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Children's Film Foundation (1951-87)

Production Company, Sponsor, Distributor

Main image of Children's Film Foundation (1951-87)

Between 1951 and 1982 this unique institution made films exclusively for those attending the hundreds of Saturday morning children's matinees hosted in Britain's cinemas each week.

Now a long forgotten tradition, the first matinee was held in 1927. They became community events with singing and lectures on topics like road safety besides the film screenings. All kinds of back catalogue films were shown; Disney cartoons, Westerns, gangster movies and American cliffhanger serials like Tarzan and Flash Gordon.

The influential head of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation (owner of Odeon and Gaumont cinema chains) wanted British-made product within matinee programmes and had Rank's Gaumont-British Instructional division make Tom's Ride (d. Darrell Catling, 1944). Rank wanted these films to provide useful moral lessons; Tom's Ride warned against theft. The unit continued making such films for Rank cinemas as the Children's Film Department and, from 1947, as CEF - Children's Entertainment Films.

The 1950 Wheare report, a study of Saturday morning cinemagoing, commended how the matinees were run but deplored many unsuitable, violent and frightening films shown and called for more films of the kind made by CEF. Unfortunately, within months the CEF had closed.

Rank alone had been unable to carry the CEF's financial burden, so the British film industry's producers, exhibitors and technical unions agreed to a unique collaboration. In 1951, the Children's Film Foundation was created to provide films for not just Rank cinemas but all of Britain's picture houses. Mary Field, CFD head since 1944, was made the CFF's first Chief Executive. Its first feature was The Stolen Plans (d. James Hill, 1953).

Production was funded by a voluntary levy taken from all cinema ticket prices, called the British Film Production Fund (known as the Eady levy and made compulsory in 1957). The CFF received around 5 per cent of this levy, granted £60,000 in its first year, £100,000 the next and £125,000 annually until 1957. Goodwill discounts were received in kind from studios and processing labs and some forms of union restriction were waived.

The films were made for set fees by independent producers, who then signed over their rights to the CFF on completion. As a non-profit making concern, the CFF sold prints to exhibitors for a minimal handling fee and demanded entrance fees stayed fixed at sixpence (they remained at sixpence until decimalisation in 1971). Just sixteen prints of each film were distributed to the chain groups on a rota system. There were 33 CFF features, nine serials, 23 shorts and 16 magazines available by the end of the 1950s, but even so, compared with American serials, CFF films were not that widely seen. Still, by 1955, 1400 out of 1915 matinee cinemas (with a million attendees nationwide) showed some CFF product. This was the highpoint of matinees - by the end of 1957 there were 1655, with many cinemas closing as general cinemagoing declined.

The 1960s was a new era in many ways. Mary Field left to become director of children's television at ATV in 1959, Rank's Chairman, John Davis, taking over the post. Henry Geddes, experienced producer of films for the CFF, became head in 1964 (remaining so until its closure in the 1980s). Geddes' arrival coincided with an extensive market research survey of matinee audiences, and its findings helped rejuvenate output. While there had been occasional colour films since 1961, an all-colour policy began in 1967.

A growing back catalogue meant CFF output began to dominate matinee programming. Funding was also high - by the end of the 1960s the CFF had spent a total of £3m on productions. 1969 was the 25th anniversary of children's cinema and a welcome opportunity for publicity. Otherwise the trade press ignored the CFF, whose non-commercial status also meant that, for example, no posters were issued for their films. Matinee attendances declined further, and by 1969 350,000 children were attending weekly, the number of matinees falling to 750.

The death of J. Arthur Rank in 1972 shifted the focus for the next decade - the Rank group became less active in CFF affairs and indeed it was the ABC group, and their 'ABC Minors', that instigated the Chiffy awards, handed out annually to the most popular CFF films.

Television began to compete - from 1969 ITV experimented with children's TV at midday Saturday, the BBC quickly following suit. TISWAS (ITV, 1974-82) soon occupied Midland Saturday morning TV and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (BBC, 1976-82) aired nationwide from October 1976. Conversely, the CFF used TV film quiz Screen Test (BBC, 1970-84) to boost its profile, supplying preview clips each week. Saturday matinees were no longer a prerequisite part of childhood, instead playing to select audiences - by the end of 1974 there were just over 500 matinees left; by 1978 it was 300.

Accordingly, funding was cut, with the BFFA awarding only half the £660,000 requested for 1979-80. BAFTA awarded the CFF an Outstanding Contribution award in 1980, but this proved to be a last hurrah. ABC/EMI cinemas pulled out of matinees shortly afterwards, founders Rank/Odeon the next year. The CFF was forced to break a founding principle and enter into partnership with the television industry. Restructured as the Children's Film and Television Foundation in 1982, its films were sold to some regional ITV stations, like Thames, and a major deal struck with the BBC, which showed 26 features and one serial between 1984 and 1989. These included premieres of new films like Pop Pirates (d. Jack Grossman, 1984), while real Chiffy Kids visiting their local cinemas got creaky old black and white films - many recent colour titles had been withdrawn for TV. Rental video releases via Rank brought much needed income.

The Eady levy was abolished in 1985, spelling the end for the CFTF, and in 1987 it was wound up as a filmmaking concern. The CFTF continues as an advisory body helping develop TV and film production for children, playing an important part in successes like Danny the Champion of the World (d. Gavin Millar, 1989).

Alistair McGown


CFF, Report on the work done by the CFF 1951-61 (1961)
CFF, Saturday Morning Cinema (1967, 1969 editions)
Clapperboard (TV programme), (Granada TV for ITV tx. 17/3/1980)
Films and Filming (May 1976)
Terry Staples, All Pals Together: the story of children's cinema (1997)

Selected credits

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of CFF: An IntroductionCFF: An Introduction

Clean, healthy, intelligent adventure: the Children's Film Foundation

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Thumbnail image of Field, Mary (1896-1968)Field, Mary (1896-1968)

Producer, Director, Consultant

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