Half Fare

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN screened at Filmhouse as a friend’s birthday treat — thanks to David Watson for laying it on.

The film is a very familiar TV treat in the UK, but as far as I could remember I’d never actually seen the whole thing. I knew who was in it, knew there was a landslide with flannel petticoats, and a father coming back at a railway station. As it unfolded I had no idea what was going to happen yet. I’d somehow avoided seeing it, despite being a huge fan of Edith Nesbit, author, and Jenny Agutter, star.

The film is the real triumph of Bryan Forbes’ spell running EMI — a rare case of a filmmaker being in charge of a film production outlet. And I could see him being sympathetic to Lionel Jeffries, a fellow actor, coming to him with his dream project.

What with the low budget and Jeffries’ inexperience as screenwriter and director, the film often has an endearingly amateur quality. Night scenes are overlit, crew shadows glimpsed, and any time an extra is heard muttering, it’s with the distinctive timbre of the film’s director (a nice Wellesian flaw to have). Jeffries’ visual approach varies between nice ideas he sometimes pulls off, and simply struggling to get an acceptable shot in a cramped location (I’ve been there, Lionel). I think his editor is letting him down quite a bit, so when he makes a mistake it isn’t tackled, and when he gets something good going, not enough is made of it.

But the film thrives on its charm. Most of Nesbit’s children’s books have a fairly episodic, stop-start pace, and this is no exception, but the mystery/drama of the father’s absence gives it a nice suspense motor to keep it going, and the “kids” are great. Master Gary Warren, a small-statured 16, is very natural as Peter. Miss Sally Thomsett, 20, is toothsome and surprisingly convincing as the much younger Phyllis, “who means well,” though she does bounce around rather a lot when she runs. And Miss Jenny Agutter, that axiom of cinema, in a rare non-nude role brings just the right dreaminess to Bobbie, who seems imbued with a kind of telepathy, the only real magic in a story which keeps hinting at fairy tales bleeding through into reality.

The men, led by the divine Cribbins, are all cast from the Funny Uncle school of Performing Arts, of which Lionel Jeffries was himself honorary chairman. I guess with this and, ahem, FRENZY, Cribbins’ film career was on the up, just as the British film industry disintegrated.

Of Jeffries’ later works, THE WATER BABIES and WOMBLING FREE are disappointments, I fear. THE AMAZING MR. BLUNDEN is rather nice, and I’ve yet to see the intriguing BAXTER!

One reason THE RAILWAY CHILDREN works as well as it does may be that Jeffries lacked the confidence to mess about too much with the book, so it survives intact with all its episodic looseness and queer touches of mysticism, which might have been smoothed out to its detriment by a more ambitious filmmaker soaked in the professional ways of doing things. And also, I feel the film’s Edwardian sentimentality and melancholy is completely genuine, and part of its maker’s personality. I saw Jeffries interviewed on telly once, and he pointed at a very nice self-portrait he’d painted, and said that his tiny grandchild had looked at it and said, “That’s grandpa. He’s a broken man.” And Jeffries, choking up a touch, in his gruff, bluff Edwardian way, said that this was an example of the extraordinary acuity of children. And I remember thinking, wow.

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8 Responses to “Half Fare”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    THE WATER BABIES was one of those odd films that was always on basic cable over here; don’t know if it got a theatrical release. I remember it as being mostly a generic animated film, mixing some mock old-fashioned designs with a lot of pure Saturday Morning stuff (there’s a swordfish who’s a French musketeer, because he’s got a sword, see?). Did Jeffries have much to do with that part? The live action frame, which I assume was all his, had its own oddness: James Mason too formidable and intelligent to be a bush league Bill Sykes; a mother figure turning up somewhat portentously in various guises; and the feel of a short story with a whopping long and unrelated cartoon in the middle.

  2. Yes, that’s all accurate. I think the cartoon looks unpleasant, the faux-period elements mixing badly with the inescapable seventies-ness of it. You need Richard Williams to pull that off.

    Jeffries is credited as sole director, which is a bit rich as he wasn’t an animator and somebody must have been making a lot of visual decisions he wasn’t qualified for, but I presume he had a supervisory function on the whole thing. Which would account for the live action being a bit better.

  3. James S Says:

    According to Agutter, Lionel Jeffries became a full Edwardian gent on the set of Railway Children, giving actors (of all ages) a shiny shilling if they did a good take.

    How many other directors have done this?-Resemble the film they were making? I know Peter Bogdanovich tried to resemble Allan Dwan on the set of Nickelodeon, but looked slightly ridiculous trying to direct from a horse.

    I didn’t like Railway Children as a kid, not enough magic or monsters or killings, but like the 1993 Secret Garden, I’ve come to love it in my stunted adulthood. It has almost has a home-movie charm about it.

    The only other Jeffries Joint I’ve seen is The Abominable Mr Blunden, which is also quite lovely. I gather his other ones are not as good, so if I don’t watch them Jeffries will always be 2 for 2.

    I was rather impressed to find out that LJ’s last onscreen performance was in the deeply perverse Canadian/German sci-fi series “Lexx” (as seen on Channel 5) I should really track that down.

  4. Wow… I feel like I remember Jeffries being on Lexx, but I also feel like I dreamed it.

    I guess Von Trier directing The Idiots without any pants on is a comparable example of method directing, but I’d rather have a shiny shilling.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Lionel Jeffries popped up as a henchman in “Royal Flash”, saying little or nothing while wearing a strange three-fingered thing over one hand. Busman’s holiday or remains of a subplot?

    He also turns up as semi-villain in league with full villain Terry-Thomas in AIP’s “Those Fantastic Flying Fools”, which was to “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” exactly what AIP’s “Master of the World” was to “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. Both the AIP films, despite being obvious imitations of specific hits, are maddening in that they show ample potential for being pretty darn good instead of mockably camp (MOTW) and stuck in second gear (TFFF).

  6. AIP could do terrific work when they left someone like Corman alone, but they also employed Louis “Deke” Hayward, who liked to get “creatively involved.” His ideas were generally toxic to any filmic undertaking.

    The henchmen have the same roles in the book of Royal Flash. Just because the character doesn’t speak would be no reason for Lester not to cast a good comic. The main thing that hit the cutting room floor was a flashback of Flash at Rugby, featuring Roy Kinnear.

  7. bensondonald Says:

    Was there ever talk of another Flashman film? My Dad, a huge fan of the books, approved of “Royal Flash” and only faulted a few omissions.

    Malcolm McDowell’s commentary on the DVD is entertaining. His favorite memories involve buddy Alan Bates; he greatly enjoyed Oliver Reed as an actor but slightly less as a human being.

  8. Lester had prepared a super-epic roadshow production of the first Flashman in 1969, to star John Alderton (!) but MGM pulled the plug on it. The script is excellent (Charles Wood). Royal Flash evidently didn’t do well enough to merit sequels.

    Nobody has ever suggested perfect casting for the role. Lester says that McDowell could be funny and do cowardice well, but it wasn’t a surprise. Ideally you’d have somebody with enough Errol Flynn in his appearance to give you that surprise. “I don’t know who I could cast NOW.” I think O’Toole might have been good in ’69.

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