London Tales: CFF on DVD

Wednesday, 01 August 2012 00:00 Written by 

 

London Tales - CFF productions back on DVDThe Children’s Film Foundation was one element of childhood for many youngsters who used to go to Saturday morning cinema special aimed at junior members of the film-going public.  With “London Tales”, the British Film Institute brings a trio of stories from across CFF’s history back into focus.  The tales, “The Salvage Gang”, “Operation Third Form” and “Night Ferry” are the components of a new release now available, featuring the likes of Bernard Cribbins, Wilfrid Brambell and Frazer Hines.

For over 30 years the CFF produced quality entertainment for young audiences, employing the cream of British filmmaking talent. Aside from a quartet of Network DVD releases a decade ago*, these much-loved and fondly-remembered family films can now return to the screen, newly transferred from the best-available elements held in the BFI National Archive. Larger-than-life villains, conmen find themselves really down on their luck, being no match for plucky capital city kids.

CFF was a non-profit making pan-industry initiative, set up in 1951 by the owner of the Odeon and Rank cinema chains to make home-grown entertainment for young cinemagoers to see at the ‘Saturday morning pictures’. One of the Foundation’s major contributions to the British film industry was encouraging directorial and acting talent.

Michael Powell, Lewis Gilbert, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Krish all worked for it and famous film and TV names such as Francesca Annis, Michael Crawford, Susan George, Richard O’Sullivan, Dennis Waterman, Keith Chegwin, Gary Kemp, Leslie Ash, Phil Collins, Sadie Frost and Matthew Wright all started out in CFF films.

Key themes of the films include adventure, mysteries, monsters, science-fiction, ship wrecks, races and animals, with regional content from Scotland to South West England.

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker John Krish (of “I Think They Call Him John” and the 1979 biopic “Jesus” fame), “The Salvage Gang” (1958, 50 minutes) is an affectionate unintentional travelogue of London, featuring performances from a young Frazer Hines (Jamie in Doctor Who, Joe Sugden in Emmerdale) and a cameo by Wilfrid Brambell (Steptoe and Son – although the credits list him as WILFRED Brambell).

The plot sees four pals try to raise enough money to replace a broken saw, damaged in an attempt to build the ultimate rabbit hutch, and their range of moneymaking schemes take them on an unexpected journey the length and breadth of the capital, many parts which are still overcoming the ravages of World War II.

Meanwhile, with a fab 1960s soundtrack very reminiscent of the likes of The Man from UNCLE, “Operation Third Form” (1966, 56 minutes), by CFF veteran David Eady, is a fast-paced boys’ own adventure. A youthful John Moulder-Brown (who had already featured in CFF’s 1964 “Go Kart Go” alongside Dennis Waterman and Frazer Hines, and would go on to star as Mike in the 1970 movie “Deep End” opposite Jane Asher) gives a winning performance as the schoolboy out to foil a pair of North London crooks.

The villains are Skinner (the excellently evil Derren Nesbitt) and Paddy (the well-meaning Sidney Bromley) – and our hero triumphs thanks to the assistance of his crack ‘spy unit’ of classmates and little sister Jill - played by Roberta Tovey, famous from the pair of Dalek movies of the same era.

Finally, “Night Ferry” (1976, 58 minutes) has David Eady at the helm again, and stars Bernard Cribbins (“The Railway Children”, Doctor Who) as ‘Pyramid’, a dastardly master-of-disguise who plans to smuggle an ancient Egyptian mummy out of the country. When young Jeff, played by Graham Fletcher-Cook, discovers the plan, a dangerous chase via South London’s Victoria Station and Clapham Junction ensues. Aubrey Morris and Jeremy Bulloch also get in on the action.

The CFF collection is now preserved in the BFI National Archive. A selection of the films will be screened at BFI Southbank and released on BFI DVD over the next few years. Several films from the collection can already be watched for free in BFI Mediatheques and more will be made available in due course.

Aside from the new High Definition transfers of all the films included, this first release includes an edition of Topic called “Children’s Theatre”, a 14 minute light documentary designed for an American audience from 1959. This was a TV show which in this edition focused on the work of CFF, with interviews with John Krish on the set of “The Salvage Gang”, J Arthur Rank waxing lyrical about the work of the CFF and why he backed it, and the-then CFF director Mary Field who effectively declares that film industry insiders have no idea what sort of films appeal to children.

There’s also an illustrated 16-page DVD-box-sized booklet included, with essays by Andrew Roberts, Vic Pratt and Sonia Genaitay on the history of CFF as well as specifics on the three films included.

CFF became the Children’s Film and Television Foundation (CFTF) in 1982 and film production finally stopped in 1987, as television took kids away from the Saturday morning pictures. CFTF films have won well over forty prizes at major film festivals and the CFTF itself received ‘The Michael Balcon Award’, presented by the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, for outstanding British contribution to Cinema. More recently the Foundation had been involved in script development for both film and TV but this function has now ceased.

CFTF changed again in November 2011, becoming The Children's Media Foundation. This saw CFTF merged with the campaigning group “Save Kid's TV”, and their brief is to act on behalf of the audience as an advocate for a quality range and diversity in the media choices presented to children and young people in the UK.

Back to this inaugural release. These are stories from a by-gone age, but with running times of no more than an hour they never outstay their welcome. They make a strong case for children liking to see believable versions of themselves in movies aimed at them as the audience – something which has, on occasion, been used as a defence of much bigger-budget movies that failed. The 2004 “Thunderbirds” movie comes into focus in this regard, as no doubt a defence for making three kids the stars of that story. 

Unfortunately, the original adventures of the Tracy family had long established that children should be used as no more than plot devices, rather than being integral to the episodes themselves (cf episodes “Cry Wolf”, “Give or Take a Million” and “Security Hazard”). The heroes were who both impressionable boys and girls wanted to grow up to be. As a consequence, despite the excellent effects, the characters which should have been the real stars of this re-imagined “Thunderbirds” were sidelined, leaving three youngsters to carry a story that was far too epic for them.  CFF adventures got it right as budgetary restrictions ensured there was no mismatch between story aspirations and what could have rationally been expected of the child stars.

“London Tales” is out now from the BFI, with a ‘U’ certificate and a RRP of £19.99, or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com

 

* For the record, Network DVD’s releases of CFF material were called “Saturday Morning Pictures”, and featured the following:

Volume 1: “Adventures of Hal 5” and “Egghead’s Robot”

Volume 2: “Cup Fever” and “Hide and Seek”

Volume 3: “Go Kart Go” and “A Hitch in Time”

Volume 4: “Runaway Railway” and “Junket 89”

These were released in 2002 on both DVD and VHS formats, are all long-deleted, and now fetch a princely sum for the DVDs!

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