The Children’s Film Foundation, Vic Pratt and the BFI

There are thirty of us: tiny children, an excitable rabble of tank tops and pinafore dresses, all sitting in the lotus position on a freezing tiled floor as the hall lights are dimmed and the curtains drawn, blotting out the last of a pale winter’s afternoon light. Our school’s whirring 16mm film projector clanks into life, and – on a portable screen sandwiched between the metal shutters of the dinner hatch and the wooden “apparatus” of torturous indoor PE lessons – another world appears.

Our transportation is heralded by the chimes of Big Ben, the fierce hissing of ornamental fountains and the merciless, giddy assault of a recklessly headstrong logo that scatters a startled flight of pigeons across what we later learn is Trafalgar Square, half a universe away in London. Christopher Herbert claims he’s been there, once. Our weekly school “Film Club” has begun, and the traumas of the school day are relieved by mini-movies that soothe but also sometimes submerge us with their own concerns: films where children our own age are drawn into terrifying crime capers and unsettling supernatural shenanigans, all produced under the auspices of the Children’s Film Foundation.

For the last decade, the British Film Institute have been stalwart keepers of the CFF flame, releasing a string of themed collections of these deliciously evocative films on DVD. In 2019, an extravagant nine-film set emerged, the Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box proving so successful that a second volume was issued in March 2020. I spoke to curator of these releases, writer and film historian Vic Pratt, about the latter of these box sets for my BBC Radio Tees show. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Are these releases a real labour of love for you, Vic? You’re a child of the 1970s after all…

Vic: I am, I grew up going to see these kinds of films at Saturday matinees and holiday camps, and they have an effect on you that you never quite grow out of.

My experience of the Children’s Film Foundation is watching these films at school. We had an after-school “Film Club” where you could pay 50p and watch them projected onto a screen in the school hall from a rather rickety projector. Were they farmed out to lots of schools?

Yeah, there were umpteen 16mm prints produced of these films, and they were ferried around schools all over the country – and abroad as well.

And Saturday morning cinema clubs as well? I know the ABC Minors cinema club in Middlesbrough had a great following in the 1960s – and it’s own song!

Yeah, my dad was in the Odeon Club, so they were a rival of the ABC Minors, really! The Saturday morning pictures started up in the 1950s, and they went right through to the 1980s, when they were wiped out by TV, and programmes like Swap Shop and Tiswas. All the kids would stay at home instead, slumped on the sofa instead of going to the cinema on a Saturday morning.

But yes – they used to have a Children’s Film Foundation film, maybe an episode of a Flash Gordon serial, maybe a Mr Magoo cartoon, something like that. It was quite a fun package for kids in those days.

Have I got this right – was the Children’s Film Foundation established with public funding, to give British kids what was perceived to me wholesome entertainment?

Absolutely, yeah. This was a kind of benevolent mission started out by Lord Rank, who was in control of the Rank Films empire in the 1950s, and he joined forces with a very eccentric lady called Mary Field, who made educational films. They decided to team up and create this kind of pan-industry initiative together, to produce wholesome films. Because everyone at that time was worried about horror comics – things like Tales From The Crypt. In the early 1950s, there was a flood of American entertainment into the UK, and this was supposed to be a wholesome alternative to this trans-Atlantic filth!

You can see it actually, because when you watch the earliest film on this set, Treasure at the Mill from 1957, it’s very “jolly hockey sticks” in its feel… do you want to talk us through it a bit?

It’s based on a story by Malcolm Saville, who was a very famous kid’s writer at the time. He wrote a series of books called the Lone Pine series – they’re mysteries in the Enid Blyton mould. So this was one of his efforts for the Children’s Film Foundation, and it’s about a search for treasure in a charming country village. It’s very much early-era CFF, where all the kids are very smart and polite and well-dressed, and they all wear tank tops and big woolly socks. Like Just William and the Outlaws used to wear! It’s very polite, but it’s great fun. It’s the kind “slow cinema” that maybe we don’t have for kids any more.

The interesting thing about it is the artist Henry Pettit – he’s in it, and is essentially playing himself. Was it filmed in his actual house, too?

Yeah, he’d renovated an old mill, which was his artist’s studio. This guy… not only had he illustrated the Malcolm Saville series, he used to draw comic strips for magazines like Playhour. You can actually see a kid in the film reading a comic with one of his stories in it, so there’s a bit of product placement there!

Aren’t they his own kids, too?

Yeah, that’s right – the whole family are in the film, although they dubbed some of the voices! The girls in the film were very upset when they turned up to the premiere, and it wasn’t their voices in the film. But that happened in those days – that was how they used to do it.

