Saturday, 3 May 2014


For over thirty years the Children’s Film Foundation sought to entertain successive generations of young viewers, originally with the intent of providing a healthy antidote to the unregulated fare often found spilling out of the numerous children’s Saturday morning film clubs run unofficially at the weekend, during the immediate postwar period, by local cinema managers. Although these matinee youth screenings were considered an essential ingredient of childhood through most of the 1940s, growing concerns about juvenile delinquency meant that they also began to be viewed in the popular imagination as a potential source for the bad influences that were sometimes believed to be exercising an increasingly pernicious hold on younger minds, what with their heavy reliance on an unstructured diet of ‘violent’ American-produced action serials and cartoons. It was with these thoughts in mind that J. Arthur Rank established the Foundation with grant money from the cinema ticket tax known as the Eady Levy, channelled through the British Film Production Fund, to set in motion his alternative system which, from now on, aimed to fill British cinema screens with more ‘appropriate’ home-grown kinds of entertainment on a Saturday morning.

 But as the CFF’s modest programme of low cost, independently produced, quality adventure yarns began to hit its stride over the course of the 1950s and ‘60s (providing a popular platform for the talents of a healthy roster of both previously established and the up-and-coming writers, directors, film technicians and actors then making their way in the British Film Industry), just what it was that society truly deemed suitable, or morally instructive, material for children inevitably began to change with the times -- ever more so as the decades passed, and just as assuredly as did the conventions in acting styles, along with films' approach to realism in general. The CFF always maintained its commitment to supplying clear-cut family drama that, above all else,  put comedy and adventure and a morally centred (though non-preachy) approach to its young protagonists’ relationships with the adult world at centre stage: while authority figures could often be portrayed as incompetent or villainous, and dishonesty and trickery was an everyday fact of adult life, the character, integrity and resourcefulness of the resilient children placed at the core of the narratives always affirmed them as being more than a match for any wrong-doing, and, in the early days of the Foundation at least, the reassuring, hierarchical order of what was still viewed as a fundamentally decent adult world, could always be relied upon to prevail in the end.
The BFI has released four previous volumes of CFF films over the last few years, grouped and themed to showcase the Rank ethos in action across a wide range of popular genres. Each of these single disc three-film collections document the changes that can be discerned in the CFF’s approach to particular types of story material across a span of four decades, and reveal how an essentially unchanging philosophy has been realised with a varying emphasis down the years, to fit the mores of the times that the films were being produced to cater for. This fifth volume, which deals directly with children who find themselves relegated to the fringes of society, and which therefore contains a set of films which all, in one way or another, depict children having to deal with a morally ambiguous world, offers perhaps the most jarring side-by-side contrasts yet in its charting of three the CFF’s representations of the problematic figure of the child runaway -- offering a startling picture of the genre’s evolution that starts with Lewis Gilbert’s charming 1950s evocation of an idyllic multi-cultural community of orphaned children living in the Scottish Highlands, who offer a young Polish refugee respite from the harshness of urban racism; and finishing with the greyer, socially bleak urban landscape highlighted by writer-director Frank Godwin’s final film in the collection (which was one of the very last Foundation productions ever made), shot in the mid-1980s when youth gangs, record unemployment and street crime were seen as an inescapable fact of life -- and when the romanticism of former decades is disconcertingly thin on the ground.

Johnny on the Run (1953), the first and earliest film to feature in this set of three, is a Dickens-styled tale of childhood neglect and want that takes place in early 1950s Edinburgh. Eugeniusz Chylek plays the film’s orphaned hero Janek -- a Polish migrant, fostered by the unsympathetic Mrs MacGregor (Mona Washburn): a middle-aged mother played as a berating landlady figure, with two infant mouths of her own to feed plus that of a baby, and no father about, either seen or mentioned. Both Mrs MacGregor and her son Kenneth (Keith Faulkner) make no bones about the fact that they resent Jan’s presence and practically scapegoat him for their deprived circumstances, despite the fact he’s helping to feed the family just by being in the house at all, because the council pays Mrs MacGregor a stipend to foster him. He’s racially bullied by both, as well as the other kids out on the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, who jeer and pester him whenever he’s sent on shopping errands while his foster siblings are out enjoying the school holidays (‘If you want to live here you’ve got to work you know; they don’t pay me enough to have you sitting about all day!’). Only Janet (Margaret McCourt), his little foster sister, ever shows him any sort of consideration or kindness, and she’s never listened to by anybody ...

In fraying tweed jacket and short pants, Jan cuts a suitably tear-provoking and desultory figure, with child actor Chylek (who doesn’t seem to have appeared in anything else but this one film) proving particularly efficient in the business of eliciting audience sympathy as this lonely outsider who keeps his spirits up by fantasising about one day going back home to Poland; a dream that is encapsulated in a leaflet he picks up in a general store while he’s out shopping for Mrs MacGregor,  advertising a £17 trip (£500 in today’s money) from Dundee to Danzig. The thoroughfares and narrow downward sloping alleyways and stone arches of the Old Town quarter of Edinburgh are exploited for all their worth to cast poor Jan as a tiny, isolated figure cast adrift in a hostile though picturesque cityscape, shot in gorgeously inky monochrome by Gerald Gibb (Whisky Galore!, Quatermass 2).The language of Hitchcock’s British thrillers provides the film’s narrative template after the boy feels forced into going on the run out of shame and guilt for inadvertently endangering the life of the MacGregor baby, after he lets go of its pram during a fight with some street bullies only to see the carriage careen down the hilly cobbled streets and almost clatter over the edge of the famous Vennel steps leading from the top of Edinburgh Castle, in a sequence culled from Eisenstein’s famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.
The moment after the baby is saved just as disaster seemed to beckon, and the entire street -- children and adults alike – gather to surround Janek, turning their accusatory looks on him as the initially tiny figure of a police officer in the distance strolls closer and closer, cutting off the boy’s only avenue of escape, is pure Hitchcock suspense-building in theme and character and the innocent-man-on-the-run motif extends as far as having the boy later attempt to find refuge in the midst of the idyllic splendour of the Scottish Highlands, after falling in with a pair of trilby-tipping housebreakers (who are portrayed as traditional comedy cockney figures despite this being set in Edinburgh). He even stays for a night with a gruff crofter (Archie Duncan) in his secluded cottage on the moors (John Laurie, who played a similar crofter role in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, also turns up later here as an Edinburgh Police Constable). Before this, Jan is further mired in guilt after being tricked into assisting the two thieves – ‘Flash Harry’ Fisher (The Lavender Hill Mob’s Sydney Tafler) and ‘Fingers’ Brown (Michael Balfour) -- steal an expensive jewelled broach from the wall safe of a house in a well-to-do neighbourhood, when they persuade him to crawl through the open fanlight above the front door by telling him they've lost their keys, and are merely seeking entry to their own property. The broach is subsequently hidden by Harry in a torn seam of Jan’s jacket after the coppers give chase, and is still there when the boy gives him the slip later on, only to wind up alone in the Highlands, dwarfed by a striking landscape of idyllic rolling hills and mossy banks of waving ferns under expansive skies.

The film thereafter takes on an attractive idealistic flavour, with Jan’s bucolically picaresque wanderings amid the rural heartlands of Scotland eventually brought to an unexpected finish while camping outdoors in the atmospheric ruins of a crumbling, vine-covered castle. He is discovered there by a group of children frolicking in the ferns, who turn out to be from a nearby village on the edge of a loch; a village that’s been built especially for providing a home, deep in a ravine between two towering hills, for orphaned children, who come from all over the world having been rendered parent-less during the recent war. They immediately enthusiastically accept Jan – or Johnny -- as one of their own, and take him back to live as an equal among their family of displaced outsiders. This idealistically presented children’s utopia turns out to be modelled on a traditional British village -- with quaint thatched cottages, a village church, a lakeside boating jetty that flies the flag of each of the nationalities the village harbours, and a community school; but it is benignly supervised by one kindly Scottish couple, Mr and Mrs MacIntyre (Moultrie Kelsall and Jean Anderson): a gentle, pipe-smoking professorial type and a loving, motherly, cardigan-wrapped schoolmarm, both of whom are utterly loved and respected by their multiracial gaggle of dispossessed charges (this is one of that tiny number of British films from the 1950s that features black faces prominently amid its heart-warmingly impish child cast).

