For anyone who spent their childhood in the UK before the 1990s, films produced by the Children’s Film Foundation were a regular feature on kids’ TV; comprising odd, one-off dramas that, when screened amid the hectic modern cartoons of the late 20th century, not to mention gunge-filled game shows and tweenage soaps like Grange Hill, already felt old-fashioned even before the series came to an end in 1985. Perhaps this was due to the not-for-profit basis of the organisation that made them (and government funding via the Eady Levy), or because the company made films specifically for British children (with an assumption of what that audience would enjoy) without pressure from market forces. That said, nostalgia for the range has brought a tear to the eye of many – particularly the generation who grew up in the 1980s and are obsessed with old TV shows and video games – so the 160 films and two dozen serials that the CFF produced have emerged in dribs and drabs over the last few years on DVD.
To rectify this, the BFI have been releasing new themed collections, with three instalments per disc – not particularly generous, considering the 160 available, but better than their former policy of one 45-minute TV show per disc – and Weird Adventures is the third in the range, collecting three sci-fi/fantasy films from the 1960s and 1970s. The earliest, The Monster of Highgate Ponds, has aged the worst of the three. While footage of 1960s London is charming, especially the rarely filmed canals and docks, and the politeness and received pronunciation of the young actors is refreshing, there simply isn’t enough plot to fill the hour-long running time. One scene, for example, where the children encounter circus workers in a pet shop, who state they’re looking for an unusual animal to join their collection, is reasonably entertaining the first time we see it, and forgivable the second, for inattentive young members of the audience who might have nipped to the loo earlier on, but the third iteration of the same scene just seems like lazy, patronising writing.
Direction by Alberto Cavalcanti (Night Mail, 1936 / Went the Day Well?, 1942) is solid, but not quite exciting or lurid enough for a tale about a dinosaur hatching from an egg and taking up residence in the Highgate swimming ponds. Elsewhere, the realisation of the monster via stop-motion animation when young (by Halas and Batchelor, best known for 1954’s Animal Farm), then as a man in a dinosaur suit when full-sized (and pitched halfway between Godzilla, 1955 and Rentaghost, 1976–1984) is pretty good, but the interminable length makes the film a hard slog for modern audiences.
Luckily, the second film in the collection, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, is far more remarkable, not least as the final collaboration by director Michael Powell and writer/producer Emeric Pressburger. A mixture of educational narrative about the sources of power from the National Grid, plus a children’s adventure movie regarding mice lost in the Tower of London, the eponymous description of the lead character’s change in colour creates a heady mix of caper, surrealism and free-form structure that makes the viewer wish Powell and Pressburger had helmed a few more films for the CFF.
Finally, slapstick sci-fi drama A Hitch in Time is probably most memorable for the appearance of former Doctor Who actor Patrick Troughton, playing another eccentric time-machine pilot. However, a terrific antagonist played by TV stalwart Jeff Rawle steals every scene he’s in as a malevolent teacher, with a dozen similar ancestors that a pair of time-travelling kids encounter through the ages. While the direction is somewhat workmanlike due to long-standing CFF director Jan Darnley-Smith being behind the camera, the witty, episodic script by T.E.B. Clarke, writer of Ealing Comedy classics Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), keeps the action going at a steady clip. Although Troughton is ironically underused as the mad professor, his machine anticipates a similar device in Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) and the historical antics almost seem like a dry run for Time Bandits (1981), which was made only three years after this film.
Like many anthologies, Children’s Film Foundation Volume Three: Weird Adventures is a bit of a mixed bag, but these minor works by great British film directors and writers are certainly worth investigating for cineastes with a curiosity about B-movies aimed at a family audience.