If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the Children’s Film Foundation. Starting in the 1950s, the British Film Industry came together under the direction of J. Arthur Rank, to produce wholesome kid’s entertainment under the CFF banner, which would provide more innocent fun than what was being imported from Hollywood. They were largely shown at Saturday Morning Pictures and matinees through the 50s, 60s and 70s, but as TV started to take hold and children had other things to do on a Saturday morning, CFF films got ever more marginalised until they eventually stopped producing short movies.
The films were often criticised for being a bit too middle class for their own good, and became disliked by some kids who felt they didn’t reflect their own lives (although I’d imagine their low budgets and lack of wham bang action didn’t help either), although that’s only partially true. All three CFF films included here are actually about working class children, although they undoubtedly live in a sort of idyllic, middle class, clean version of working class life. The movies are all rather charming, although by today’s standards they’re incredibly tame and lacking in incident – hell, Tracy Beaker is grittier than this – but they’re still kinda fun.
The first film is 1958’s The Salvage Gang, where a group of kids need to earn money to replace a broken saw, which eventually leads them to trundle a bed across London. It’s not exactly edge of your seat stuff, but it’s pleasant and oddly entertaining. It’s also interesting for showing views of London in the late 50s, when even though Word War II had ended 13 years before, the capital is still very noticeably bomb damaged. While the rubble has been taken away, London is filled with holes that have since been crowded with new buildings.
Operation Third Form from 1966 is another lightweight but fun concoction, which sees a teen getting into trouble when the headmaster believes he’s stolen the school’s prized bell. It was actually inadvertently taken by a scrap dealer and then hidden away by an oily crook. With the grown-ups convinced of the boy’s guilt, it’s up to the kid and his friends to band together and foil the bad guys. It’s all very ‘Boy’s Own’ stuff and more than a tad silly, but again has a nostalgic charm.
Finally there’s 1976’s Night Ferry, starring Bernard Cribbins as a nefarious fellow called Pyramid, who has a penchant for disguises. He’s planning to smuggle an Ancient Egyptian mummy out of the country, a plan than young Jeff stumbles onto. Along with a couple of his friends, he sets out to stop Pyramid’s plan.
There’s undoubtedly a theme here of kids solving problems without the help of adults, but doing it in an alternate world where you can get into all sorts of adventures but the danger never seems that great. Indeed it’s probably the fact that these films feel so safe that turned a lot of the young audience off, but nowadays it give them an air of innocent charm it’s difficult not to warm to. Each of the films is under an hour long, so they don’t exactly outstay their welcome either.
The only extra is a rare episode of the US TV show Topic, which was made by the British Government to promote Britain to America. It follows two Yanks learning about the Children’s Film Foundation and the Saturday Morning Pictures experience. The programme is undoubtedly on the edge of propaganda (as was Saturday Morning Pictures from this evidence), but it’s fascinating to see, especially if you’ve got parents or grandparents who talk about cinema in the old days.
Overall Verdict: These CFF films may be slightly cheesy, lightweight and lacking in incident, but they’re also charming and unexpectedly entertaining. This release is also an unexpectedly intriguing insight both into the British film industry of the past as well as London over the years.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac