There can’t be many classic British family movies which feature Russian anti-tsarist writers exiled in Yorkshire. The Railway Children from 1970 is now re-released, as a curtain-raiser to a forthcoming sequel, The Railway Children Return, which will be set 40 years on and features Jenny Agutter playing a grownup version of her original character.
The original is robustly and adroitly directed by Lionel Jeffries, who also adapted the Edith Nesbit novel and it continues to exert its grip on our collective teatime imagination, due to its unworldly sweetness and gentleness and its forthright sense of decency – especially, può essere, that final scene where the children’s wrongly imprisoned father emerges from the steam on the railway platform, a moment as dramatic and mysterious as Omar Sharif galloping through the heat-haze in Lawrence of Arabia, to Jenny Agutter’s breathy delight: “Oh my daddy!"
Iain Cuthbertson is Charles Waterbury, the good-natured civil servant and genial paterfamilias who lives in upper-middle-class contentment in the London suburbs with his wife (Dinah Sheridan) and three children: Bobbie, played by Jenny Agutter, younger sister Phyllis, pertly played by the 20-year-old Sally Thomsett – the most glorious juve lead in British cinema history – and kid brother Peter, played by Gary Warren. When Charles is wrongly arrested and imprisoned for selling state secrets, the children and their mother have to move to a modest Yorkshire cottage where the mother apparently supports them by selling stories to London magazines – when one gets published they can have buns for tea. Freelance writers got paid quickly in those days.
Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter love to hang out at the station with their new best pal, the station master Mr Perks: a lovely performance from Bernard Cribbins. They also adore waving to the passengers from the hillside as the train chuffs by (there’s a lot of waving in this film) noticing in particular a kindly soul who indulgently waves back, played by William Mervyn, whom they fondly nickname the “Old Gentleman”. But when they see a landslide bringing branches and old sleepers crashing down on to the track one day, with no time to warn Mr Perks, the three brave and resourceful young people charge out on to the line to stop the oncoming train, waving Phyllis and Bobbie’s red petticoats as warning flags. And that’s only one of their adventures, which include that fugitive Russian.
Perhaps the movie’s conception of “poverty” looks a bit quaint in 2022, and child actors don’t perform like this now – because, senza dubbio, they aren’t actually children. But unlike Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (where Jeffries made his own mark as an actor), the children are strongly defined characters and never upstaged by the grownups; it all only adds to this film’s charm. I love Agutter’s marvellous sailor suits in midnight blue and dazzling white, Thomsett’s woolly hat and Warren’s impeccable three-piece tailoring in which he walks around like an Edwardian gent in miniature. The railways themselves were an exotic, romantic adventure in 1906, somehow mythic and futurist at the same time.