The MacIntyres designate control of the running of village affairs to a Children’s Parliament that regularly elects a new village treasurer to supervise the gathering of the proceeds made by the community when it sells its home-grown vegetables in the nearby villages, with the ultimate aim of one day collecting enough cash to build a proper village hall. From this point, the film becomes all about Jan attempting to deal with the idea of being loved and accepted after years of neglect and dismissal; and about his learning to understand the growing sense of responsibility for others that is now being kindled within him, and that comes with being made such an integral part of a supportive community rather than relegated to the fringes of society as a despised minority. The village children, perhaps naively, happily show Janek their home-built wooden safe and entrust him with its key soon after electing him their new treasurer -- unaware that the boy is desperate to find the cash to fulfil his dream of escaping back to his homeland, and that giving him such responsibilities also supplies him with an enormous temptation to become the criminal he feels the rest of the world now believes he intrinsically is. It’s one of the film’s peculiar ironies that Janek never comes closer to losing his moral bearings than when he is surrounded by such sympathetic and nurturing presences as his refugee friends, and while subject to the trusting solicitude of Mrs MacIntyre.

The other village children are portrayed as utterly charming, unaffectedly guileless young tykes; excitable boys and cutesy girls each one without a bad bone between them … in stark contrast to the bullying racism demonstrated by the street kids Jan regularly had to deal with on the chilly city streets of Edinburgh. It might perhaps be rather too easy to mock the idealised portrayal of this not entirely believable community from a modern perspective, but Patricia Latham’s screenplay is so persuasively delivered by the young cast that one is prepared to go along with its idealised portrait of a childhood lived in this state or rural grace, untainted by poverty or human greed, long enough to see the final reel drama play out satisfactorily after Jan’s new friends rally round to support him during a cross-country paper chase that reaches its peak of excitement just as Jan’s foster mum comes back to claim him after being informed of his whereabouts by the Edinburgh constabulary, and the thieving duo Harry and Fingers turn up in the village after seeing Jan’s picture in the paper -- and still looking for the hidden broach the boy unknowingly continues to carry about his person. 
With its beautifully photographed images of Edinburgh’s Old Town and some utterly beguiling landscape shots of the main Highland settings which were filmed around Loch Earn, this is perhaps one of the CFF’s classiest looking titles, bolstered by fine art direction from Hammer’s Bernard Robertson and a lyrical orchestral score by Anthony Hopkins. It’s a far cry from director Lewis Gilbert’s previous outing, the notorious British film noir thriller Cosh Boy--  about a delinquent youth robbing old ladies in the bombed out ruins of postwar London – but its comforting mixture of comedy (courtesy of the bumbling adult thieves) and some tightly paced chase thriller dynamics that eventually open out into an engaging slice of human interest drama, succinctly anticipate the high points of Gilbert’s illustrious career in the British film industry which spanned both the action and glamour of James Bond thrillers You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me and the down-to-earth working class humour of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.    

While Johnny on the Run assumes the perspective of a protagonist whose situation would likely have been unfamiliar to the vast majority of the film’s viewers, in order to eventually allow them to better appreciate his humanity by illustrating his underlying similarity to them, both of the remaining films in this volume start by establishing the point of view of one central child character who comes from a stable, conventional lower middle class background, with the intention of making him an instantly relatable identification figure for most viewing children whose circumstances are assumed to mimic the same world of stay-at-home-housewives/mothers and working dads with two children, that it presents as the cultural norm. Each of the two films, in widely differing ways, then works up its narrative from the introduction of this ordinary protagonist to a secondary character who represents a set of social conditions and family circumstances that are a great deal less  salubrious than their own.
In the colourful 1972 film Hide and Seek the tone is still generally a light one, at least to start with, with the usual CFF emphasis on comedy, clowning and intrigue. Gary Kemp (the twelve-year-old child star who would one day co-found New Romantic combo Spandau Ballet), plays Chris -- the film’s ‘good boy from a nice home’ identification figure: a well brought up, agreeably romanticised version of an ordinary kid, who has a father who works as a policeman and a mother who runs a corner shop in his stomping ground of Deptford, South-east London (curiously under-populated and tidy in the film’s numerous on-location street scenes). He’s resourceful, active and moral in that he, along with his younger sister Beverley (Eileen Fletcher), uncomplainingly devote a large part of their free time to making house calls on and delivering shopping for a crotchety old man called Mr Grimes (Roy Dotrice,) whose exact relationship to them is never established since he’s not an immediate neighbour.