Wings of Mystery from 1963 is on there as well, and it’s one for Dad’s Army fans… Arnold Ridley is in this, teaching Judy Geeson how to race pigeons.

This one’s pretty remarkable. First of all for Private Godfrey’s amazing North Country accent… which isn’t especially authentic, it has to be said. But also, he looks older than he did in Dad’s Army! This was shot before Dad’s Army, but he looks about 20 years older. How did that happen?

It’s a curious story… it starts off feeling very Northern kitchen sink, and then it becomes a story about industrial espionage. Which I wasn’t expecting at all.

No, it’s a weird one. It was shot on location in Sheffield – at least, bits of it were – but it also turns into one of those Edgar Wallace crime films, those B-picture mysteries that you got in the early 1960s. It’s a very strange film, but a very entertaining one.

It is… and as a huge fan of Catweazle and Robin of Sherwood. I knew that their writer, Richard Carpenter, had done some acting in his early life, but I’d never seen him in action. But he’s in this, with quite a big role… and he’s really good!

It’s quite a surprise, isn’t it? He’s a long way from Dick Turpin here. It’s great to actually see him.

There do seem to be some Children’s Film Foundation productions that stand head and shoulders above the rest in people’s memories, and one of them is Go Kart Go, also on this set… starring a very young Dennis Waterman.

Yes, and Frazer Hines of course, who went on to be Jamie in Doctor Who. They’re rival gang leaders racing go-karts in early 60s Harrow-on-the-Hill, which is quite something. Also in this film, they’re trying to redress the balance of sexism in some of the CFF films, so there’s a young girl called Squirt, and she wants a go-kart just as much as the boys. And when her dad says he’s going to get her a toy pram instead, she shows how cheesed off she is driving a model truck over her dolly’s head! So stick that, Daddy. She’s not happy about that.

What do you think it is that makes some CFF foundation films stick in the memory more than others? This really does seem to be a film that people have enormous fondness for.

I think it hits all the right marks for a Children’s Film Foundation film. You’ve got great acting from the kids, and they’ve got great lines. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, it’s shot on location on the streets… and it really gives you that evocative air of youth gone by. It sums up the times… the fashions are great, they’ve all got leather jackets and cowboy boots. And there are great co-stars, too… Cardew “The Cad” Robinson as a postman, and Wilfrid Brambell from Steptoe and Son – doing a junkman act too, and they even play music when he comes on that sounds just like the Steptoe and Son theme! I think all these things stick in the mind, and this is one of the true Children’s Film Foundation classics.

I have a pet theory as well… I’m sure I recall seeing clips from Go Kart Go over and over again on Screen Test...

Yes, with Michael Rodd!

And didn’t Brian Trueman take over after a while?

Yeah, he did! That was latter-day Screen Test, wasn’t it?

Yes! And I’m sure they showed clips from Go Kart Go on Screen Test all the time, so I wondered if that had maybe cemented it in peoples’ consciousness, too.

Yeah, absolutely. They had a special deal with the Children’s Film Foundation that meant they could license clips much more easily than they could from other studios, because they were home-grown British films. They didn’t have to pay the license fees they would have had to pay for Star Wars or something… so that’s why you got loads of CFF films on there.

It was a cheap option for the BBC, essentially?

Absolutely, and do you remember – they’d show you a clip, and you’d have to do a comprehension test afterwards, and answer questions about it?

Yes! And do you know… about four years ago, there was a night at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle where Michael Rodd appeared in person for a Screen Test night, and we all had to play along answering questions about the clips he showed. It was amazing.

Crikey! It must have been like meeting a god. The gods walking the Earth! Did you meet him? Did you speak to Mr Rodd?

I did! I shook the hand of Michael Rodd, and he’s very bit as charming and erudite as you would imagine.

It’s lovely to hear he’s still around. Fantastic.

I have to say as well, this set has laid to rest a forty-year mystery for me. One of my earliest memories of watching Children’s Film Foundation films at school is of me being terrified by a scene in which a darkened corridor appears to have a ghost at the end, slowly moving towards us. It’s only at the last minute that we realise it’s a real person, and when I watched this set… it’s from the first five minutes of A Ghost Of A Chance, and it’s actually Ronnie Barker.

Crikey. Was this the first time you’d seen it since?

Yes. For years I’ve wondered what the film was, and it’s absolutely, definitely that. So thankyou, Vic Pratt.

I’m glad we could help you, Bob. This is what we’re here for – to trigger the memories that have been repressed.

