Wednesday, 23 October 2013


 After having showcased some strange, unusual and deeply wonderful adventures a few months back in Weird Tales -- the BFI’s third collection of recently restored and re-mastered Children’s Film Foundation classics -- events now turn from the fantastical to the unsettling for the next treasurable instalment in this on-going DVD range, which also incorporates some later entries from the re-christened Children’s Film and Television Foundation. With this fourth volume, three memorable short features produced between 1974 and 1985 have been brought together under the Scary Stories banner -- offering a slightly different kind of perspective on the Foundation’s typically jolly adventuring fare. This time we’re provided with a trio of chilling tales that each, in one way or another, involve youngsters in encounters with the uncanny that suggest the past of centuries gone by can never be entirely quieted, and sometimes returns to haunt the uncertainties of the present day. Only the first of these films, The Man from Nowhere (1974), is actually given a period setting and appropriately summons Gothic atmosphere in a form mimicking the traditional Dickensian ghost story, as well as the look of the BBC’s best ‘70s Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations, incorporating lashings of period Victorian gloom set around creaking imposing mansion houses, eerie woodland settings and a mysterious death-like apparition in black.
 Perhaps one of the most noticeable aspects of the entire CFF venture during its glory years was its capacity for eliciting some extremely high quality work from the succession of small independent producers, who queued up to apply for its modest funding opportunities during times when the going was often extremely tough for the British Film Industry -- especially in the mid-seventies, when the first of these three films was made under CFF patronage. The money ultimately came from The British Film Production Fund, a body set up to divvy out the grants derived from a small tax -- known as the Eady Levy – which was at the time still being collected on all cinema tickets bought in the UK. Charles Barker Productions appears to have been a somewhat short-lived beneficiary of this set up (The Man from Nowhere is Barker’s only recorded work according to the IMDb), yet it managed to produce this elegant period fable, after being teamed up with director James Hill of Born Free fame on a storyline that successfully places elements of Victorian Gothic literature from works such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas”, Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White “and Charles Dickens’s famous ghost story “The Signalman” alongside the kind of material that was much to be expected from standard CFF narrative formulations; such as, for example, the fact that the villains must always be seen to get chased at some point in the film by the young protagonists, with the story invariably ending just as the bad guys publicly get their comeuppance in a form which involves falling, or being pushed, into a muddy pool of water.

The Man From Nowhere glues all these elements together seamlessly, with a premise that feels slightly near the knuckle these days in that it involves the twelve-year-old orphan heroine being menaced throughout by a sinister adult stranger dressed in black, who follows her everywhere she goes and eventually even manages to invade the sanctuary of her adopted home. However, John Tully’s script sees the whole escapade carried off on a healthy mixture of intelligence lightly worn and easy charm, in a film which both imitates and comments on some of the most common tropes to be found in the classic Victorian mystery literature that it in part sets out to parody. It is also the beneficiary of some leafy locations in the South of England, so redolent of prestigious BBC period costume dramas of the day (as well as the output of a certain other producer of classic British Gothic fare), that they can’t help but induce a warm glow of nostalgia for this children’s variant of a now quaint form of British horror film-making.

Tully’s background in writing for children’s television enabled him with this likable little film to fluently distil for a young audience (but in a non-preachy manner) the essence of mid-Victorian social attitudes towards poverty, and their impact on and relationship to class, as well as illustrate the way in which this often came to be expressed in forms of philanthropy and patronage that were commonly portrayed by the popular fiction of the age -- especially in the works of Dickens. It also references the frequently made observation that Victorian belief in the supernatural underwent a revolution which saw a rise in the popularity of spiritualism, coincident with the industrial revolution heralding the advent of new forms of invention  centred on communication technologies like the telegraph, and new signalling systems created to facilitate the age of the steam train -- all of which were developments that helped make the claims of the paranormalists seem that much more  credible than they otherwise might have been, even though material science seemed to be conquering the landscape, both figuratively and literally. This was an idea that was picked up by Charles Dickens, and played a central role in his short story “The Signalman”. It was even more evocatively sketched out in Lawrence Gordon Clark’s eerie adaptation of the same story for his BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas strand in 1976 … except that The Man from Nowhere in some respects got there first, opening on a scene set in a village train station  (the significance of which will only be made apparent much later in the story) where little Alice Harvey (Sarah Hollis Andrews) arrives, clad in bonnet and shawl and looking like a perfect reproduction of one of Hablot Knight Browne’s and George Cattermole’s illustrations of Little Nell -- the tragic heroine of Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop”.
Emblematic of the innocence and purity of the orphaned heroine in Victorian literature, Alice also evokes the magical world of her namesake from Charles ‘Lewis Carroll’ Dodgson’s famous 1865 work “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its 1871 sequel “Through the Looking-Glass”. This association becomes more apparent when, upon being obliged to make her own way up from the village station to the imposing nearby mansion known as Tower House  – the home of her Great Uncle Harvey (Ronald Adam) – all alone after her Uncle’s housekeeper, Mrs Smee (Gabrielle Hamilton,) is held up while running errands in town that prevent her arriving in time to collect Alice off the train, the orphan encounters a mysterious threatening presence who emerges almost magically from the woodlands at the side of the winding country lane she has to traverse on her way. The figure is dressed in the imposing crape-banded top hat and sombre black suit of mourning common to one of the ‘mutes’ who would have accompanied a typical Victorian funerary procession. This ‘man from nowhere’ appears to belong to a strange supernatural realm, redolent of the woodland setting from which his voice is first heard to emanate in a disembodied form, his features gradually resolving themselves from a vague silhouette outline in the glare of sunlight glinting through the branches of woodland trees.
It’s an uncanny, almost fairy-tale surreal moment -- and one of many that reveal the class of director James Hill (whose pedigree in both children’s telly – Black Beauty; Worzel Gummidge -- and Victorian-set horror -- A Study in Terror – made him the perfect choice for such material) and the film’s cinematographer Desmond Dickenson (a veteran of many a enjoyable low-budget British horror flick in his time). This dark, Victorian representative of death comes with a stark warning: that Alice should not enter the environs of Tower House because grave danger awaits her there; she must go straight back to the orphanage from whence she came instead. The apparition becomes threateningly solid and corporeal when it suddenly materialises directly in front of her on the road and, terrified, Alice flees. Only the intervention of some raggedy homeless street urchins who hang out at the station gates looking for victims to harass for small change, and who are led by an Artful Dodger type called Spikey (Anthony McCaffery), stop her from immediately complying with the spectral visitor’s gruff demands. The boys befriend Alice after discovering she is an orphan too, helping her recover her clothes (which had earlier been scattered across the lane when she dropped her case in fright), and walking her to the gates of Tower House, supposedly her new home.

