Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box Vol. 4 – BFI DVD Review

The Children’s Film Foundation (CFF), founded in the early fifties, was a non-profit organisation that sought to produce quality home-made features to supplement the American serial fare that was a popular staple of children’s Saturday morning film matinee presentations.

It received money from the Eady levy (a tax on box office receipts) and tended to turn out around half a dozen short films each year. By the 1980’s, with cinema attendances falling and the Eady levy no longer available, the number of new films began to dwindle as the CFF started to concentrate more on television production. Renamed the Children’s Film and Television Foundation and more recently the Children’s Media Foundation, today it lobbies for the funding and regulation of content for children.

This three DVD set contains nine features, the earliest one being …

The Dog and the Diamonds (1953)

An urban tale, revolving around the young inhabitants of a tower block, whilst The Dog and the Diamonds is low in gritty realism (to put it mildly) it still has many positives.

The young-un’s may be little scamps (accidentally breaking windows and running the long-suffering caretaker – played by George Coulouris – ragged) but you know their hearts are in the right places (all are impossibly well spoken too).

Throw in a cute dog given a diamond necklace by a gang of delightfully old-fashioned spivvy crooks who (of course) the children manage to run to ground and you’ve got an engaging time capsule of the period. It was produced and directed by Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas (of Carry On fame) although the innuendo level remains low.

The Stolen Airliner (1955)

You can probably guess what’s going to happen in this one from the film’s title …

It’s another black and white treat, peopled with remarkably smart crooks (hats, ties and cigarette holders are the order of the day) and children with cut glass accents. There’s the chance to spot some familiar faces – like Peter Dyneley and Ballard Berkeley – who enhance the story (a rip roaring adventure where our resourceful young heroes remain calm throughout every crisis).

A bunch of crooks steal an experimental aircraft – the Z09. Only the children know what’s going to happen, but – of course – the grown ups simply won’t believe them. Luckily though, juvenile pluck saves the day once again – nothing fazes our youthful heroes (not even the prospect of having to parachute out of the Z09 whilst it’s in mid air).

Blow Your Own Trumpet (1958)

We’re heading up North for this musical tale (although much of the filming was done in Surrey, which explains why some of the Northern accents are just a little off). Peter Butterworth is excellent value as the kindly conductor Mr Duff and the award-winning Arley Welfare Band (the band of the National Coal Board) add a touch of class to proceedings.

Some of the young stars – Michael Crawford, Michael Craze – would go on to forge successful adult careers (Crawford’s character, Bert, is in the thick of the action throughout). And like many a CFF, Blow Your Own Trumpet features a cute dog (Tina the Dog as herself) .

Bert dreams of joining the colliery band as a cornet player. But he lacks a cornet (and – at the start – any talent). However, with a second hand instrument and the patient tutelage of Mr Duff things begin to look up for him. But will he be able to beat his hated rival and take up his place in the band?

The Missing Note (1960)

Joan (Heather Bennett) is the young heroine of this film. A talented musician, she has to make do with using a battered old piano at the local church hall. All is well, until the piano is sold – and to complicate matters it’s been used to store the booty from a smash and grab raid …

The Missing Note shares some similarities with Blow Your Own Trumpet, but in this one a jewel robbery subplot has been added to the mix. Toke Townley is the unlikely smash and grab merchant whilst the equally familiar Tommy Godfrey is the scrap dealer who buys the piano and promptly sells it onto a mystery buyer.

Townley’s on good comic form and there’s some fascinating snapshots of a vanished London in a film which has links to the straight-laced CFF output of the 1950’s but also anticipates how the series would develop during the more relaxed 1960’s.

The Big Catch (1968)

We now leap forward eight years, to the end of the 1960’s – and the first film in this boxset to be made in colour. And colour is certainly a benefit as it allows the glorious Scottish landscape to be shown to its fullest effect. The locations may be the star, but the tale – local lad Ewan (David Gallagher) clashing with well-heeled newcomer Lindsey (Ronald Sinclair) – is a pretty decent one.

Blinker’s Spy Spotter (1972)

For many, the 1970’s were the peak years of the CFF. Certainly many of the best-remembered films hail from this period (possibly due to their television rescreenings during the 1980’s). It was certainly a time when the films became looser and more fantastical – with odd inventions cropping up regularly.

Blinker’s Spy Spotter is a good example, as our eponymous young hero (played by David Spooner) is the creator of a number of bizarre inventions (although it’s the work of his scientist father that’s targeted by the villains). The adult cast is one to savour – Bernard Bresslaw, Michael Robbins, David Battley, Patrick O’Connell – as is the soundtrack, which should warm the heart of anyone who loves library music from this era.