It’s public service at its finest. And what a cast that film has. Any British comedy film of 1968 would have been proud to boast a cast that included Ronnie Barker, Bernard Cribbins, Terry Scott, Patricia Hayes… and Jimmy Edwards and Graham Stark, playing the ghosts. I can’t imagine that the Children’s Film Foundation was paying fortunes here, so was it a case of actors wanting to be involved because they thought it was worthwhile?

Yeah, they really did this for the sake of it. They wanted to do something for the kids, to put something back into the film industry, and they did it for minimum union rates. They didn’t take royalties, they just took a flat fee, and some people in particular turned up again and again because they really believed in what they were doing.

Cribbins is a bit of a regular…

Cribbins turns up all the time. He’s a really nice link to now, really – one of the few people who’s still around from this set.

One of the most heartwarming things about modern life is that Bernard Cribbins is still us, and appears to be thriving.

Yes, wonderful.

Did the Children’s Film Foundation change over the decades? When you watch the films on this set in chronological order, A Ghost of A Chance feels more like knockabout comedy than films from even four or five years earlier. Did attitudes relex a little?

Absolutely. In the early-to-mid-1960s, when Mary Field left, there was a relaxing… not just of acting regulations for kids, but also of the kind of kids they had in the films. So they were grubbier, more urban, and there were also kids from more diverse and ethnic minority backgrounds. They were all appearing in these films, and they were allowed to speak with their own voices. And to grow their hair a bit longer, and to wear jumpers instead of smart jackets. It was a real sea change, and they tried to keep up with the times – because there was some criticism of the Children’s Film Foundation, that it was all for kind of posh, smarty pants, middle-class children. But, to their credit, they really tried to revamp things in the 1960s and 70s.

It gets very Cockernee in the mid-1960s!

It does go quoite Cocknoy! Sort of Pearly Kings, Dick Van Dyke cockney.

There’s another kind of progression that you can see in a film like The Sea Children, from 1973. I’d never heard of it, but I’m so glad you dug it out. It’s such a strange film, and I know it’s become a bit of a cliche to say “it was the 70s, they were all on drugs”… that’s very disrespectful to a lot of very creative people. But I think we had to have at least lived through psychedelia for a film like The Sea Children to exist. It’s so odd.

Yes – just like on the first box set, which had Mr Horatio Nibbles, about a giant rabbit, this is another of those post-psychedelic Children’s Film Foundation films. It’s a kind of eco-science-fantasy… shot in Malta as well, which is very exotic for the CFF, it was very rare that they went on location. It’s about these kids trying to save the Earth… there’s a mining project going on, and they’re trying to avert the eco-disaster that we all know is imminent, right?

Yes, even in 1973. And they find an Atlantis-style world undersea, populated by children dressed as Aztecs, all quite imaginatively dubbed…

Well they all speak at really high speeds, and the kids have to use a tape recorder to record their voices, then slow it down so that they can understand it. It’s pretty amazing stuff. And there’s an interview on this box set with Simon Fisher-Turner, who went on to work with Derek Jarman. He’s in The Sea Children, and is now a very noted film composer, doing all kinds of weird soundscapes. And that’s his tape recorder! The first time he ever used his tape recorder was in The Sea Children.

To play his voice back at normal speed? That’s actually his own tape recorder in the film?!

Yeah, they improvised that on set, because they didn’t have a gimmick. I spoke to him about it… it just so happened he’d brought his tape recorder with him.
 
That is fantastic. And then we go back to one of those films that really seem to have stuck in people’s consciousness, and that’s Sky Pirates, with Bill Maynard. Can you talk us through this one, Vic?

This one’s a real corker. People have been writing into us saying “Please put Sky Pirates on this one!” This is the bloke out of Heartbeat, and he’s an old World War 2 Battle of Britain pilot who teams up with some kids to foil a jewel robbery using model aeroplanes. It was released in the year of Concorde’s first commercial flight, so it was very timely – and I don’t know about you, but I was going down to the model shop buying a plastic model of Concorde. The models in this film were actually bought in the shop that was down the end of my road when I was a kid in the 1970s!

Really?!

Yeah, yeah! It was on the edge of Hounslow, West London – where I was born – and that’s where I got my plane-spotters guide in 1976.

What was the shop called, can you remember?

Radio Control Supplies Hounslow Ltd.

They knew how to give shops snappy names in those days, didn’t they?

Wouldn’t that make you want to go in there? It was run by guys that used to wear those brown janitor’s coats and ties behind the counter. Like Mr Arkwright in Open All Hours. And the guys that did the planes in this film also did the helicopter sequences in The Spy Who Loved Me. That’s quite a cool pedigree.

Do you get people requesting their favourite films for these sets, then?