 Spikey, Nobby (Reggie Winch), William (Shane Franklin) and Jim (Robin Keston) are the prototypical gang of friends who you’d expect to find inhabiting a CFF outing during any period in the Foundation’s history. Yet they also fulfil the stereotypical Dickensian roles required of them in this particular period piece, acting as disenfranchised ragamuffin representatives of a hidden underworld of parentless child poverty to which Alice herself also belongs – just like the homeless band of young thieves from “Oliver Twist”.  Like any CFF gang, they have a secret den; but this one is secret because it’s on Mr Harvey’s land (‘he’d have us in gaol if he knew!’), and is in fact part of the wooded glade area out of which the man in black first appeared. The boys believe Alice’s claims about this figure without question, and set out to help her prosper in her new home; the adult members of the respectable small household, though, which has ostensibly taken her under its wing out of familial duty (and which only really consists of Mr Harvey and Mrs Snee, along with the family solicitor Mr Freeman) revile her "riff raff" friends from the street and increasingly fail to protect her from this dark menace, who claims at one point: ‘I know everything you’re doing, every minute of the day!’
This is a version of a scenario essayed countless times in a succession of thrillers penned by Jimmy Sangster for Hammer Productions in the early- to mid-sixties. Often termed ‘mini Hitchcocks’ and inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece Les Diaboliques they invariably hinged on someone -- usually a female protagonist -- finding themselves menaced by an macabre figure who may or might not be real, in what usually turns out to be a devious and far-fetched plot to drive them to insanity. As Alice attempts to adjust to her new life as the ward of a rich patron, her place in the household is put continually under threat by the unexpected materialisations of this man from nowhere, who threatens to cast doubt on her sanity while implying that the adults now looking after her are themselves suspect; for as the visitations become more frequent and increasingly threatening in nature, the intruder claims that Alice’s rich Uncle means ultimately to do her harm and to ‘get rid of her’ if she doesn’t leave the village and Tower House itself of her own accord.

Alice’s benefactor may well have pledged to look after his only living niece, but his motives do indeed remain unclear -- especially given the fact that he rarely willingly leaves the confines of the shadowy, wainscoted interior rooms of Tower House due to a mysterious illness (for which he must take special medication) and, according to devoted housekeeper Mrs Snee, is always ‘careful with his money’. The uncertain relationship between Alice and Mr Harvey is really at the core of the goings on in the story. Harvey is initially set up as a typical Dickensian Scrooge-like miser or a reclusive old fuddy-duddy like Sir Leicester Dedlock in “Bleak House”. His initial manner towards this poor relation of his, whose existence has only recently been brought to light by the efforts of his solicitor Mr Freeman (John Forbes-Robertson), is characterised by various attempts to control and to mould her through the act of buying her expensive dresses to wear, or by literally confining her to the house unless chaperoned by Mrs Snee, as Mr Harvey does not consider it ‘proper’ for a young lady to be seen out on her own.
On the other hand, Alice’s presence appears to gradually bring about a softening effect upon him as time wears on: he agrees to accompany her in a gig ride to the other side of the village to view the old church, and to see his friend the Reverend Potter, in a scene which plays like an extract from one of the BBC’s ‘70s MR James adaptations, where Harvey gets to play the part of a typical, harmless Jamesian antiquarian as he expounds to Alice on the history of the church’s construction, and the various additions and renovations that have been made to the building’s structure down the centuries.
But as Alice’s wild claims become more insistent after the stranger even manages to pop up behind a gravestone during the church visit, and then later stalks her through the woods after she visits them with Spikey to see the shelter that the young urchins have constructed to live in on Mr Harvey’s land during the summer -- her benefactor becomes more forceful, angry even, at the suggestion that he might wish her ill-harm. Angry, it seems, almost to the point of violence. This strong suggestion of threat and the implication that a sinister harm might come to Alice from an unknown, possibly even supernatural, quarter marks The Man from Nowhere out as a curiosity among its CFF peers, in which explicit murder plots against child protagonists rarely feature. Naturally, a reassuring order (in terms of both morality and rationality) must be reasserted at the end and Spikey and the rest of Alice’s young friends make good use of their street smarts to uncover what’s really going on, and also to concoct a plan to catch and expose the culprits behind what turns out to be a dastardly scheme dreamt up to disinherit the unsuspecting orphan girl.

While the signalling systems used by Victorian station masters in the 19th century were used as a metaphor by Dickens to explore the idea of ghostly spirit messages being carried to earth on an ineffable ether, here they play a vital role in perpetrating the illusion of the existence of an all-seeing spectral visitor from beyond, who always seems to be in possession of knowledge he could not possibly have come by through rational means. The children themselves, though, also use a piece of Victorian technology as their means to expose the plot against Alice: in this case a self-playing church organ that was actually a feature of one of the halls of the great house used by Hill for both the interiors and exterior grounds of Mr Harvey’s mansion. Finally, a traditional Dickensian conclusion is reached, in which all the former poor house children eventually find themselves in considerably better social and financial circumstances than those in which they started out. The film concludes with a theatrical flourish as each of the players take a curtain call as their name comes up in the end credits.
Although modern synthesiser-based instrumentation is used at one point by composer John Cameron (during an obligatory chase scene near the end) to create some ironic distance between the period setting and the conventions of the children’s adventure genre, circa 1974, by which the film still has to abide, the sombre harpsichord and flute score which characterises the incidental music for much of the rest of the film, perfectly captures the tense atmosphere of the story's idyllic yet crepuscular setting, over which a terrible shadow has been cast by such strange events. Furthermore, the film is beautifully cast: the child actors are believable (and, for once, there’s a good, justifiable reason for the boy gang’s 1970s long hair and scruffy clothes); Ronald Adam makes a particularly fine Victorian squire, who vacillates between the kindly old gent and the strict patriarch stereotypes in accordance with the uncertainties required by the plot; and Gabrielle Hamilton’s long string of roles in previous TV and film adaptations of many of the greats of Victorian literature (George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford are but two)  stand her in good stead for her ambiguous role as the sole servant of Tower House, Mrs Snee. Recently the actress also appeared in a BBC adaptation of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White: another ambitious tribute to the great storytelling traditions of nineteenth century literature.

All these elements add up to make a modest but entertaining little picture, steeped in Gothic Victoriana’s virtues; but if there is one element that really makes a difference to the film’s successful implementation of a style and aesthetics very common to 1960s and 1970s British horror films, then it’s the marvellous locations it makes such fabulous use of. Children’s Film Foundation productions never had access to particularly big budgets, of course, and so often these films were made almost entirely on location and therefore  in real buildings rather than on studio sets.  Such is the case here; and indeed, horror aficionados won’t need to be told twice that the ornate exterior of Tower House is none other than Oakley Court!

Designed and built in an eccentric ‘French Chateau’ style by Sir Richard Hall Say in 1859, this grand mansion on the banks of the Thames, in the county of Berkshire near Winsor, is perhaps the most famous Gothic residence in British Horror, having appeared in countless films, particularly in the 1970s. Hammer Productions, who briefly used it as a mansion house studio from the late 1940s (when, appropriately enough, they shot The Man in Black there) up until the mid ‘50s, when they moved to their more famous Bray Studios complex at nearby Down Place, helped to make it instantly recognisable, frequently re-using it as an exterior for films such as Lust for a Vampire. But many other British movies, such as The Legend of Hell House and Norman J Warren’s Satan’s Slave, also made ample use of its striking exterior profile, and sometimes the grounds too -- not to mention the occasional appearance in Italian movies from the same sort of era, such as Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark and Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

The really interesting thing about The Man from Nowhere from the point of view of the British horror fan is that not only does it include plenty of shots in which the familiar Oakley Court house exteriors, gardens and surrounding lawns can easily be identified -- with even the nearby woodland areas (purchased as part of the deal when the mansion was sold into new ownership in 1919) making frequent and picturesque appearances (they may not be Hammer’s familiar Black Park territory but these locations might as well be … they certainly looks much the same), but the production seems also to have been given permission to film throughout the great house’s interiors, and it makes terrific use of the lamp-lit halls and authentically furnished rooms that were maintained by the new owners as a time capsule tribute to n oaky mid-Victorian splendour.

