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CFF: An Introduction

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

Main image of CFF: An Introduction

"We have frequently been accused of making middle-class pictures for middle-class children. Sometimes I wish those who complain would see some of our films with their intended audiences." So said Henry Geddes, the Children's Film Foundation's long-serving Executive Officer, in 1976. Those who watched CFF films in the 1950s and early '60s might have levelled this accusation, but those watching in later decades - in cinemas or on television - would more likely recall exciting adventures of everyday kids. In its four decades the CFF did its best to move with the times.

Following J. Arthur Rank's moral fables, the CFF's first Executive Officer, Mary Field, preferred more subtle moral education to dogmatic instruction and relied on "intimacy with good example". She moved from 'goody-goody' characters to "ordinary children and adults behaving well, but not too well". The films allowed a little room for bad behaviour and moral ambiguity that could be shown to be wrong.

1950s output dealt in "clean, healthy, intelligent adventure" and was summed up as follows: "(it) concentrates on popular appeal; it does not however, play for sensationalism or unhealthy excitement or vulgarity." Factual magazines and slapstick shorts were soon outnumbered by serials and (hour long) features. Films like The Stolen Plans (d. James Hill, 1953) and The Dog and the Diamonds (d. Ralph Thomas, 1953) were simple stories of resourceful children who stumbled across escaped convicts, bank robbers on the run, spies, smugglers and jewel thieves and drew on all their pluck to overcome them. Films owed much to Enid Blyton's adventure books; there was even an early serial adaptation of the Famous Five story Five on a Treasure Island (d. Gerald Landau, 1957).

Some provincial audiences disliked the 'posh' accents of the child leads in 1950s CFF films. Most young actors at that time had been trained in clear diction for the stage and gave less than naturalistic performances. Field believed in promoting Received Pronunciation ('RP') and did not think provincial audiences would understand regional accents. Television, ITV in particular, would soon change that.

A 1964 market survey charted changing tastes and heavily influenced subsequent features. It reaffirmed basic principles ("Children are bored by slowness, lack of action, excessive dialogue, too many characters and a too psychological slant. The film must be simple, clear (and) stimulate by action, surprise, suspense...") and suggested simplistic 'cops and robbers' stories were losing their appeal.

Crucially it found children "have a strong instinct for fair play and a pronounced sympathy for the underdog". The template for the 'underdog' film was perhaps Soapbox Derby (d. Darcy Conyers, 1958). Starring a young Michael Crawford, it showed a gang of enthusiastic kids competing in a cart race, despite the attentions of a rival gang of mean-spirited saboteurs. The story of cheats who never prosper was replayed in dozens of CFF classics from Go Kart Go (d. Jan Darnley-Smith, 1963) to Headline Hunters (d. Jonathan Ingrams, 1968).

Films were resolved by actions not words: usually a big, noisy event such as a race. CFF villains were dispatched via slapstick - the swindling garage owner of The Adventures of HAL 5 (d. Don Sharp, 1958) is dunked in a muddy pond - and comedic treatments became more pronounced after the 1964 survey showed it was the most popular genre, liked by 27% of boys and 37% of girls. Importantly, it was thought to "call forth a response which produces no anxiety" while fulfilling another CFF aim of "avoiding shock, brutal violence, or stimulation of morbid excitement or attitudes."

The 1960s brought a broader range of child heroes, but Junket 89 (d. Peter Plummer, 1970) was the first to use kids from the Anna Scher drama school in Islington; Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson were among the snotty-nosed, scruffy urchins. Such actors were probably an accurate reflection of the raucous, enthusiastic tykes sitting in the stalls. Director Harley Cokliss recalled a screening of one of his films: "I have never known such a rowdy audience.... I thought 'What a dire disaster', but everyone told me it was a marvellous reception." CFF screenings came to resemble celluloid pantomime, and directors tailored films accordingly, filling them with action to which children could react. Watching CFF films in isolation today, it's key to consider that a vital part of the intended viewing experience has been removed.

Boisterous, good-natured gang antics are what CFF is remembered for, whether dressed up as science-fiction or period drama. The 1970s brought a touch of emotional subtext to some output, however. Hide and Seek (d. David Eady, 1972) centred around a bank raid, but focused on a boy who had run away from an approved school to seek his father - the villain masterminding the raid. Tense disaster picture One Hour To Zero (d. Jeremy Summers, 1976) used action to frame the story of a borderline delinquent boy ignored by his busy father. The anti-pollution theme of The Battle of Billy's Pond (d. Harley Cokliss, 1976) demonstrated a social awareness.

The 1980s move to television ended any need to 'play to the gallery', and more time was spent on dialogue and character development in films like Friend or Foe (d. John Krish, 1982), about a Nazi pilot crashed in WWII England. One of the CFTF's final films, Terry on the Fence (d. Frank Godwin, 1985) delved deep into the pitfalls of delinquent theft and peer pressure - its updated demonstration of "intimacy with good example" nonetheless showing not so much had changed in thirty-odd years.

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Battle of Billy's Pond, The (1976)Battle of Billy's Pond, The (1976)

Serious-minded children's drama about industrial pollution

Thumbnail image of Boy Who Turned Yellow, The (1972)Boy Who Turned Yellow, The (1972)

Whimsical children's film that marked Powell and Pressburger's swan song

Thumbnail image of Cup Fever (1965)Cup Fever (1965)

A boys' football team triumphs over adversity

Thumbnail image of Glitterball, The (1977)Glitterball, The (1977)

Fun children's sci-fi involving a visitor from the planet Stargon

Thumbnail image of Go Kart Go (1963)Go Kart Go (1963)

Children's comedy-thriller about rival go-kart gangs

Thumbnail image of Hitch in Time, A (1978)Hitch in Time, A (1978)

Children's drama about an eccentric professor's time machine

Thumbnail image of Hunted in Holland (1960)Hunted in Holland (1960)

An English schoolboy stumbles on a diamond smuggling gang in Holland

Thumbnail image of Last Rhino, The (1961)Last Rhino, The (1961)

Safari adventure in which two children save a rhino from hunters

Thumbnail image of Runaway Railway (1965)Runaway Railway (1965)

Four bold kids foil a pair of crooks and save a threatened railway

Thumbnail image of Sammy's Super T-Shirt (1978)Sammy's Super T-Shirt (1978)

Popular children's film in which a young boy's t-shirt gives him superpowers

Thumbnail image of Terry on the Fence (1985)Terry on the Fence (1985)

Unusually gritty late CFF film about a young boy lured into crime

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Children on FilmChildren on Film

The adult world through a child's eyes

Thumbnail image of Children's TelevisionChildren's Television

Broadcasting for children of all ages

Related People and Organisations

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

Producer, Director, Consultant

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

Production Company, Sponsor, Distributor