Sunday, 3 March 2013


The BFI’s laudable mission to preserve some of the best examples from the wide selection of independent features, produced in the UK under the Children’s Film Foundation banner from the mid-1950s onwards, continues with this second volume in the proposed series of individual DVD issues, which will be grouping together three films from each decade of the CFF’s thirty year-long history around a specific related theme or topic. This volume follows up on last year’s collection of urban adventure stories (released under the broad, and fairly inclusive title, London Tales) with a trio of films about competition and childhood -- featuring plucky, inquisitive, outdoorsy youngsters who are shown using their drive and industriousness to create or modify various contraptions capable of being raced, with the ultimate aim of entering into competitive endeavours and emerging from them victorious … but still with an appreciation for the importance of moral qualities such as decency and fair play, of course! Together, the three films which come under consideration in Volume Two – collected under the title The Race is On -- span the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and in doing so also incidentally highlight the changing face of postwar Britain (or more specifically, England) during the same period, up to around the late-seventies.

Setting these works side by side helps to turn each one of the films into fascinating social documents in their own right, charting not only the transformations in the landscape and layout of modern cities & towns and their surrounding suburbs across three decades, but also revealing subtle shifts in the imaginative role played by the concept of childhood itself which is a construct presented here by a series of writers and directors for a particular popular form of pictorial children’s fiction which was always intended to be seen by a wide audience made up of varying age groups. Relationships with parents and authority figures, and attitudes to play and competitiveness are seen to evolve as the focus shifts from implicitly middleclass values in the black-and-white era to a more socially inclusive and regional, mullti-racial outlook by the start of the eighties, while the core aims of the CFF are broadly adhered to throughout.
The Children’s Film Foundation was first created by the Odeon and Gaumont cinema chain owner J. Arthur Rank in 1951 using money from the Government’s British cinema ticket tax known as The Eady Levy, with the intention of providing good, clean wholesome fun for younger audiences, in a period when the egalitarianism which had been recently introduced into British society during the war years, vied with still lingering respect for social hierarchy and all the deference, restraint and conformity such traditionalism seemed still to guarantee. As David Kynaston writes in Family Britain: 1951 -57 children were still thought of very much as trainee adults in the mid-1950s, but an emerging youth culture and the rise of the teenager was contributing to a public perception that delinquency was increasing its hold on the nation’s young, with all sorts of bad influences competing to corrupt from afar – most of them, it seemed, American.
The CFF’s programme, headed by respected producer Mary Field who was appointed Chief Executive of the Foundation by Rank (the organisation's self-appointed Chairman), came of age when Saturday morning picture clubs for children were still a commonplace, and, as Vic Pratt writes in the accompanying booklet for this BFI release, ‘a house with a flickery, black-and-white television set was still a novelty’. These weekly matinee screenings offered a broad diet of continuing weekly serials, American Westerns, comedy shows and old cartoons. It was clearly the intention of the CFF to counter the perceived alien-ness of the American influence with a home-grown form of drama that exemplified more culturally innate values, practices and beliefs. Nevertheless, modern viewers of the first of these films might find themselves in for a bit of a shock, especially if they are parents: while writer and director Darcy Conyers’ wonderful film Soapbox Derby (1957) – made by the independent production company Rayant Pictures Limited – aims to depict an excitable group of 1950s twelve &thirteen year olds learning about responsibility, hard work, passion, commitment and endeavour, it also suggests an ideal of boyhood that is marked by a remarkably boisterous, rough & tumble attitude to life that demands a certain amount of everyday knocks and scraps, quite often risking injury as part of the natural growing up process that is necessary as part of learning from experience. The film concocts an representaton of childhood that seems like it’s a million miles away from our own far more protective and paranoid ideas about what constitutes an appropriate level of risk for children to be exposed to, despite the lost world of structured, adult-conceived and-approved organised hobbies and past-times the film portrays as being the norm. Girls, on the other hand, of course, are much more flighty beings: unpredictable, scatty little things, requiring constant looking out for.
The story revolves around the rivalry that exists between two youthful South London gangs of schoolboys, but is cleverly organised into a narrative form suggesting the structure of a wartime industrial espionage adventure. One of the gangs, The Battersea Bats, is led by Peter (the fifteen-year-old Michael Crawford): he’s an earnest but energetic, tousle-haired blonde lad who organises his members around the need to honour their gang with undivided loyalty, solemnly insisting they swear a pledge to always protect its secrets -- the latest of which is a plan for the Bats to make their own racing Go Kart in time to enter the heats for the upcoming Soapbox Grand Prix.