Because of this commitment, though, Chris and Beverley are well aware of the existence of those less fortunate than themselves. And when the circumstances of those unfortunates are given a socially sanctioned outlet, such as the poverty-stricken, housebound elderly represented by the likes of Mr Grimes (Dotrice gives a Steptoe-ish, comic ‘old fogey’ performance as the crotchety gent, but his shabby, stained clothing makes clear the character’s reduced means), they are more than willing to help out and, indeed, appear to see it as their duty to do so. But when it comes to youth delinquency, though, the matter seems potentially more complicated. What are they to make, for instance, of the petty crime wave currently sweeping across their home turf: a cheeky small boy -- dubbed The Deptford Dodger by the local paper -- has been spied stealing food and drink from general stores and small market holders, and even Chris and Beverley’s mum has had bars of chocolate go missing from her corner shop during this audacious reign of thievery. Beverley speculates that this ‘Dodger’ must be hungry to be doing what he’s been doing, but having a policeman for a dad makes both her and her brother less immediately inclined to sympathise with the selfish motives behind such crimes.
This ‘Dodger’ turns out to be hiding out in a derelict flat on the ground-floor of the same building that houses Mr Grimes, which is where Chris encounters the boy after he attempts to steal a loaf of crusty bread intended for the old man from the back of Chris’s bike. It turns out that the boy, Keith Lawson (Peter Newby), has run away from an approved school: a special type of residential reform institution for children who have committed crimes or previously been deemed beyond parental control. They were renamed Community Homes by the early 70s, around the time this film was released. Keith has hitched his way to London in the hope of finding his Dad after learning in a letter that his father is about to remarry and intends to move away for good afterwards. Since Keith’s mum is dead and he hasn't seen his father since he was a small lad, he can only remember vague details about the house he grew up in (‘everything’s changed,’ he says of the Deptford location; ‘they’re pulling it all down!’), so Chris eventually agrees to help him find his dad so that the two of them can be reunited. He smuggles food to the boy from the family table, while Keith stays put in the derelict squat, since the Police are by now on to who the Dodger actually is.

The friendship is a refreshingly spiky one (‘burn yerself a halo,’ comments Keith after Chris tells him to lie low while he scouts out a potential location that might turn out to be his previous address; ‘but don’t expect any thanks from me!’), but each child, with their respective long hair and outgoing personalities, are mirror images of the other -- affording each a glimpse of the alternative life they could have been living under different circumstances. Chris’s investigations lead to the discovery that Keith’s dad is in fact a career criminal, leading a gang who are plotting a heist using as their cover work at a construction site across the road from a major bank. Posing as the owner of a building firm, Lawson (Terence Morgan) and his men are digging a tunnel that leads from the construction site straight up to the bank’s vault. They have a fake police van to be driven by two accomplices (Alan Lake and Robin Askwith) on hand to ferry the money away afterwards without suspicion! After learning of his son’s escape from an initially unsuspecting Chris, both Lawson and his grasping wife (played by Carry On star Liz Fraser) decide they want the runaway out of the equation in order to preserve their own criminal activity from scrutiny, and Chris eventually realises that the pair of them would be quite willing to shop their own boy to the police in order to achieve that aim.