We get scenes set on the vast staircase and balconies, and in darkening wainscoted drawing and dining rooms; also there is a scene which takes place in one of the chamber-like Gothic bedrooms and – the site of a memorably scary moment -- the house’s back kitchen, where the menacing man in black materialises in front of Alice after the door has been locked from outside, trapping her in the room with him. Particularly notable is the use made in the plot of the vast pipe organ, which was, according to former Hammer stills photographer John Jay (quoted in Wayne Kinsey’s Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes) an offbeat feature of the residence eccentrically fitted in the main entrance hall. Writer Mark Tully mentions in the short introduction to the film he supplies for the BFI booklet, that James Hill had him incorporate this bizarre furnishing into the screenplay after they discovered it while looking over the site just before filming started. The  adoption of aesthetic elements of BBC period drama, along with the British horror film’s best Gothic trappings, raise this piece well above its humble origins, and it becomes not just one of the best and most original works made for the CFF, but also a worthy if marginal entry in the annals of Britain’s heritage of horror. 
By 1984, the culture of the Saturday morning matinees at the local Odeon theatre which had supported the CFF’s work since the 1950s, had fallen away with the advent in the 1970s of weekend children’s TV magazine shows such as TISWAZ and SWAP SHOP. However the Foundation did manage to continue its work by making deals with BBC and ITV, since most of the TV companies’ children’s output was made up of a similar sort of mixture of cartoons, adventure serials and comedy as had supplied the formulaic programming kids would have likely encountered on a typical trip to the cinema. The renamed Children’s Film and Television Foundation (CFTF) was able to continue making largely the same sorts of films it had produced for the cinema in the heyday of the CFF and, as Haunters of the Deep reveals, make them to a similarly high standard.

Haunters of the Deep is set on the Cornish coast in the 1980s and has a charmingly accented young hero called Josh (Gary Simmons) who appears to be exactly the same kind of adventure-minded, bike-riding, scruffy-haired young tyke as would have been found in any of the classic period CFF adventures, except for his localised accent and a clearly less well to do background than his middle-class predecessors of old. Both this and the following Out of the Darkness -- the second offering from the CFTF on this disc -- involve boy protagonists with regional accents who come to develop a special sort of affinity with a long dead child of an equivalent age, who emerges from out of the murky depths of a mythologised local folklore. Here, young Josh plays among the ruins of Edwardian era mine shafts on the Cornish headlands, enjoying a half-term holiday in a romantic, windswept summer landscape of sandy bays, fishing harbours and rugged cliff crests from which the remains of old mining chimneys poke like blackened fingers amid the empty shells of abandoned engine houses, themselves suggestive of a long vanished era as they totter against a backdrop of waves pounding and crashing on jagged rocks that host hidden cave entrances from which, even further back in time, pirates and smugglers once plied their murderous trades.

These elements are all authentic components of the shooting location’s true history, the landscape of the Penwith Peninsula dictating both the atmosphere inspired by such picturesque Cornish scenery -- which director of photography Ronald Maasz (an experienced camera operator and second unit DP who’d been working in the industry since the 1940s) manages to capture so convincingly -- and the very subject matter itself, which story creator Terry Barbour and director and co-writer Andrew Bogle co-opt from local legends and myths attached to this evocative place -- where a documented history of industrial development and working class poverty share space in the imagination with folk beliefs about spectral lights in disused mine shafts, and the sound of ghostly tappings echoing through abandoned tunnels.

In the story, a tragic past involving the dangerous work that once used to be carried out in local tin mines by children as young as Josh is now, amid tunnels which stretch hundreds of miles below the surface of the sea, is reawakened when Bill Roche, the divorced American CEO of Aminco Mining (Bob Sherman) -- who happens to be holidaying in the region with his daughter Becky (Amy Taylor) -- finds his free time cut short after the discovery of a rich seam of tin ore in the infamous old Stranglers Head mineshaft compels him to investigate on behalf of the company. As he contemplates reopening the mine for business, the local community consider the prospect of more work coming to the region, in an area struggling with declining prosperity.

One family potentially affected by the news are the Holmans: Josh’s older brother Daniel (Peter Lovstrom) considers augmenting the living he and his father (Brian Osborne) have been making as fishermen and volunteers to help clear the rubble which has built up in the old shaft over the intervening decades since work originally stopped. Meanwhile, Josh is reluctantly drafted by his mother (former Hammer star Barbara Ewing) into spending the day with Becky while her dad is shown around the tunnels and shafts of the potentially profitable mine by a local employee of Aminco, accompanied by Daniel, and Jack (Patrick Murray – better known for his character Mickey Pearce in Only Fools and Horses) -- a friend of Daniel’s who’s also looking to find employment as a mine-clearing labourer. But the very suggestion of operations starting up again at the Strangles Head mine brings local ‘eccentric’ Captain Tregellis (Andrew Keir – Dracula Prince of Darkness) out of the woodwork with dire warnings of what might happen if this site “which is owned by the Devil” is ever reactivated.  “Too many souls have been lost in pursuit of its treasures,” old Tregellis warns the bemused American; “there are spirits entangled in its depths. Disturb them at your peril!”

The film plays up a contrasting imagery of light and darkness, as evinced by gorgeous summer coastal views that Bogle and Maasz conjure from Cornish cliff-top pathways and hills which gaze down on dramatic vistas and rocky coastlines, setting this bucolic vision against the dank, dark, clammy tunnel-ways stretching under the sea and now explored by Roche and the mine experts. Above ground is a region of play and exploration for the two child protagonists; below, the memory of a benighted past of industrial exploitation and poverty lies buried but ready to be exposed at any moment with the opening up of the mine for work once again. The link between the two worlds is Josh – who is the only person able to see the ghost of Billy Bray (Philip Martin): a child worker who perished during a mining accident in the early part of the 20th century, and who now returns with whispered messages in an old Cornish dialect, and haunting visitations that warn of another disaster about to occur in the present. Bogle stages these ghostly sightings with real sensitivity and skill, bringing the blindness and disorientation of the circumstances surrounding the boy’s demise into the picturesque daylight world inhabited by his contemporary equivalent. Billy’s ghost often appears dimly set in a swirling bank of fog that partially envelopes him, creating imagery very reminiscent, in the mise-en-scène it establishes, to John Carpenter’s 1980 film The Fog.