The members of the rival gang, The Victoria Victors, seem to prefer to spend most of their time snooping around their enemies’ ‘secret’ headquarters: the innards of an disintegrating, derelict haulage crane, once used to supply Battersea Power Station, whose chimney flues can still be seen here, belching smoke in the background of shot from across the Thames. Trying to find out what their enemies are up to is seemingly their only Raison d'être , but it's an activity which results in the first of many skirmishes breaking out between the two rivals near the beginning of the picture. In the seventies, kids in children’s films who recklessly played about and fought each other -- like this bunch do -- in an abandoned dockyard full of empty warehouses, surrounded by piles of bricks, unstable coal slag, rusting cranes and bits of old digger machines, long since discarded among abandoned coal carts and train waggons, would probably be expected to suffer dire consequences as an warning to any young viewers watching not to copy such an example. This safety conscious attitude can be seen in some of the later CFF films -- and it’s an outlook we’ve certainly inherited today. Here though, when a member of the Victoria Victors drops in on the Bats while they’re discussing their plans for the up-coming race, it kicks off a bout of energetic fisticuffs outside The Battersea Bats secret base, involving much dangerous-looking activity taking place amongst surroundings that look like a veritable death trap for small boys. Yet the whole sequence is scored by composer John Wooldridge with perky, frivolous brass cues and directed to appear like an appealing, exciting and enthralling piece of action rather than an ominous prelude to a serious accident. The general tone suggests that this sort of thing is all good-spirited roustabout behaviour that one should expect from healthy young lads. This despite the punch-up ending with one of the Victoria Victors’ members falling off the embankment wall into the Thames (actually he’s clearly pushed in by his opponent!) and consequently having to be rescued by Peter and the local Watchman -- a rosy-cheeked old duffer who turns out to be the Grandpa of one of the other Battersea bunch’s key members (Mark Daly – his last screen credit after a career made up of playing innumerable amiable old timers),  who scurries to the rescue brandishing an inflatable rubber ring.

All this ‘robust’ boyish activity may be of a character that is considerably riskier and more violent than the kind today’s children’s fiction seems inclined to sanction, but amid the chaos of baggy-shorted kids shown whacking each other full in the face then hurling one another over each other’s shoulders, there are some good honest values still to be imparted along the lines of what should constitute fair play in pitched boy gang battles: when a new, recently inducted member of The Battersea Bats called Lew Lender (Alan Coleshill) indulges in unsporting behaviour during the fight and gives one of the Victorias and unconscionable kick in the thigh when he’s already down on the ground and thus unable to defend himself, his own gang reject him for “dirty fighting” and cast him -- with a slap and a kick -- out of the group despite the fact that is dad would have been able to supply them with spair parts for their Go-Kart, while Grandpa Johnson gives the dripping gang rival, seen earlier cast into the Thames, a lift back to his house in his bubble car (which even gets a mention in the title credits as ‘Isetta of Great Britain Ltd’) while his enemies , the battle for today now over, happily wave him off.
The film continues by contrasting the values of fair play and healthy outdoorsy work and industry as exhibited by the Bats, with the dishonest, lazy, bullying, short-cut taking tactics displayed by the Victorias and the now displaced Lender, who straight away commits the ultimate sin of betraying his former allies’ secrets to his new gang by telling them about The Battersea Bats' plan to enter the Soapbox race. The current leader of the Victoria Victors (with the Alex James floppy fringe) rather finds himself playing second fiddle to Lender from then on, once the gang decides that they too must enter the same race in order to make sure their greatest rivals don’t win it: as previously mentioned, it turns out that Lew Lender’s dad runs a contractors business and so has ready access to all the materials the gang could ever need for making their own Go-Kart, with very little effort actually being needed from them in order to get the thing built. The bullish Mr Lender (Denis Shaw -- a familiar character actor face from the sixties, who would often pop up in assorted village taverns for no end of Hammer Horror outings during the period) simply plonks all the spare parts they’ll require in a heap on the ground in his junk yard and expects them to get on with it. Meanwhile, the Bats together illustrate a set of qualities in their efforts to prosper which are considered, in marked contrast to the mean-spirited and skimpy attitude displayed by their rivals, to be praiseworthy and positive virtues: between them the trio stand for a hearty form of enthusiasm channelled into organisational skill, careful planning and the ability to problem solve, ennobled by sheer hard graft that’s made to look enjoyable by embodying a fraternal spirit of pull-together team work.

