Archive for Jenny Agustter

Half Fare

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by dcairns

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.