In most ways the rest of the story plays out as a fairly standard CFF adventure drama that makes copious use of the usual tropes involving untrustworthy adults foiled by canny kids who see straight through them (Lake and Askwith play bumbling fake coppers with massive 70s sideburns and fags dangling nonchalantly from their mouths, who are instantly rumbled by Chris’s perceptive little sister);  and the usual run of mistaken identities, captures and daring escape attempts emerge as the main set pieces of the plot (Chris is mistaken for their bosses son by Lawson’s two henchmen and imprisoned in a warehouse, leaving Beverly and Keith to rescue him). CFF director-veteran David Eady and art director George Provis (the latter sandwiching this in between working on British horrors The Fiend and The Creeping Flesh) paint everything in pillar box red and the same cheerful 1970s primary coloured shades as Chris’s rainbow-striped tank top, and there is a certain lightness of tone about proceedings (despite the unglamorous and amusingly dangerous-for-kids urban locations featured, consisting primarily of building sites, derelict houses and abandoned industrial estates) as evidenced by the irreverent opening titles sequence, in which Keith’s crime spree is montaged as a comic episode involving angry shopkeepers (including among their number Alfred Marks) trailing him as he escapes past a series of walls and hoardings over which the film’s credits have been colourfully sprayed as graffiti using red paint. Frequent Hammer Films composer Harry Robertson supplies an upbeat, sunny score that also often mimics the action-drama cues to be found in ITC series of the era, or that could be expected to occur in more serious police dramas then starting to make their way onto screens, such as The Sweeny.
But although the likes of Alan Lake and Robin Askwith conform to the CFF stereotype that paints adult criminals as harmless comic incompetents, Morgan, as Keith’s father Ted Lawson, plays the part of their boss utterly straight while his number two, fake construction site foreman Wykes, also looks like he’s strolled straight out of a hard-hitting 1970s crime drama – which is hardly surprising as he’s played by Johnny Shannon: an ex-heavyweight boxer and former associate of the Kray Twins who was better known by this point as the gangster who turned to acting and trained James Fox in the ways of the London underworld for Donald Cammell's and Nicolas Roeg’s 1969 masterpiece Performance, in which he also starred as crime boss Harry Flowers. This was an acquaintance that young child star Gary Kemp would be making again eighteen years later when he came to play Ronald Kray alongside his brother Martin, who played Reggie, for Peter Medak’s  1990 biopic. That strain of seriousness means that there is rather more at stake morally for young Keith, who at one point must choose between loyalty to his father (and therefore the life of crime he has always previously known) and his new friends. Although Mike Gorell Barns’ screenplay manages to find the positive outcome expected of all CFF produced features at the time, it doesn’t pull back from portraying Keith’s likely choices and attitudes realistically, and neither does it shirk realism when it comes to staging a emotionally blunt scene between father and son, during which Keith asks his father outright: ‘do you want me?’ To which Mr Lawson has to admit, simply, ‘no!’

The face childhood presents on film had changed yet again by the production of 1985’s Terry on the Fence. Based on former headmaster Bernard Ashley’s novel, this late period CFF feature grounds its depiction of the home and school life of its eleven-year-old protagonist Terry Harmer (Jack McNicholl) on the kinds of representations which had by then become standard thanks to popular shows such as Grange Hill – which were founded on broad attempts to tackle contemporary ‘issues’ through the medium of children’s drama. That meant no exaggerated comedy capers or heightened adult acting styles, and an increased emphasis on psychological realism. At the point director Frank Godwin adapted Ashley’s book for the screen, the CFF had recently become The Children’s Film and Television Foundation (CFTF) in an attempt to stay relevant by targeting its productions at the small screen, but it was still struggling to survive in an environment where children’s Saturday morning television had made the cinema film clubs of old look largely redundant and rather old fashioned. It was a battle the Foundation was very close to losing altogether by this point. Consequently, Terry on the Fence feels a great deal shabbier in terms of its overall texture, thanks to budgetary restrictions which led to its being shot on 16mm rather than 35mm film.

Looked at today, some of its attempts to depict childhood social delinquency quite unintentionally come across looking slightly laboured and at times almost comical; the gang featured here, hanging out on the common in their garishly graffiti-daubed vandalised den or traipsing through semi-derelict regions of docklands earmarked for redevelopment, look like an unlikely ragtag collection of problem types led by a scowling fifteen-year-old punk called Les (Neville Watson), who fulfils the by now stereotypical image of a glue-sniffing punk rocker to a tee (except nothing so controversial as glue-sniffing is ever suggested, of course), the type of presentation that was already being roundly satirised by the likes of The Young Ones through the character of Vivian, played by Adrian Edmondson. However, the cheaper, grainy film stock and the fact that a real school is obviously being used as the main location (the credits give thanks to the Headmaster, staff and pupils of Halstow School in Greenwich, London), results in the film managing to hang on to the sense that it is grounded in a kind of realism that would have been recognisable to its intended audience at the time.
There is even more of a focus in this film on providing a moral lesson in the narrative … an intent which had been there all along in the CFF’s work, as we’ve seen in the two other films included on this disc, but which here, in accordance with a common approach taken in the 1980s to drama aimed at children, feels like it is being earnestly foregrounded as a potential subject for debate in schools. Once can just imagine the film being screened in classrooms as an educational tool, its lessons and dilemmas to be discussed by the children afterwards; it even goes to a great deal of trouble, in its final ten minutes, to accurately depict the workings of a juvenile court, emphasising the guidelines that govern its decision making processes using a sombre, documentary-like aesthetic.