The Flying Sorcerer (1974)

The next film continues the fantasy trend, as a young lad is transported back in time to an age of wizards and fire-breathing dragons. The dragon is an impressive creation (although, it’s fair to say that he’s not the speediest of movers). But chuck in another collection of well known comic actors – Bob Todd, John Bluthal, Eric Chitty – and a tight script from Leo Maguire and Harry Booth and I doubt many will be complaining.

Mr Selkie (1978)

Although many CFF films were designed for pure entertainment, there were times when the series would slip in a message amongst the comedy or drama. Mr Selkie is a good case in point, as there’s a strong anti-pollution theme throughout. Mr Selkie (Peter Baylis) is a seal who’s assumed human form (of course) and teams up with a group of children to teach their elders on the local council that it’s wrong to pollute the sea (sadly a message that seems to have fallen on deaf ears these days).

As ever, there’s several actors – Noel Howlett, Zara Nutley, Molly Wier – who are instantly recognisable and they help to power the story along.

Gabrielle and the Doodleman (1984) 

The last main feature on this release comes from 1984, and it’s at a point when the CFF was on its last legs. The rise of Saturday morning children’s television in the late seventies (Swop Shop, Tiswas) had sounded the death-knell for the traditional Saturday morning picture show – indeed, this one was shot on videotape, rather than film, and was always intended to go straight to television.

But it’s not all bad news since it has a cast list to die for. Matthew Kelly, Eric Sykes, Windsor Davies, Anna Dawson, Lynsey de Paul (she wrote the theme song, Kelly sang it), Gareth Hunt, Josephine Tewson and (yet again) Bob Todd. If they don’t get your pulse racing then nothing will.

Wheelchair-bound Gabrielle (Prudence Oliver) is in a depressed state – relations between her and her father are distant and so she spends most of her time playing computer games (on a state of the art BBC Model B, no less). Doodleman (Kelly) is a computer sprite who comes to life and leads Gabrielle into a series of adventures peopled by the aforementioned film and television greats.

Apart from these nine films (which each run between 50 and 60 minutes) there’s a further four shorter films (all around the fifteen minute mark) – the pick of these being The Chiffy Kids – Pot Luck from 1976, which features Harry H. Corbett in full Steptoe mode (despite his claims that Steptoe & Son typecast him, you do have to say that many of his other roles did have more than a whiff of Harold about them …)

To round off the package, there’s a ten minute cinemagazine from 1952, a new fifteen minute documentary about some of the London film locations used in the CFF films as well as a typically informative booklet.

With a range of films spanning three decades, there should be something for everyone here and this release comes warmly recommended.

Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box Vol. 4 is released by the BFI today, RRP £26.99, and can be ordered direct from their website via this link.

Boycie in Belgrade – DVD Review

Having discovered that Only Fools and Horses was big in Belgrade (not to mention the rest of Serbia) John Challis was persuaded to take a trip out there – partly to meet some of the city’s OF&H fans in order to try and find out why they’ve taken this British sitcom classic to their hearts but also to soak up some of the city’s sights and sounds.

Running for eighty minutes, Boycie in Belgrade is an engaging documentary. Challis is a genial host, linking the different sections of Belgrade footage from the comfort of his armchair in England. From a reception with the British Ambassador via a visit to the Royal Palace, Challis takes in plenty of high culture (he also samples some local footballing history with a trip to Red Star Belgrade and seems more than happy to test the local plum brandy).

Later, there’s an excursion to a motor museum where he comes face to face with a very familiar yellow three-wheeled van ….

As various locals are interviewed, it becomes clear that they identify very strongly with the characters in OF&H – the series’ tone (forever optimistic even though the prospects look bleak) is something they believe chimes well with the Serbian spirit. This is possibly the most interesting part of the doco as whilst the programme (beloved as it is) is just another sitcom in the UK, it’s fascinating to observe how it resonates much deeper overseas with certain people.

Watching via DVD, there’s something slightly subpar about the picture quality (the image displays jagged edges and there’s a certain jerkiness on occasions when the camera pans quickly). Boycie in Belgrade can also be accessed via various streaming platforms (iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon Prime) so maybe this issue has been rectified there.

For those who enjoy travelogues especially, Boycie in Belgrade is worth a look, although a rental may be the way to go as I’m not sure that it’s one that has a great deal of rewatch value. More info on the different ways it can be accessed is available via this website.