With the spectral figure of Billy often inhabiting some haunted-looking landscape tableaux, and a memorable sound design of eerie wailing by ‘the Spriggins’ (dead miners whose souls have been trapped in the shafts they perished in), Haunters of the Deep contains plenty of chills to give its young viewers nightmares, but it also draws poignant parallels between the present and the past through Andrew Keir’s character Tregellis. He turns out to be a former mining Captain who started work in the tin mines as a young boy. As Josh and Becky bond over their fascination with Tregellis’s knowledge of the minerals to be found in the region as well as the history of Cornish mining (“the definition of a mine is any hole in the ground with a Cornish man at the bottom of it!”), overcoming the vast differences in their backgrounds while they discover this buried store of local lore (Becky’s is privileged but marred by the divorce of her parents; Josh’s family are poor but extremely close-knit), Josh notices a photograph on the wall of Tregellis’s cottage, depicting the spectral boy whose gravestone he earlier found himself facing, after having been somehow led to it through eerie mists until he arrived at a graveyard adjacent to a cliff-top chapel. It emerges that Billy was Tregellis’s boyhood pal.
The old mine Captain, consumed by survivor guilt for not having been able to rescue Billy, is able to assist in the translation of the dialect still being used by the boy for his whispered warnings, but is unable to see his former best friend now; he remains cut off from his boyhood past by the intervening years of adulthood. It is Josh who must in the end venture into the mine and confront the pain of the past in order to rescue Becky’s father and his own older brother, after a rock fall in one of the tunnels traps the mining party deep underground, just as Billy Bray and the Spriggins predicted. The second half of the film takes us into standard adventure/rescue CFF territory, yet is imbued with a sense of tragedy linked to the past as Josh experiences further encounters with more long-dead ghostly visitors, which become ever more intense as he and Becky (rather irresponsibly encouraged by Tregellis) venture down a tunnel they’ve been led to earlier by Billy which leads to a shaft that might eventually provide an escape route for the trapped men.

Haunters of the Deep effortlessly combines the history, folklore and superstitions of the actual region it was filmed in with a typical tacked on uplifting positive CFF message, in which young people are show to overcome their fears and in the process display moral fortitude and a spirit of adventure. Although there are pompous or cowardly minor characters in the film, unusually, there are no real villains portrayed -- with even the CEO of the mining company coming across as likable. And the Spriggins, initially set up almost as demonic spectres, intent on causing mayhem and disaster, are eventually proven to have been merely emissaries from a realm that brings only a warning from the deepest recesses of the landscape’s past about what the future might hold if one does not pay heed to what has been before.

The same potent mixture of folk horror that includes strong Gothic undertones continues with the third and last of the trio of tales included with this set. Out of the Past is yet another story rooted in a corner of history intimately tied to a surviving landscape in which many of the narrative’s events actually took place in some form. This time CFF veteran and TV director John Krish presides over one of the CFTF’s most haunting tales, based on the novel The Ivy Garland” by John Hoyland. Tom (Gary Halliday) accompanies his best friend Mike Neil (Michael Flowers) and his family -- which is made up of Mike’s mother (Jenny Tarren) and his sister Penny (Emma Ingham) -- on a trip to the Derbyshire village of Stonewell, where the Neils have bought an old cottage in need of renovation as a possible holiday home.
They are intrigued to learn from local museum owner, folklorist and part-time paranormal investigator, Julian Reid (Michael Carter), that the cottage was once a 17th century plague house, which had a particularly dark role to play in a piece of local lore which has haunted the village of Stonewell for three hundred years: an entire family who once lived inside these unchanged stone walls during the plague years of the 1660s  were buried within its confines, in the back garden, after succumbing to the Black Death, to try to halt the further spread of the disease – a common practice at the time, which is the reason why so many gravestones are scattered all over the villages of the Derbyshire countryside, so close to places that are still used today as residences. However, their deaths occurred soon after the family had taken in an orphaned boy: the son of friends in the neighbouring village of Eaym, who had been secretly sent to live with them by his parents just before they too fell to the infection decimating the population of their own village. The local history books tell that, fearing this lad to be a carrier who now risked condemning Stonewell to the same fate as that which had befallen the quarantined Eaym, the entire village turned on him, and forced him out into the woods, after having first commissioned the local blacksmith to forge an iron collar with a bell attached to it which they forced him to wear in order to warn them if he ever tried to venture back into populated areas of the village at night. When, driven to by starvation and the cold, the boy did finally attempt to come back, the entire community gathered once more as a mob … and murdered him.
Once again, although the legend related above is fictional, the makers of this drama were tapping into real events from the 1660s, when plague did indeed sweep many areas of the country, shaping in the process much of the character and feel of the Derbyshire locations shown throughout this evocative film. The story resonates historically because the village of Eaym is indeed remembered for choosing to isolate itself from the outside world rather than spread the plague elsewhere; and the scenery so evocatively caught on film here by director of photography Ray Orten -- the dry stone walls crisscrossing escarpments between pasture land and the unchanged 17th century face of much of the village architecture itself (not to mention the numerous old gravestones seen sprouting up in unusual places) – suggests how the past envelops and dominates the present in this region; and this, indeed, is made the central theme of the film. It is as if the collective consciousness of the present population of Stonewell is unknowingly trapped in a time-warp of ancestral guilt over the actions of its forebears, preserved by its local legends for historical posterity.

 Again, one boy proves especially attuned to the past’s plaintive call: perhaps because Tom is also a guest of the Neil family, accepted by them as one of their own yet still at the same time an outsider, he shares something in common with the nameless ‘boy from Eyam’ -- who similarly became the guest of a kindly neighbouring family, but paid a terrible price as a result. By far the eeriest of the three stories in this collection, Out of the Past portrays the collision of the past and the present through some extremely creepy dreamlike sequences that director John Krish imbues with a very effectively rendered hallucinogenic quality. Tom’s first experience of the supernatural comes as a strong feeling of foreboding upon his first entering the old cottage rather than an actual ghostly sighting -- but it is conveyed to the viewer through a haunting sound design and a placement of the camera that somehow captures Tom’s palpable sense of dread. The first appearance of the spectral boy himself, seen by Tom gazing through the second storey bedroom window of the guest house that he and the family are staying in during their holiday, is oddly matter-of-fact in its presentation and yet leaves one with a clear sense of the scene’s uncanniness, especially when we are reminded how the boy would have to have been floating several feet off of the ground in order to be able to appear in such a position. The ghostly boy’s visitations are subsequently announced by the tinkling of the bell that legend records having been attached to his neck, leading to a jokey scene where Tom and Mike stay up late to try and see the ghost together, but mistake the ginger pet cat that belongs to the owners of the guest house for the spirit, when they hear the tinkling of a bell from the pet’s collar as it nocturnally prowls the garden.