This downbeat, naturalistic, semi-documentary realist style is a far cry from the colourful urban capers of Hide and Seek or the romanticised, picaresque childhood wanderings of Johnny on the Run. The film does echo the approach taken by Hide and Seek, though, in seeking to establish its young protagonist as someone the viewer can identify with through recognition of its portrayal of a shared home life. It’s all too notable, of course, that all three films always turn to boys for their central audience identification figures: girls play important roles in all three dramas in different ways, but always in a supportive capacity, secondary to the schemes, concerns and problems of boys, who are presented as proactive and drive the plots forward, while girls are usually (intelligently) reactive. Terry on the Fence opens with scenes that believably depict a median income family happily enacting the daily domestic rituals of an average working life. Terry’s mum and dad (Susan Jameson and Martin Fisk) have bought their son a new black shirt from the mail order catalogue for his birthday, and allow him to try it on early as soon as it arrives in the post. But the mischievous lad sneaks out of the house the next morning (forgetting his dinner money) so that he can show off his flashy new apparel at school. These initial scenes at home, across the dinner and breakfast tables, and at school where Terry is shown to be an unexceptional though well-integrated member of his peer group, establish the sheer ordinariness of the world inhabited by its main character – an excitable, diminutive curly-haired eleven-year-old, who clearly at this stage knows nothing about youth crime, vandalism and violence.

A minor argument with his older sister Tracey (Tracey Ann Morris) after school that afternoon, in which Tracey’s simmering resentment and frustration about what she sees as the leniency regularly exhibited towards her younger brother’s irksome rule-breaking, boils over into a heated slanging match that feels like a believable catalyst for what follows -- one that many children and parents would surely easily be able to identify with. It also highlights a more nuanced approach to the depiction of the relationship between children and their parents in this film, realistically portraying how trivial incidents can escalate into behaviour both parties might regret later. When Terry uses the word ‘bloody’ in answering back his at-the-end-of-her-tether mother’s telling off, she impulsively slaps him in the face -- a spur of the moment reaction after a long, stressful day. Both the inclusion of mild swearing and the honest depiction of parents not as idealised authority figures, but as human beings, who are subject to their own stresses and strains and liable to make their own mistakes, is a new development in CFF/CFTF drama from the 1980s, in line with the approach being taken by the modern early evening soap operas that younger people were starting to watch more frequently around this period, with the advent of Brookside and the BBC’s then recently launched response Eastenders.
Terry then rehearses a version of a scene that must have been played out in every family household across the land at some point: storming out of the house shouting how he is leaving home – ‘I’m going … for good!’ He ends up at the local common – a nearby patch of neglected wasteland – which is where he falls into the clutches of Les’s gang. Neville Watson affects not just the clothing and pimply complexion, but the curled-lip snarl and threatening, aggressive posture commonly associated with the punk rocker -- the icon of a youth movement which in the popular mind had by now come to be associated with delinquency and drug abuse, much as the bastions of earlier youth movements had before it. By the mid-80s this idea of punk had become a cliché and something of a joke, and the look was often exploited to sell an ‘edgier’ picture postcard image of London to tourists. It was still a threatening enough image to young Terry, though – now alone and out of his depth in an unfamiliar area of the city – for him to feel obliged under verbal threat of violence to help Les and his gang of younger offenders break into Terry’s school and steal some portable stereo systems from the headmaster’s office. They recognise him as a privileged kid from ‘those snobby houses’ – not someone like them from the poorer council estates; and Les makes sure their reluctant accomplice is fully implicated in the resulting crime by forcing Terry (whom he nicknames ‘Pig Face’) to hide one of the stolen stereos at home in his dad’s tool shed.

