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Railway Children, The (1970)


Main image of Railway Children, The (1970)
Directed byLionel Jeffries
Production CompanyAssociated British Productions
Produced byRobert Lynn
Screenplay byLionel Jeffries
From the novel byE. Nesbit
CinematographyArthur Ibbetson

Cast: Dinah Sheridan (Mother); Bernard Cribbins (Perks); William Mervyn (Old Gentleman); Iain Cuthbertson (Father); Jenny Agutter (Bobbie); Sally Thomsett (Phyllis); Gary Warren (Peter)

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The comfortable lives of three Edwardian children are shattered when their father is arrested on suspicion of betraying state secrets. The children and their mother are forced to move to a modest cottage in the Yorkshire countryside, where their new lives centre around the local steam railway line.

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This adaptation of E. Nesbit's story is now regarded as its definitive telling, its popular memory greater than that of her novel. It had been adapted for television in 1951, 1957 and 1968, and there are links between the latter serial and this feature film. Both used Yorkshire's Keighley and Worth Valley Preservation Railway and featured Jenny Agutter as Bobbie.

Writer-director Lionel Jeffries keeps the grimier aspects of the family's sudden descent from middle-class prosperity into poverty in the background. Instead the indomitable resourcefulness of the children shines through. The film celebrates childhood warmth and innocence and especially the unconditional love that exists between parents and children - Bobbie's conviction of her jailed father's innocence is the true spirit of the film.

Critic Dilys Powell called this a "deliberately nostalgic film". Despite their newfound poverty the children's innate joy for life is undiminished. Bobbie's birthday - albeit not as grand as she would have expected before - is rendered as a dreamlike moment, achieved visually by having Agutter 'float' (courtesy of a camera dolly). While dwelling nostalgically upon a perfect state of childhood the film also displays a love for Edwardian England. As well as invoking the romance of the steam age, Jeffries dwells upon period props like the toy Zoetrope that opens the film.

This idyllic rendering should not suggest the film lacks emotional impact beyond sentimentality - its famous ending is one of British cinema's most genuinely heart-swelling moments. Still, Jeffries' relatively direct transfer of Nesbit's text fails to rid it of its original weaknesses. Nesbit wrote The Railway Children as a magazine serial and its episodic nature is still all too evident here.

Premiering at Christmas 1970 (fittingly, since the narrative opens at Christmas), the film recouped costs from British takings alone. It later found an afterlife on British television as a perennial 'holiday' film.

Alistair McGown

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Video Clips
1. Birthday party (3:05)
2. Flannel petticoats (4:36)
3. 'Daddy!' (2:11)
Original Posters
Railway Children, The (1968)
Agutter, Jenny (1952-)
Cribbins, Bernard (1928-)
Jeffries, Lionel (1926-2010)
Sheridan, Dinah (1920-)
Children on Film