The film makes good thematic use of the standard motives often used to embellish many traditional ghost antecedents -- both literary and anecdotal – providing them with a reason for their manifestations upon this earthly plane: namely, a need to be remembered by somebody living, and for the site of their death to be discovered so that their remains can be properly laid to rest, thus allowing them to move on.  The problem of memory and the means by which we discover and commemorate historical events, and what the experiences of our ancestors is capable of saying to us about ourselves in the present, are themes which are particularly prominent in many ghost stories, and nowhere are they more evident than in this one. Tom also has vivid and disturbing visions of the experiences that were endured by the Eyam boy during his ordeal, and he feels the full onslaught of the fear and anger the boy inspired in the villagers of three hundred years past. But the film’s most haunting sequence comes during a supernatural experience that, in fact, happens to Penny when the three youngsters spend the day at the cottage by themselves: after falling asleep in a windowsill, the young girl has an out of body experience that seems to take her back three hundred years to witness through semi-blinding light and fog, from the top of the cottage staircase, the small coffin of a child being removed from a room that she and her peers were minutes earlier happily playing in, borne by a cloaked figure wearing one of the age’s characteristic wide-brimmed puritan black hats.
The unbroken line of ancestry connecting the past to the present becomes noticeable in the very faces of the villagers Tom witnesses persecuting the unfortunate boy during his own visions of the 1660s, experienced when the family visit what seems to be a perfectly picturesque hillside to soak up some history,that also turns out to have been the site of one such instance of mob injustice. The faces of the mob are the same as those possessed by the apparently benign figures Tom encounters in present day Stonewell: the local garage mechanic (Roy Holder) looks the same as the blacksmith who made and placed the collar and bell around the lad’s neck and then led the fearful villagers on its terrible hunt; and that mob is itself also made up of a lot of the same faces we see elsewhere in the present day community, such as the mute cleaning lady from the guest house (Hilary Sesta) and the lady at the counter of the local corner shop – a visual metaphor to emphasis the museum curator Mr Reid’s point that the 17th century atrocity might seem remote to contemporary eyes, but that it was carried out by ‘ordinary good people’ who were turned into savages by fear.

Reid’s interest in the village's past and its vestigial ghost turns out to be the result of his determination to find out if one of his own esteemed ancestors also took part in the villagers’ actions that day all those years ago, or whether he attempted to stop the tragedy, but failed. Ghosts offer us the promise of being able directly to perceive a past which is otherwise liable to become obscured by myth and legend; they bring with the contradiction of their non-corporeal bodies a sense of the past’s resistance to full exposure, while holding out the possibility of our untangling the mysteries of its circumstances and bringing resolution to the problems of the present through remedying and laying to rest the pain and legacy that lingers on as a bequest of an obscured history. Here, that idea is combined with a traditional CFF adventure-type approach to the final act, in which Tom finds himself literally transported through time and trapped in the 17th century after becoming lost in the very woods that the Plague boy was himself banished to just before his death. He takes the place of the victim, experiencing directly the events which led to his demise and risking re-enacting the same fate while he is being pursued by the same torch-bearing villagers -- unless his two friends and Mr Reid are able to reach him in time.

The synergy that’s formed between that 17th century hunt and the attempts of the village mob’s present day ancestors to organise themselves into an equivalent search party -- but this time with the objective of saving Tom rather than condemning him -- helps put a positive spin on some dark material. Tom’s literal re-enactment of the past enables him to discover the site of the ghost boy’s remains, and in doing so he also helps to partially lift the shadow of shame which has blanketed the village of Stonewell for centuries; for it transpires that the boy’s death was in part accidental rather than a deliberate act of collective murder. Out of the Past succeeds in taking on a sensitive area of history and turning it into an engaging ghostly adventure that, while ticking all the adventuring boxes demanded of any CFF or CFTF story, delivers some effective, atmospheric imagery which takes place in a compelling pastoral landscape emblematic of the region’s folkloric history.
This collection features all three films on a single DVD disc with re-mastered High Definition transfers. There are no other extras on the disc but a booklet is included with an introduction by film historian Andrew Roberts; an overview of the CFF’s work by film lecturer Robert Shail; screenwriter John Tully’s recollections of working on The Man from Nowhere; a contextualising piece on Haunters from the Deep by associate professor in Film and Television Studies Rachel Moseley; and a short essay by actor Michael Carter on his memories of making Out of the Darkness. In addition the booklet contains full cast lists for each film and production stills. 

As well as the DVD edition, this volume will also be made available from the BFI as an app, which can be downloaded from the Android store and is priced £4.99.


Saturday, 29 June 2013


The third of the BFI’s essential new series of DVD releases, celebrating the very best of the Saturday Morning picture features produced across four decades of the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF), continues with the best entry in the collection so far: Weird Tales offers up a tantalising trio of bizarre adventures that see the CFF plunging into some of the wilder areas of film fantasy, each example here, as usual, running at just under an hour in length each, but serving up a rich and varied menu of delights over the course of their various proceedings, during which: Patrick Troughton resumes his time travelling activities in the 1970s, outside of his stint as the second Doctor in the BBC’s DOCTOR WHO; there's also an unexpected late-career reunion of ‘40s filmmaking powerhouse Powell and Pressburger, aka The Archers, which results in an offbeat trip into psychedelic pop art craziness; and, in the earliest of the three gems included on the disc, we have the return to England of the man whose work as a director in the 1940s for Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios  included the definitive wartime propaganda film Went the Day Well? (1942) and the famous Ventriloquist’s Dummy segment from British horror anthology classic Dead of Night (1945) -- the Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti.