As well as detailing Terry’s plight as he is forced -- scared by what will happen to him if he refuses -- to take part in a criminal act that goes against his character, the narrative also follows the desperate search for him that is being simultaneously conducted by Terry’s dad and his contrite sister while the lad’s regretful mother waits by the phone at home. Les and his threatening gang of hangers on are initially portrayed as a disruptive, corrupting force from the underclass of British society, come to destabilise the cosy conformity of family life that has been all Terry has previously known until taken by his new associates on this tour around seamy rubbish-strewn alleyways and dockyard demolition sites in Thatcher’s Britain. The significance of the opening scenes, in which Terry was seen getting his new shirt, now become apparent: for as well as painting a familiar picture of ordinary domestic life that is to be threatened later on, they also provide a marker by which Terry is to be recognised and identified by the school caretaker after he flees with Les’s gang across the school yard immediately after the robbery, having to be hauled over the school fence by his older, taller accomplice. The focus of the film then becomes Terry’s battle to prove that he isn't really one of the gang … that he was forced to carry out this inside job against his will when, from the caretaker’s vantage point, he and Les appeared to be the best of pals.
The interesting and unexpected move made by Ashley’s story at this point is to show how the more Terry seeks to extricate himself from any intrinsic blame for the school break-in, the more closely the fates of the two boys are bound together. Hoping to get back the other stolen stereo for the school (after returning the one he was earlier made to hide) a shamed Terry manages to track down Les’s home address. It turns out not to be some rundown sink estate in a deprived district, but an ordinary suburban house furnished much like his own. The real contrast in their lives is evident in the quality of their parental relations: having unwittingly traipsed mud onto Les’s living room carpet, Terry overhears Les being shouted at for the crime and beaten by his fed up mother while he hides in the adolescent punk’s bedroom. There is an echo here of the moment Terry was slapped by his own mother, of course, but that was clearly an aberration – for Les this type of parental relationship appears to be the norm. 

The film is sophisticated enough to resist drawing any simplistic causal connection between Les’s home life and his aggressive loutish behaviour; his persistent criminal activity and frequent appearances in front of juvenile courts could be seen to account for his mother’s quick tempered resort to violence when dealing with his behaviour just as easily as her beatings might be thought to furnish an explanation for that recidivism in the first place. Neither does the film insult the intelligence of the viewer by having Les suddenly become rehabilitated the moment we get to see him as a human being rather than just the stereotype image of a delinquent that he himself exploits while he manipulates younger children to do his bidding: shades of grey define the approach to this troubled and troubling character throughout. What is important about the film is how subtly it conveys the process by which Terry’s attitude towards Les gradually changes, and how it deals with the younger boy’s newly conflicted, ambivalent feelings about the adolescent troublemaker. 

Originally he was just terrified of this caricatured, snarling lout – an effect Les of course very much wished to cultivate for his own purposes. But later, Terry glimpses enough parallels with his own life to be able to empathise with his former persecutor to a degree –which puts him in something of a moral quandary after the two boys are picked up by the police while trying to steal back the remaining stolen portable stereo from the receiver of stolen goods Les had previously sold it to. Their ensuing appearance together, parents in tow, at a hearing before the juvenile court becomes an interrogation of Terry’s moral culpability which, despite the harsher more realistic terms in which it is presented, is in line with the upholding of the humanistic principles that are so evident throughout every phase of the CFF’s development, no matter how different the presentation style of the films it produced across the decades may seem when they are placed side by side.

As different as each of these little films from the ‘50s, ‘70s and 1980s undoubtedly are in tone, each of them demonstrate inventive strategies for dealing with the moral complexities of the adult world, presenting them to a young audience through a series of representations of childhood that continue to engage even today. Each film has been lovingly restored to splendour (Hide and Seek looks particularly gorgeous) and the BFI’s disc comes with an excellent booklet of essays and film overviews by Rachel Moseley (associate professor in Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick), Robert Shail (senior lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Wales, Trinity St David), Michael Brooke (writer and DVD/Blu-ray producer) and Vic Pratt (BFI curator). Also included are some edited extracts from Gary Kemp’s autobiography I Know This Much, in which he talks about the making of Hide and Seek: having a crush on Liz Fraser and being given a ride in her new Lotus Elan; fighting off the local gangs hanging around the crew during shooting in Deptford; and having his prized feathercut hairstyle chopped off by the assistant director because it looked ‘too posh’. Author Bernard Ashley contributes a piece about the adaptation of his novel, and actor turned music producer Neville Watson discusses his casting as yobbish punk delinquent Les for Terry on the Fence. Interestingly, the film was given a U certificate by the BBFC when it was originally released, but has now been reclassified a PG because of a racist insult used by one gang member while talking to another; a close up of Les’s bleeding scar when he nervously scratches it while hiding from a policeman; and that previously mentioned instance of mild swearing used by Terry during an argument with his mother!        


1 comment:

  1. Wow! This is such a great idea. During the time it was established, youth ran amok in the streets, that I think films such as those together with the cinemas established by foundations are good distractions from what was happening outside. I also think that those films should be archived and preserved in order to be passed on to today’s generation.

    Ruby Badcoe @ Williams Data Management