Yes we do, and we’d like more of that. So please encourage everyone to suggest titles, if you would! We’re always looking for new suggestions.

What a rod for your own back you’re creating here, Vic. This could get out of control.

No, we want it! I’m on Twitter. Twitter me! Send them over, we don’t mind. There are more than 400 Children’s Film Foundation films in the catalogue, so we’ve barely scraped the surface.

The later films on this set are revelation: they’re really quite thoughtful. The Mine and the Minotaur, from 1980, is set in Cornwall, and it’s a story about art-smuggling. And it’s very gentle and absolutely beautifully shot. The cinematography is wonderful.

Absolutely. And it’s got some pretty good library music grooves, too! It’s quite a cracker. It has kids that are cleverer than the coppers foiling the smugglers, who are very well-spoken, posh Cornwall types. All shot down in Lamorna Cove in Cornwall, so it’s got that really nice, picturesque quality to it.

It’s funny you should mention the coppers – I was going to ask about the way in which adults are portrayed in Children’s Film Foundation films. In the earliest films, the authority figures are absolutely that… the policemen are clever and trustworthy and they solve the crimes, and the parents are generally quite understanding figures. But once you get into the 1970s, it’s the kids that the clever ones. Teachers, parents and even the police are shown to be a bit stupid and bumbling. Was that just reflection of how kids were changing over the decades?

I think it’s a reflection of how kids were changing and how adults’ ideas of kids changed as well. It’s weird when you look at these films now: the kids are all driving around in cars without seatbelts on, they’re going underground without their parents… it’s such a shift in how we look at kids. And yes, they were helping the police to solve the crimes by the 1970s and 80s, absolutely.

There’s an amazing scene in The Mine and the Minotaur where two kids are almost killed by a Maserati that’s racing around the country lanes of Cornwall… and then their Mum basically says “Yeah, that’s fine – get in with that complete stranger, and go for a ride in it.”

Good Lord, yeah. What on Earth was going on there? And then you see the kids in a tent, and their mum and dad nip off down the boozer and just leave them there! Crikey.

I think my favourite film on this set is actually the final film on it: from 1981, it’s called Friend Or Foe, and it has a lovely performance from John Holmes, who went on to play Gonch in Grange Hill. It’s about two Second World War evacuees who befriend the German bomber pilots that have been downed in their local woods. It’s such a thoughtful piece.

This is one of the ones that got shown on TV in the 1980s after the end of the Children’s Film Foundation. It got repeated on TV a couple of times, and we’ve had so many requests for this one, because it really is a very good film. It came right at the end of the CFF’s output, and got a very limited release. All the critics said it was fantastic and it won all sorts of awards, but very few people got a chance to see it. It never got a proper release – the Conservative government of the time had pulled the funding for the CFF, and it looked uncertain whether the film would get finished at all. Other bodies had to step in to help finish it. The CFF carried on for a few more years, but this was one of the very last. And one of the very best.

Is that later period a little underappreciated, then? Possibly because it’s slightly after many people’s peak period of watching these films?

Absolutely. There are a lot that people haven’t seen, but that they’d really love. There’s one called Gabrielle and the Doodleman, with Windsor Davies… all kinds of good films from those last years that I hope will see the light of day one day.

And so much of the appeal of these films comes from the little glimpses into lost eras. Do you find yourself freeze-framing 1960s shop fronts and old cars? 

Absolutely – if you look at one of the extras on these sets, there are these little films cald A Letter from The Isle of Wight, A Letter from Wales… there’s A Letter from Ayreshire. I’m a big comic collector, and you see a kid getting a sixpenny issue of a Roy Rogers comic from 1954, and I had to freeze frame and check which issue it was, and cross reference it. I couldn’t believe it! Seeing a 1950s cowboy comic in mint condition! And then he folded the cover…

Sacrilege! Did you have the same issue yourself?

My dad’s got it, but it’s very tatty. He loves Roy Rogers comics. He’s the last man standing.

And are future Children’s Film Foundation DVD releases in the offing?

I hope so. Assuming that everyone rushes out and buys this one. Tell your friends how great these are, and hopefully we’ll see another set next year…

Thanks to Vic for his time, and a delightful conversation – as ever! The Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box Volume 2 is available here:

https://shop.bfi.org.uk/dvd-blu-ray/children/children-s-film-foundation/children-s-film-foundation-bumper-box-vol-2.html#.Xu3bBGhKiUk

And Volume 1 (featuring Mr Horatio Nibbles) is here…

https://shop.bfi.org.uk/dvd-blu-ray/children/children-s-film-foundation/children-s-film-foundation-bumper-box.html#.Xu3bJ2hKiUk