The Battersea Bats’ three members divide neatly into certain character ‘types’, possessing a portion each of the positive qualities that are so vital to this race to make a successful vehicle from scratch. Michael Crawford was only around fifteen when he starred in this film, one of his earliest screen roles. His character, Peter, is clearly the leader of the bunch -- a freckle-faced group captain in knee-length shorts, coming up with the plans, enforcing the pledge to secrecy and spurring on his troops to stick with it when the going gets tough, although there is a potentially negative aspect to his character which comes out later on. Crawford’s future prowess at physical stunt work is already in evidence here as he -- along with several of the other boys, it has to be said -- is allowed to perform some remarkably hazardous-looking activities in front of the camera that would most definitely be frowned upon these days, further bringing home the point that ideas about what childhood play could justifiably entail have since become less tolerant of avoidable danger across the intervening decades. Peter comes up with “Operation Scrounge” – the plan to find all the bits and pieces the gang will need to create their Go Kart by begging and scrimping; while saving their limited funds to spend on the all-important wheels - which will need to be bought direct from the race organisers to make sure they come up to scratch.
The brains and planning behind the actual design for the vehicle belong to Bats founder member Foureyes Fulton (Roy Townsend – according to IMDb, this was his only acting gig), whose intellect proves him adept at piecing together a set of plans at home that will make an efficient, fast-moving machine, after he secures some cranks and a three-speed gear from a cyclist neighbour who promises to look in his shed for some spares. Foureyes (even his little sister refers to him by this politically incorrect nickname), is the most like a mini adult of the three protagonists, dressing in a little tweed suit and tie and looking like a slightly dishevelled miniature Charles Hawtrey in his bottle-top spectacles.

Finally Legs Johnson (Keith Davis) is the brawn of the gang: a toothy, thick thighed lad with an untidy ‘pudding bowl’ haircut who’s the other boys’ choice to drive the vehicle in the tests, the heats, and the final should they get that far. The film chronicles the Bats’ endeavours as they work to secure the nuts and bolts they’ll need for the build; as well as the steering wheel, wire cables and aluminium sheeting (which are all acquired from a car breakers’ yard) -- and then shows them diligently coming together back at base to realise Foureyes’ brilliant plans. They encounter problems during the construction that require a re-think of the whole design, but eventually the gang end up with a working vehicle that they can test out at the local park. All of this character-forming hard work and responsible, committed action is shown to be in marked contrast to the methods of the Victoria Victors, who quickly cobble together an unwieldy-looking beast without any proper planning, and are merely relying on materials supplied by Lew’s dad, who himself displays an unhelpful and unsporting attitude which has clearly rubbed off on his yobbish son. led by Lew Lender, the Victorias spy on the Bats’ test run in the park from behind bushes and plot sabotage and then theft of Foureyes’ secret design sketches, which are hidden in the living room clock cabinet in his house.