After his stint at Ealing, Cavalcanti returned to his native Brazil in 1950. But, in the event of being blacklisted there as a Communist, he found himself back in Europe and forced to work as a director for hire in a number of countries throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Understandably after such a distinguished career -- first as an experimental documentary-maker in France and Britain (where he worked for the GPO Film Unit during the war) and then as an art editor, producer and director for Ealing Studios -- suddenly to find himself reduced to making a low budget, fifty-six minute monster movie for children, shot on Hampstead Heath, felt like a huge comedown. But the 1961 feature, The Monster of Highgate Ponds, is in fact a charmingly naïve tale with a lyrical ambience, which applies the familiar values of the CFF in a more fantastical context than usual. The film’s trio of well-spoken role model youngsters find themselves charged with the unusual task of harbouring and feeding a “prehistoric Malaysian Dragon” in a leafy region of North London, and are seen applying ingenuity, dedication and enthusiastic hard work in pursuit of this altruistic task, happily spending all their pocket money and engaging in carrying out helpful odd jobs for the community to supplement their income so that they can pay the local fishmonger for the increasing quantities of fish feed and kippers the rapidly developing monster requires! 
Despite its lowly children’s matinee status, the film also sees Cavalcanti teaming up with the doyens of the British animation company  Halas & Batchelor, then famous for the production of Britain’s first full-length animated feature film -- an adaptation of George Orwell’s novel  Animal Farm. Founded by Hungarian animator John Halas in 1936 after he moved to England and teamed up with his British-born wife, the animator, director and producer Joy Batchelor, the company went on to produce a series of propaganda shorts for the Atlee Government after the war, but found it increasingly difficult to raise funding for other full-length animated features in order to build on the success of Animal Farm. The Monster of Highgate Ponds represented a move away from their traditional genre into live-action work, with the CFF providing helpful guidance. Halas is credited as producer on the project while Batchelor provided the original story scenario from which novelist, script editor and CFF screenwriter Mary Cathcart Borer drew her shooting script. The couple’s animation skills are still put to good use, though, particularly during the early portions of the film, when the freshly hatched baby dragon is appealingly animated using stop-motion techniques.
The film introduces us to some of the typical lower-middle class child protagonists that were common to the late-fifties/early-sixties period of the CFF’s development. Friends David (Michael Wade) and Chris (Terry Raven) are your typical boisterous but good-natured youngsters -- floppy of hair and baggy of short -- who’ve been promised a bike if they can stay out of trouble over the summer holidays. David’s younger sister, Sophie (Rachel Clay – later one of the radioactive children in Hammer’s dystopian SF feature The Damned [1963]), is all cuteness, pigtails & straw bonnets with guileless one-liners. When David and Sophie’s pipe-and-cardigan wearing explorer relative Uncle Dick (The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb’s Ronald Howard) returns from his adventures in Malaysia with a number of crates to be unpacked and their contents labelled for the British Museum’s new collection, the gang is happy to accompany him there to help. One of the crates holds a large egg which was given to Uncle Dick by “the chief of a Malaysian hunter tribe” and David is charged with looking after it and keeping it safe for his Uncle, on the flimsy grounds that it is not part of the official collection and therefore has no place in the museum’s display until it can be identified.
Despite noting how ominously warm it is, David happily obliges, and is dedicated in taking the mysterious egg everywhere with him. Unfortunately, it hatches whilst being hidden in his school-desk -- with the tiny dragon-like creature disrupting the class of pet-hating schoolmaster Philip Latham (Dracula Prince of Darkness [1966]) with lightly comic effect. David lets Chris in on the secret about the cute, mewling creature (forever calling for it's mama in perfect English!), which is by now stuffed into his satchel for the walk home -- but they both resolve to keep the creature's hatching from David’s sister when they spy her merrily skipping towards them down the street ... because obviously “girls can’t keep secrets”.   
The film’s first half is remarkably similar to E.T. the Extra-terrestrial in its construction and revolves around David attempting to hide the creature in his wardrobe at home without his mother and father finding out that he’s secretly pocketing food from the table so that he can keep the tiny, hungry dragon quiet. His nosey sister threatens to find out about ‘Beauty’ -- as David names the hatchling -- at any moment, particularly after the creature gets peckish during the night and starts whining, immediately alerting hawk-eared Sophie, who screams out for her parents in her bed and informs them that she believes David is being murdered next door!
 After a few days it becomes obvious that the creature is growing at an accelerated rate and is rapidly becoming too big to be hidden in the house for very much longer. Eventually Sophie finds out about it, but instantly shows that she’s much more clued up than the boys in how to go about hiding it's existence by coming up with a plan to smuggle Beauty across town to Hampstead Heath in her doll’s pram (another scene that is also highly reminiscent of a sequence from E.T.), whereupon the trio deposit it in one of the many public ponds in the area around Highgate.
When displayed as a hatchling, the mini monster is animated with stop-motion photography for its close-ups, but is conspicuous whenever shown or handled in medium shots, for simply being a rigidly immobile model toy. Once it gets to be around dog sized, though, a crude model on a stick is alternated with a glove puppet head in order to effect the illusion of the prehistoric creature having interaction with the children, while the full adult version of Beauty is clearly just an unfortunate stuntman encased in a cumbersome dragon suit and forced to wade through ponds and fields. 
Nevertheless, despite the evident crudity employed in bringing about the monster’s realisation for the screen, Cavalcanti is often able to conjure some wonderfully evocative long distance shots of it which evoke the contemporary resurgence of interest in the alleged existence of the Loch Ness Monster during the sixties, and also add a fantastical, even poetic quality to this mythical animal, which is designed to look like a storybook dragon incongruously transported to ‘60s Highgate.
With the creature now forced to hide out in the various boating ponds, fishing lakes and the mens’, ladies’ and mixed-sex bathing ponds (then familiar recreational facilities to the Hampstead shooting location), the story begins to concentrate itself around the children’s attempts to keep its existence secret from the adult world until their Uncle gets back from his latest trip. Naturally, the various adults who risk stumbling on the creature consist of the usual CFF stereotypes ripe for mockery, in this case headed up by Beryl Cooke’s busy-body middle-aged dog walker Mrs Haggerty, who dotes on her mischievous terrier and is the first person to spread the news when she inadvertently meets the pond-lurking dragon and is sent into hysteria at the sight of it. Another familiar trope of the CFF films from this period is the working class villain: here there are two of them -- fairground workers Sam (Frederick Piper) and Bert (Michael Balfour), who are in need of a star attraction for their menagerie and aquarium at Highgate Fair and are intent on trapping the creature and exploiting it for business purposes. After the children team up with their Uncle to guide the monster through Regent’s Canal to the nearby docks with the aim of shipping it back to Malaysia, where it can re-join its mother (Uncle Dick also has an ulterior motive in that he wants to track it back to its nest in order to be the one to discover the home of this lost race of mythical dragons), Sam and Bert indulge in comic misadventures with the aim of luring it away from the well-meaning children with kippers -- eventually enticing it into the back of a stolen van and absconding with it back to the fair. Unfortunately the game is up for the two fairground barkers after the monster cheekily nabs a bobbie’s helmet from the back of their stolen van!
The second half of the feature (which, all in all, only runs for 56 minutes in total) rather flags a little, as it includes a lengthy sequence in which the bumbling fair men track the children and their dragon charge across seemingly the whole of North London’s canal system towards Hawley Wharf, which rather slows down the pace to a crawl. But with Francis Chagrin’s by turns lilting, pastoral score (which turns percussive with a militaristic drumming tattoo when the monster inadvertently causes panic at Highgate swimming ponds) and Frank North’s crisply framed photography highlighting Cavalcanti’s thoughtful set-ups, which make the most of the bucolic Hampstead Heath locations across which the mythical creature is quietly led by its young friends, this remains a sweet-natured, likable fantasy fable, highlighting the more lyrical qualities of the traditional CFF story template. It ends with the wonderfully preposterous conceit of the prehistoric dragon getting a police escort to the docks thanks to some unusually unflappable authorities, while the dastardly showmen from the funfair are unceremoniously carted off to clinky for their crimes: although if they hadn’t stolen the van used to try and spirit the monster away in the first place, it’s difficult to see what actual crime they could’ve legitimately been banged up for.         

