being made. John Krish is interviewed as well as the head of the Foundation, Mary Field. As for the accompanying booklet, this particular offering is a little light in terms of the BFI’s page count (only twelve for this release), though do bear in mind that there will be plenty more CFF volumes to come. As it stands we find an introduction by Andrew Roberts, a CFF overview by Vic Pratt (previously published in the booklets for the two Famous Five discs), plus individual one-page pieces on the three films and the Topic documentary. The excellent cover art, by the way, is by Graham Humphreys, best known for his UK posters for The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. He’ll be contributing to all future instalments too.