While all the boys in both groups are always characterised and defined by their engagement in projects that involve energetically doing things – for good or for ill -- planning, thinking, or performing tasks or activities, the presentation of female characters is a different thing altogether. The only girl given any active role in the story is Foureyes’ younger sister Betty (Carla Challoner), who is introduced to us as a slightly clumsy, ditsy creature obsessed with her favourite toy doll, Maureen. Unusually, the boys of The Battersea Bats are more tolerant of her than boys in CFF films usually are of girls, even willingly allowing her to come along to their test trial in the park when Foureyes’ mum Mrs Fulton (Jean Ireland) tells them that they have to look after her for the day. Betty is clearly intended as comic relief, but that comedy is derived from contrasting her muddled fluff-headedness with the boys’ diligent, purposeful action so that, for example, we have scenes in which the lads might be hunched over the dining room table examining Foureyes’ car design, or out at the park testing the vehicle, while Betty is always pictured in the background of shot either talking nonsense to her doll and falling over furniture, or skipping smilingly behind the test cart in the park while Legs Johnson is concentrating on the steering.
The girl is clearly also being set up as a potential weak link in the gang’s armour, who might accidently blab their secrets to the other side. In actual fact, we’re also being encouraged to feel protective towards her; it is part of the same construction of responsible boyhood being promoted in the film, to see girls as cute, docile and inherently domestic. While the boys’ hobbyist’ pursuits are categorised as a means of a play-form of acquiring necessary experience of the complexities of adult life, a girl is merely a pleasant diversion from the stresses and strains of work, an adornment that has to be cared for as part of the male’s inherited societal responsibility, but who plays no active part in the shaping of events. That’s why Lew’s actions towards her ultimately make him the unredeemable bad guy of the film when he breaks into the Fultons’ house, rifles through their living room drawers and cupboards to look for the plans in front of a bemused Betty, then tricks the girl into giving up their location – threatening to smash her doll Maureen if she tells on him. Lew’s actions inadvertently cause a life-threatening accident involving Betty, and a rift between the Bats lads after Peter sees Lew looking at the stolen plans in the street and hastily draws the wrong conclusion that Foureyes has betrayed the gang, cornering his chief designer on his doorstep and accusing him: ‘you’ve given away our secrets – that’s what matters! You deserve to be chucked out of the gang!’ Peter’s lack of trust provides Lew (under guidance from his unscrupulous father, who has clearly brought the lad up as a wrong ‘un) the chance of recruiting Foureyes to the Victoria Victors for real, since the gentle bespectacled lad  is unaware of Lew’s culpability in Betty’s accident and that it was he who originally stole the plans from his house. Lew tricks Foureyes into feeling an obligation to help the Victorias by offering to help him to pay for a new doll for Betty as a replacement for the destroyed Maureen – the doll being the ultimate symbol of the boys’ failure to protect their giggly pig-tailed mascot, who now lies injured in hospital.

While the children in the story are always the prime movers in generating action and moving the plot forward, adults are presented as benign but passive authority figures, mostly kept in the background. They set parameters for the youngsters but are not really part of their world. Thus Mrs Fulton unknowingly makes a suggestion that undermines Foureyes’ status within the group when she offers his old pram wheels for the Go-Kart (‘Oh mummy! This is a proper racing car!’) and treats the project like a child’s fancy rather than a serious endeavour. Other adults offer their help in various ways but don’t view the boys’ efforts as being particularly worthy of serious consideration. The only real exceptions to this rule are Legs’ Grandpa and Mr Lender, each of whom behaves more like an overgrown schoolboy than the heroes themselves: Grandpa Johnson provides bubble car transport and causes chaos through his inability to reverse properly, while the childish bully Mr Lender is so invested in his son coming out on top that he even takes part in fights against Lew’s young opponents! And if one thought the opening dockside punch-up was promoting dangerous activity then just look at what these supposed adults get up to after Mr Lender encourages his son to steal the Bats’ Go Kart when it trounces their effort in the Stage One heats, helping Lew out with a plan to throw it into the Thames! When they’re disturbed before they can dispose of it, the father & son villains load it onto the back of Mr Lender’s truck instead and take it to a sand pit to be buried. The resultant climactic punch-up before the racing finale would’ve got both Grandpa Johnson and Mr Lender locked up for quite a while for their part in it, and their encouragement of some very reckless activity on a dangerous work site!