Jump forward eleven years to 1972 and the world seems a very different place. Although the main setting is still a pleasantly leafy Hampstead, gone are the scruffy but well-spoken middle-class tykes seen adventuring through a carefree world of bucolic public parks in an immaculate, sparsely populated capital, captured for posterity in pristine monochrome: now our 12-year-old protagonist seems fully au fait with the latest hippy fashions of the period and is allowed to turn up to school sporting a shoulder-length mop of hair, a sleeveless suede jacket with tassels and a battered sky blue canvas fishing hat, looking every inch the artistic bohemian free spirit. The film in question is possibly one of the most famous in the CFF catalogue, The Boy Who Turned Yellow. Not only was this smart 50 minute feature forever guaranteed a place in history simply for being the very last time director Michael Powell and his erstwhile Archers production partner screenwriter Emeric Pressburger got together to collaborate on a project, but it is also assuredly one of the most hallucinogenic pieces of work ever conceived under the CFF banner – a psychedelic acid trip on a cut-price budget, but with its educational remit still well to the fore even though, despite the title, the art direction and costume design sometimes seems to be tilting it more towards the Op Art stylings of A Clockwork Orange than the yellow brick road.
Nevertheless, The Wizard of Oz meets Lewis Carroll via a 1970s public information film seems a good way of thinking about this movie. It was Powell who suggested his old partner’s name when he was offered the chance to direct a modestly budgeted feature for the CFF during a stint of acting as a representative for the Producers’ Association in attendance at one of the monthly meetings held by the Foundation’s Advisory Board at the Rank Organisation's headquarters in Mayfair. In an extract from his biography Million Dollar Movie (reprinted in the accompanying booklet with the DVD), Powell claims Pressburger had always wanted to write something for children, but even the director of Peeping Tom was allegedly nonplussed by the slightly bonkers storyline the screenwriter came up with, in a script originally titled The Wife of Father Christmas.
Things get off to a deceptively conventional start in a lengthy pre-credits sequence that introduces best school pals John Saunders (Mark Dightam) and bespectacled science nerd pal Munro (Lem Kitaj), while both are among the bus load of kids being ferried on a school outing to the Tower of London, during which the mischievous Saunders loses one of his pet white mice in Lady Jane Grey’s bedroom, having smuggling the creatures out of the house in an attempt to circumvent his mother’s plans to have them quietly ‘got rid of’ while he’s away. The duo are forced to abandon the missing pet at the end of the day trip when the school party prepares to leave, but John’s thoughts return to the fate of the errant creature the next day during a physics lesson on electricity, when he dozes off at his desk, and is eventually sent home in disgrace for what is apparently a familiar occurrence.  
While he’s travelling home on the tube, though, something very odd happens: as John is playing about with his electric pen torch, a strange high-pitched whirring noise begins to echo through the train and turns both him and the pretty boutique-trendy young woman seated next to him in the compartment (who's reading a Penguin Classics copy of Of Mice and Men) -- as well as the tube train itself and everyone else in it -- a bright shade of canary yellow! From here on in the film proceeds with a particularly offbeat narrative full of strange leaps of surrealist logic and a breezy air of comic-strip insouciance. John’s parents are baffled by the whole affair (“Are you ill?” questions his horrified mother. “No, I’m just yellow!” John happily replies!) but the family Doctor (played by Powell & Pressburger regular Esmond Knight) can find nothing physically wrong with him, despite the fact that even his blood has changed colour! Soon it becomes apparent that this bizarre incident has been repeated across a region of London confined within an area of a certain radius. Newspapers carry headlines such as ‘Yellow Plague Hits London’ and the evening news reports that a total of 406 people have been affected by the unearthly phenomenon. It also indicates that Extra-Terrestrial interference has apparently been deduced by Government ‘experts’.  
This turns out to be the case when the television in the Saunders family living room starts calling out to John in a garbled electronic voice in the middle of the night, addressing him as “Mr John Saunders” while broadcasting a trippy display of flashing lights as it does so. From out of the screen emerges a representative of an alien species that feeds on electricity and who calls himself Nick (for electricity) -- played, appropriately enough, by an actor called Robert Eddison (best known for his role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Nick is also entirely yellow and wears a yellow tabard, yellow tights, yellow skies and a yellow motor cycle crash helmet with a blinking yellow light on top!
After feasting on the mains voltage from the house electricity supply (“240 Volts … my favourite dish!”), Nick informs John that by being turned yellow he has been endowed with special powers that allow him to see and communicate with Nick's otherwise-invisible species, while nobody else around is even aware of his presence. He shows John how to levitate and to slip between the electrical frequency waves in order to transport himself from place to place through the cables, after leaping into the TV screen. John was chosen for this close encounter of the third kind because he was judged to have a natural affinity for all things that are yellow (he supports Norwich City – the only team in the country to play in an all-yellow kit) and, as an act of friendship between their co-existing species, Nick resolves to transport John on an adventure, back into the bowels of the Tower of London, in order to help him find Father Christmas, his missing mouse!
The cinematography by Christopher Challis (The Tales of Hoffmann [1951], Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang [1968], The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes [1970]) shows off this odd little feature’s trippy back projection, its fluorescent lighting gels, and crazy art design to full effect -- resulting in a rich retro-mix of 1970s ambiance and primary coloured comic-strip exuberance. The story becomes increasingly disconnected from logic or any kind of sense as John enters into a crazy adventure in which the Tower’s Beefeater guards actually do sit around eating beef ... while also watching football on TV. After John gets captured and imprisoned in one of the Tower's cells he’s sentenced to be taken to the scaffold and beheaded by a hooded executioner (“mum won’t be very pleased!”) as if this was suddenly all taking place in the Middle Ages, despite the existence of television sets in the Beefeaters’ quarters! No one could call this jaunty little caper a high point in Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s film-making careers, but its melding of various plains of fantasy and reality recalls A Matter of Life or Death.
John is eventually transported through the electric wave forms back to his original revelry in physics class, before the trip home on the tube that turned him yellow -- yet he now has a prodigious knowledge of the physics of electricity and Father Christmas has been somehow recovered, having been joined by a brood of newly arrived baby mice! Pressburger’s script uses the memorable imagery and offbeat narrative as a means of relaying educational material about the science of electricity and the definition of words, etc, but it also includes a scene in which ‘Nick’ plugs himself into the home voltage supply by sticking his hand into a plug socket – making one wonder exactly how serious the Archers actually were about this film’s capacity to act as a teaching aid!  

The last of this trio of weird tales, A Hitch in Time from 1978, earns obvious instant interest from fans of retro cult TV for featuring Patrick Troughton as the inventor of a time travel machine, almost ten years after he’d regularly journeyed through both time and space on television between the years 1966 and 1969, appearing as the second Doctor in Doctor Who, his casting here being an obvious reference to that fact which more clued up younger fans would have been at least dimly aware of. Produced by the small independent company Eyeliner Film Limited, who excelled in the production of many a strange, oddball venture for the CFF, with films such as The Sky Bike, Blinker’s Spy-Spotter and The Boy with Two Heads, A Hitch in Time is also notable for being one of the final screenplays of versatile former Ealing Studios scribe T.E.B. Clarke, the man responsible for any number of timeless British classics like Passport to Pimlico [1949], The Lavender Hill Mob [1951] and The Titfield Thunderbolt [1953], between 1943 and 1957. Meanwhile, director Jan Darnley-Smith was a mainstay of the CFF, helming the classic Go Kart Go in 1964 and plenty of other entries in the Foundation’s large catalogue, mainly those produced by George H. Brown Productions. Although made for screenings at Saturday picture shows, the film is steeped in late-seventies Children’s TV tropes, from its quirky synth based score by Harry Robertson to its usurpation of core elements from not only the ever-popular Doctor Who  (from which, of course, it takes its time travelling premise), but also the Doctor’s 1970s ITV rival The Tomorrow People, whose influence shows up in the manner in which Professor Adam Wagstaff’s OSKA machine (Oscillating Shortwave Kinetic Amplifier) has the capacity to talk -- just like the organic computer TIM in the ITV series -- and in the use of recall belts which teleport the wearer out of their current location when a central button in the buckle is pressed, transporting them through the limbo of a space-like vortex while they wait for Wagstaff to fix the malfunctioning machine.

