The Children's Film Foundation Collection: The Race is On Review
In each of the three films which make up this latest volume of CFF tales from the BFI you’ll find a scene in which one of the villains of the piece falls into some mud. The Children’s Film Foundation was active over four decades, with this particular set spanning some 21 of those years, and yet clearly some things never changed. Indeed, if you intended to thwart young Michael Crawford’s progress in a soapbox derby in 1957 or that of Liam Redmond’s ‘Sky-Bike’ in 1967 or simply attempted to bully Sammy whilst he was wearing his super t-shirt, it was an absolute certainty that you’d end up in the dirt. Something of a good-natured comeuppance, perhaps, but then that’s exactly what these films were: simple, easy-going and good-natured affairs that charm just as much today as they once did on original release.
Following on from last year’s London Tales volume (and to be followed shortly by Weird Adventure in June), The Race is On has a fairly self-evident theme. In Soapbox Derby, Crawford’s gang, the Battersea Bats, must overcome local rivals – and rotten cheaters – the Victoria Victors in the titular contest. In The Sky-Bike young aeronautics-obsessed Spencer Shires helps kindly old Redmond build a human-powered flying machine in order to participate in a climactic chase. And in Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978) our eponymous twelve-year-old has his sights on the Junior Superstar Challenge Cup which involves taking part in an 800m dash. As with Soapbox Derby’s Victoria Victors, there are also less-than-honest competitors for both Sammy and the Sky-Bike to overcome.
Much like the mud-falling, The Race is On’s trio also share a moral message: play fair. Soapbox Derby makes this most apparent when the Battersea Bats expel one of their number for fighting dirty; a bit of rough and tumble is fine – but know your limits. (The evictee finds himself right at home with the sneaky bunch that is the Victorias.) Meanwhile, the baddies and the bullies of The Sky-Bike and Sammy’s Super T-Shirt are drawn with such broad strokes that it’s easy to label them as wrongdoers. And the similarities don’t end there. In each of the films we find cameos from some familiar faces: Harry Fowler, one of British cinema’s quintessential Cockney types, pops up in Soapbox Derby; the almost ridiculously prolific David Lodge plays an uptight airfield guard in The Sky-Bike; and Hammer regular Michael Ripper gets a similar role as the security guard to a research laboratory in Sammy’s Super T-Shirt. Needless to say, all three titles also come with an agreeably zippy pace (each runs for around an hour in length) and are entirely without pretension.
From The Race is On’s selection, Soapbox Derby arguably stands out as the highlight. Shot on location in the shadow of Battersea Power Station, the film (this volume’s sole black and white title) looks suitably terrific and comes with an excellent orchestral score from John Wooldridge. On the surface this should be a fairly inauspicious affair – production company Rayant specialised in quota quickies and industrial documentaries, as did most of the crew, whilst director Darcy Conyers had only a little experience behind the camera – yet somehow it falls into place. Admittedly some of the humour can be a touch laboured (the younger cast members don’t really have the timing to pull it off), though in retrospect that only adds to the quaint charm. There’s also the novelty in seeing Michael Crawford making his movie debut and the prominent casting (it even gets its own credit) of a BMW bubble car. Oh, and the opening credits are just wonderful: “Douglas Ransom took the pictures, John Reeve arranged them,” and so on.
It’s the little details such as those which make these films so winning. Nobody could make claims for their tales being particularly sophisticated or even less-than-predictable, yet that is almost beside the point as the qualities reside elsewhere. Charles Frend, who wrote and directed The Sky-Bike, had a distinguished career within the British film industry and there’s a sense, when reading summations of that career, that this particular entry, especially as it was final film as director, was something of an embarrassment. How could the man who helmed The Cruel Sea and Scott of the Antarctic end on a children’s film, the suggestion seems to be, with writers more than happy to sketch over its existence and instead mention Frend’s work as second unit director on Ryan’s Daughter for David Lean, the last of his big screen credits. And yet, within the remit of what was expected from a CFF production, there is nothing whatsoever to be embarrassed about. Certainly, Frend had made a much better film for children some years’ previous – Ealing’s The Magnet, written by T.E.B. Clarke, in 1950 – but that’s hardly the easiest of films to live up to. As a sunny piece of boys’ own entertainment, The Sky-Bike more than does the trick and that’s all that was expected.
Much the same could be said about Sammy’s Super T-Shirt except this particular title now has something of a cult following and is easily among the most recognisable (and requested) of the CFF’s prolific output. As I’ve already pointed out, it’s no different from the other efforts in a number of ways, although perhaps crucially it has the added appeal of a more pronounced science fiction element. (I’m of the generation who became familiar with the CFF through their Friday afternoon showings on the BBC during the eighties and Sammy’s Super T-Shirt remains one of the more memorable films, presumably for that very reason. That would square perfectly with the other movies I was watching at the time.) Of course, the sf element is somewhat crude – Sammy’s t-shirt gives him superhuman strength which manifests itself on-screen either through slow motion or sped-up footage – but, again, that’s all part of the charm. The film is essentially a pint-sized cash-in on The Six Million Dollar Man, both in terms of its protagonist and its budget.
Another key different relates to the children themselves. Whereas Crawford and his gang-mates in Soapbox Derby and Shires and chums in The Sky-Bike come from middle-class surroundings and speak very politely, Sammy is less so. At home we only ever see his mother (suggestive, though not conclusive, of a single-parent family) and there’s a definite East End twang to his speech even though the entire production was filmed in Surrey – in his own words he’s “twaining for the big wace.” There was an undoubted shift in the CFF’s output during the seventies which saw more of a focus on working class kids as well as some more progressive attitudes. Sidekicks in Soapbox Derby and The Sky-Bike get names like Four-Eyes and Porker (though he’s hardly what you’d call morbidly obese!), but in Sammy’s Super T-Shirt he’s simply Marv.
As with the previous BFI volume – and no doubt this will also be true of the next one too – The Race is On’s blend across the decades is likely satisfy all-comers. There’s Sammy’s Super T-Shirt for those who prefer the slightly rougher-and-readier seventies tales, Soapbox Derby for the more simple pleasures of the CFF’s fifties output and The Sky-Bike for those who fall somewhere in-between. Essentially it all comes down to taste as each is an entertaining as the others. Next up will be Weird Adventure in June, bringing us The Monster of Highgate Ponds (1961), which was produced by Halas & Batchelor and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972), the final collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and A Hitch in Time (1978), starring Patrick Troughton.
With a combined running time of 176 minutes, the three tales which make up The Race is On easily fit onto an extras-free dual-layered disc. The British Film Institute house the entirety of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output in their National Archive and have sourced these three transfers from the best available 35mm materials. Original aspect ratios are adhered to, dirt and damage has been cleared up as well as can be hoped for and the films are now in mostly terrific shape. Some signs of wear and tear down the years still make themselves known, though hardly to the point of distraction. The original mono soundtracks have similarly been given a sprucing up, though again some signs of age can be apparent. Nevertheless, dialogue remains crisp throughout and the theme songs to The Sky-Bike and Sammy’s Super T-Shirt too. There are no optional subtitles, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise. This volume also comes with a 12-page booklet that is a tad slimmer than the BFI’s usual efforts but still finds room for brief entries on each of the film, an introduction to the CFF by Vic Pratt and a new piece by Michael Crawford in which he recalls the making of Soapbox Derby.