The final act contrives to have Peter being forced to replace Legs as driver in the racing face-off between The Battersea Bats and the Victoria Victors, while Foureyes ends up taking control of the rival’s contraption (after Lew earlier predictably cheated to earn the gang’s place in the final -- but has since been ‘detained’ at the sand pit showdown). The end of the film has Betty make a recovery just in time to reveal all and bring about a reconciliation between Peter and her brother, before Lew and Mr Lender are ritually humiliated in the traditional CFF chase scene climaxing with the bad guys slipping and falling over in some mud, while the rest of the cast stand aside pointing and laughing at their plight!
Like most of the CFF’s output, almost all of the action is shot on location, affording lots of glimpses of a changing London: the gritty black-and-white photography captures collier boats steaming across the Thames, supplying a smoking Battersea Power Station; crowed pedestrian streets and marketplaces full of now-unfamiliar store names display late 1950s London and its contemporary traffic in all its authentic glory; while clean-looking new build, identikit terraced housing provides the setting for the Fultons’ neat house with its flock wallpaper and 14” Bush TV set in the corner.
Come 1967, the earthy black-and-white grittiness of Soapbox Derby has been exchanged for glorious colour, and city locations for green and leafy English suburbia in the equally enchanting The Sky-Bike. This is a slightly more whimsical picture about a boy called Tom Smith (Spencer Shires) who loves flight and dreams of nothing but being able to fly. Literally: his bedroom wall is plastered with pictures of planes and flying contraptions and he has an out-of-body-experience while he sleeps as the film’s chirpy sing-along title number by Frank Goodwin and Harry Robinson pounds out, in which he dreams of his spirit rising and leaving his sleeping body and flying out of the window at night. The boy spends most of his time daydreaming and walks about imagining himself as a pilot receiving instructions from ground control – to the extent that he ends up in a heap at the bottom of the stairs when he gets up in the morning after fantasising that he’d be able to sail down to breakfast using his dad’s umbrella, Mary Poppins style.
Tom has a best mate called Bill (nicknamed Porker because he’s slightly on the chunky side, played by Ian Ellis) and goes for bike rides at an old abandoned airfield with him and his sister Daphne (Della Rands). But when he encounters an eccentric old man called Mr Lovejoy (who turns out to be the local funeral director, Mr Graves – geddit?) while out on a solitary ride with only his fantasies of flight for company, he gets drawn into the old man’s quest to build a foot-peddled flying contraption for a local competition run by the aeronautics society, that’s aiming to find the first person who can build and fly such a device in a figure-of-eight pattern, unaided by a motorised engine. Lovejoy’s flying machine is built from an old tandem bicycle fitted with flapping wings, and is clearly an unworkable Heath Robinson contraption; but Tom names it the Sky-Bike and commits to helping the old man (Liam Redmond, Night of the Demon, 1958) perfect the impossible machine, even creeping out at night to work on it in the shed at the airfield where it’s secretly being kept, and emerging in the early hours of the morning on the day his family is meant to be going on their holidays, too tired to stay awake during the car journey as his good natured, pipe-smoking dad attempts to point out local sights of interest: ‘kids these days just aren’t interested in anything anymore,’ bemoans Mr Smith (William Lucas).
The Sky-Bike conjures up a blissful, nostalgic world of endless blue sky summer holidays where birds chirp melodiously in bucolic country lanes and the red telephone boxes gleam bright and new in the sun which blazes down from cloudless skies onto the crunchy gravel driveways and freshly cut park lawns of sixties suburbia. Whereas Soapbox Derby was a down to earth, to some extent realistic, portrayal of boys coming of age and entering into the values of a middleclass adult world of responsibility and fair play (unlike the shifty working class Lender clan and their ilk), this film presents a protagonist who is more of a dreamer, and who lives in his own head half the time, and who  worries and annoys his mum (Ellen McIntosh) because he’s always late home for tea and forgets to run simple errands through being so caught up in his fantasy world of play (he gets sent to the library to return a book but gets so engrossed in searching for Mr Lovejoy’s address in the Records Department that he ends up coming back with it still secured to the back of his bike!).
Tom’s obsessions bind him to the eccentric pursuits of Mr Lovejoy, who is clearly too old and out of puff to get his flying contraption off the ground, despite his unending enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the film essays a version of essentially the same plot seen in the previous 1950s film, in which the couple’s commitment and effort literally see their dreams come true when the ramshackle device does somehow gain the ability to fly (giving the story a magical, much more fantastical quality than its predecessor); but the duo then have to contend with sabotage and kidnap from a jealous rival group who have also entered the same competition and have been using the same strip of ground to test their much more sophisticated machine.
Once again, the rivals are a wealthy bunch of authority figures that include David Lodge as a ‘little Hitler-ish’ airfield guard, Bill Shine as upper crust busybody Wingco, and Guy Standeven as a stiff-lipped squadron leader who has a WW1 fighter plane in tow for creating a slipstream to help his team’s device get off the ground. Just as we saw in the first film of this set, the rival competitors are not content with this kind of flagrant cheating to ensure they win, they also trick a disgruntled Porker (angry about being left out of Tom and Mr Lovejoy’s secret plans) into giving away the location of the Sky-Bike, which they then smash up, for good measure abducting Mr Lovejoy as well -- just to make sure he won’t be competing with them -- and leaving him bound, gagged and locked up in a public convenience while they prepare to make their bid to snatch the competition prize.
The thrust of this version of the same narrative becomes about Tom’s world of apparently unrealisable fantasy being made the reality. Initially, all adults apart from Mr Lovejoy (and by implication the rival competitive group) are out of the loop with regard to the existence of the Sky-Bike and Tom’s involvement in the competition, but after the machine is destroyed, everybody in Tom’s life is drawn into coming together to make the impossible happen. Daphne, as the only girl in the film, is naturally tasked with sowing the shredded ‘wings’ back together and Tom’s mum and dad are there for support when Porker comes to his senses, realises he’s been used by the others, and reveals the whereabouts of the kidnapped Lovejoy. It ends up being Tom and Porker who take to the skies in pursuit of their competitors’ craft when the old man admits that he’s too old to take part, and the race becomes an enjoyable fantasy spectacle of impossible flight as cumbersome peddle bikes with flapping wings vie for control for the skies in what is a charming, easy going tale made  that much more watchable thanks to some gorgeous photography courtesy of Straw Dogs and Witchfinder General cinematographer John Coquillon and some artful direction by The Cruel Sea director Charles Fend, who injects some of that late-sixties ITC drama feel into the pacing, having worked on so many episodes of such dramas, including Danger Man and Man in a Suitcase before helming this -- his last directorial work. And very fine it is too.