With its pastoral setting (‘filmed on location in the Home Counties’ declares the end credit scroll, proudly) and action centred on the interior of an ancient ruined castle bathed in pink and blue gel lighting, the atmosphere feels almost more like a Jean Rollin film during the opening scenes than the usual kiddie matinée feature material, but as soon as curious school pals Paul Gibson (Michael McVey) and  Fiona Hatton-Jones (Pheona McLellan) stumble in on Professor Wagstaff (Patrick Troughton) and his invention -- after first rescuing him from underneath some heavy computer equipment -- it’s not long before we’re back in familiar CFF territory, featuring eccentric or venal adults coming up against some spirited, adventurist kids who persuade the scatty inventor to let them be his experimental time travelling test subjects, since OSKA appears to have a bit of a problem dealing with, and transporting, adult-sized weights.
Their following truncated, episodic series of adventures through English history mainly revolve around only slightly varying permutations of basically the same scenario, in which the kids find themselves slap-bang in the middle of a variety of situations from different periods of the past, in which they go on to meet  ancestors of their hated history teacher ‘Sniffy’ Kemp (Jeff Rawle – providing another Doctor Who connection as he went on to appear in the fifth Doctor story Frontios, from 1984) who proves to be just as unlikable whether he’s a Regency dualist in 1816 or a Royalist traitor in 1645. They even meet the schoolboy version of their nemesis when they are unknowingly catapulted into the year 1953 on the eve of the coronation of Elizabeth II, returning to their old school to find that the younger Sniffy from this period also turns out to have once been a pupil there, and every inch the school bully!
 Slightly more touching are Paul and Fiona’s encounters with the ancestors of a likable schoolteacher called Miss Campbell (Sorcha Cusack) and Fiona’s affable hedge-trimming Grandfather (Ronnie Brody). Indeed, it often turns out that the children’s interventions in various episodes from history have in fact ensured the continuation of the ancestral line that eventually leads to their own births. Fiona’s Grandfather turns out to have been the head of a command post during the Blitz, situated in the very same castle tower Wagstaff now stores his time travel machine in -- a fact that allows Fiona to meet her Grandfather as a younger man  and to gain insight into some of the pressures this generation had to bear on the home front during the war; but after the two protagonists get separated in time, Fiona also finds herself in less authentic surroundings, having to rescue a medieval version of Miss Campbell from some black-robed, broomstick waving witches who are about to burn this fair maiden at the stake in a smoke-shrouded featureless landscape, the scene looking less like historical recreation of any particular era from the Dark Ages and more like a children’s matinée version of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth.
What connects all of these adventurers to each other  -- whether its stone age alter egos of Paula and Fiona battling bears in a network of caves, the dastardly Highwayman version of Sniffy abducting travellers the 1740s, or a Jester Wagstaff facing execution for failing to amuse King Edward III with Irishman jokes when he finally manages to take a jaunt through time himself to 1364 --  are the Professor’s endlessly bungled attempts to operate the OSKA machine correctly, which often lead to the children being snatched from one dangerous situation only to immediately be plunged into another, most of the time while kitted out in the wrong clothes for the era they’ve been promised  -- as when they borrow clothes from the school play production of Robin Hood after being told to expect a trip to England under Richard the Lionheart, but end up in Coronation Britain instead.
Everyone here looks as though they’re having tremendous fun, with Troughton relishing his extravagant facial hair and the eccentric unpredictability of his dotty inventor character, and Jeff Rawle providing an entertainingly exaggerated performance of boo-hiss pantomime villainy in whatever time period he crops up in. The interior castle sets are pretty crude and flimsy and the budget for the computer OSKA looks far less impressive than that which was available during most eras of classic Doctor Who, but with a relentless pace and changeable settings (even if these are sometimes only suggested with a change of costume) everything comes off looking unusually convincing, and there’s a good old fashioned traditional CFF ending on offer as well, in which the bullying present day schoolteacher version of Sniffy gets swapped for his baggy shorts-wearing former child self, and ends up being humiliatingly admonished by the school Head he’s been trying to ingratiate himself with all the way through the film, while at the same time being attacked by a bus-full of Fiona’s Lacrosse playing teammates when they storm the castle chambers during a climax that plays like a variation on the St Trinian’s  series. Even so, the whole spectacle still ends with the entire cast standing around the shamed Sniffy, laughing as he gets his comeuppance in proper comic-strip style.
All three films on this dual-layer disc have been digitally re-mastered to the highest quality possible after being transferred from materials held in the BFI National Archive. The Monster of Highgate Ponds was derived from the original 35mm fine grain duplicating positive and appears in its correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The Boy Who Turned Yellow was transferred in HD from a mix of interpositive and the original negative, and appears in the original 1.66:1 ratio; while A Hitch in Time comes from the original interpositive.

Accompanying the disc is an entertaining booklet of writings which include Vic Pratt’s scene-setting introduction; a review of The Monster of Highgate Ponds by curator at the National Archive Jez Stewart; and a short piece by Vivien Halas, daughter of writer Joy Batchelor, who recalls watching Alberto Cavacanti on set during the making of the film, when she herself was just a little girl. Even more detailed reminisces, this time encompassing a twenty-year friendship with Michael Powell in the latter years of his life, form the basis of Lem Kitaj’s piece on The Boy Who Turned Yellow. Under the name Lem Dobbs, Kitaj is better known today for his screenwriting stints for the films Kafka, Haywire, and Dark City but once upon a time he was science nerd Munro, seen here as the school chum sidekick of yellow hero John Saunders, whose small role in the film was the precursor to his family getting to know Powell quite intimately, enabling Kitaj to furnish the reader with a selection of fascinating anecdotes about various failed attempts to re-launch the veteran director's career. There is also an extract included from Michael Powell's memoir Million Dollar Brain in which Powell writes about his and Pressburger's involvement with the CFF. Finally Vic Pratt provides a nostalgic review of A Hitch in Time.

The BFI’s Children’s Film Foundation series continues to provide  fascinating, entertaining and nostalgia tinted insight into the evolution of Children’s entertainment from the early 1960s to the late-70s, with this third collection proving that the CFF could sometimes be original and inventive even while operating within the restrictive parameters of its remit. All three films here look fabulous and are sure to win new converts to the cause, as well as providing comfort viewing for those who remember them from the first time round.   
The Monster of Highgate Ponds (1961)/The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)/A Hitch in Time (1978)/Releasing Company: BFI/Genre: Children's Fiction/Format: DVD/Region: ALL/ Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti//Michael Powell/Jan Darnley-Smith/Cast: Michael Wade/Mark Digham/Michael McVey/Patrick Troughton