Jeremy Summers is even more of a name to be reckoned with when considering adventure TV and film series of the 1960s and 1970s: numerous episodes of Danger Man, The Saint, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Jason King, UFO and The Protectors stand out in his filmography, while in the ‘80s and ‘90s everything from All Creatures Great and Small and Tenko to Howard’s Way and Hollyoaks, Brookside and The Bill mark Summers down as one of the most ubiquitous directors to have worked in British TV. He also directed Tony Hancock in the film The Punch and Judy Man (1963) and Christopher Lee in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967).
The CFF film Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978) sits respectably in the middle of this list, having become one of the most popular and affectionately remembered of the entire Foundation series. The film builds on the fantasy elements essayed in The Sky-Bike but there had clearly been a shift in tone by the late-seventies. Now young Sammy Smith (Reggie Winch) is a cockney rather than an impeccably middleclass young chap, and his best friend Marv (Lawrie Mark) is of West Indian origin. Although filmed in leafy Surrey, the skies are perpetually overcast and grey and the surroundings mainly redolent of brick and concrete, with dull patches of overgrown urban field and the local cinder athletics track being the main focus of play. The film was written by Frank Goodwin and Harry Robertson who, you may have noticed, provided the upbeat theme song for The Sky-Bike. Godwin also produced this film for the Foundation and Robertson again provides a catchy sing-along theme song for it, which is even more chipper than the previous effort, helping to establish the broader tone of fantasy comedy the film will deal in and which had become the vogue by this period in the CFF’s history. Sammy’s Super T-Shirt is essentially a charming, knockabout parody of the popular American TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, which ran from 1973 to 1978 and was a big hit in the UK with a young male pre-secondary school age group. The central premise involves young Sammy gaining super powers after his T-Shirt is accidently made the subject of a special research programme that gives its wearer extraordinary strength and speed. It succeeds largely on the excellence of its perfectly chosen cast of British character actors who bring perfect, nuanced comic performance skills to abet the likable personalities of the two child leads.

The film opens in such a way as to suggest Sammy Smith is the only child of a one parent family, although the narrative is never so heavy handed as to make this an overt theme of the piece. It is notable though that we never see a male presence in the home, as we certainly do in the other two films of this collection. Instead, Sammy’s rather small and prosaic, two-up, two down terrace is run solely by his harassed mum, played nimbly in a handful of scenes by Carry On series veteran and comedy actress Patsy Rowlands. Sammy’s concerns and obsessions revolve around physical fitness. We see him in the first scene of the film ‘working out’ with a bull worker chest expander while listening to a self-motivation body-building course of cassette tapes on his portable tape recorder. We can’t help but notice that every wall of the bedroom is plastered with posters of male role models, famous at that time during the 1970s for promoting a masculinity defined by sporting prowess and/or physical excellence: figures such as Barry Sheen, James Hunt, Sebastian Coe and numerous footballing heroes and, with pride of place on the inside door of the room, the fictional character of Steve Austin, as played by Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man series. This again suggests a child overcompensating for a lack of a male presence in the home by focusing on these popular male heroes and consequently taking an excessive interest in building up his puny frame and increasing his running speed in time to compete in a local long distance track race being organised in his area for the local children.
Sammy’s diminished size and weedy frame make him perfect fodder for the local bad lad bully boys, Big Sid (David Young) and Chalky (Keith Jayne), who pick on him and goad him in the street by stripping him of his favourite ‘lucky’ T-shirt – an ordinary white one with a transfer of a tiger on it, outlined in black – and tossing it through the window of what turns out to be a gated research laboratory where Professor Trotter (Julian Holloway) is busy conducting molecular experiments on a pile of old clothes aimed at creating an indestructible, flame-proof material. Sammy and Marvin are denied access to the premises by an officious Jobsworth gateman played by Hammer veteran Michael Ripper, but manage to sneak in using a technique Marv claims to have seen on the telly, namely crouching out of view on the other side of the research centre boss Mr Becket’s car (Becket is played by that familiar face of British paternalistic TV authority figures, Richard Vernon) as its being waved in by the suddenly ingratiating functionary.
The film furnishes the archaeologist of ‘70s pop culture with innumerable tiny details that add considerably to its enjoyment factor. Trotter’s first tentative success with his experiments, for example, manage to imbue a tatty David Essex T-shirt with superpowers, but it’s ascension thankfully proves short-lived (otherwise we might have had to endure a super powers face-off between Sammy’s lucky tiger T and whoever originally owned this dolorous item). However, while the Prof is out of the research lab, attempting to persuade Mr Becket of his big breakthrough, the kids sneak in to the Complex through a window, only to find that Sammy’s shirt has been placed out of reach in a high-tech cabinet, hooked up with wires and clothes pegs and surrounded by the usual beakers and tubes full of coloured smoking liquids familiar from Hammer films of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Determined to retrieve his rightful property, Sammy perseveres in straining to reach for it but accidently sets in motion the workings of the electrical apparatus it’s enmeshed in, inadvertently blasting it with a dose of “radiation” which presages the use of some 1970’s animation effects which give the shirt a cartoony Ready Brek glow and cause the tiger transfer on the front to briefly flash a luminous red. The shirt thereafter gains amazing powers which allow it even to deflect bullets. Most of the film from then on involves the bowler hat wearing Becket and a bespectacled Holloway chasing after the two boys in order to retrieve the shirt, because they expect to make a fortune from its unique properties in the future and they want to keep the whole experiment under wraps until that time.

Their efforts are, of course, consistently hampered by Sammy’s newfound abilities when wearing his lucky super T-shirt, which first emerge when he rips a chunk of the research laboratory door out, along with the doorknob it’s attached to, after he and Marv get locked in the facility. The use of slow-motion to indicate the exercise of Sammy’s superpowers is a clear nod to The Six Million Dollar Man, but the distinctive sound effect which always accompanied Steve Austin’s bionic powers is replaced here by the roar of a lion. We get to delight in the former weakling now finding he can jump with ease over the factory wall, stop a speeding car dead in its tracks just by holding out one hand, and thwart the efforts of the local bullyboys Side and Chalky to steal a little lad’s football in the park (although his enthusiasm results in the ball being squashed by the time it’s returned to its rightful owner, who promptly gives Sammy an irritable kick in the shin for his troubles). Most of these feats are accompanied by some Theme from Shaft-mimicking “action” music. Sammy can’t evade his mum’s determination to see this well-worn lucky T-shirt gets a proper wash though, and this enables the bumbling Trotter and Becket to track him to the launderette (after previous attempts to nab the shirt at the training track have already failed miserably) and kidnap Sammy while his power-giving shirt is in the washing machine, later also picking up Marvin as well while he’s attempting to spring his friend from the abandoned old multi-storeyed house he’s being held in. This, of course, now jeopardises Sammy’s chances of even making it on time to take part in the imminent race which is about to be held at the race track, let alone of winning it.

We must pass lightly over the slightly dodgy image that’s cast by the sight of two middle-aged men being shown calling at rows of houses, pretending to be officials for a promotions company that’s offering fifty pounds to the owners of tiger T-shirts as their excuse for being allowed to root through laundry baskets-full of children’s clothes on the childs' parents’ doorsteps, before then literally abducting a small boy off the street in broad daylight and bundling him into the back of a speeding van, as being an inevitable consequence of the disjunction between the light-hearted fictional world created for this comic fantasy drama, and the somewhat less benign reality usually associated with such activities. But the boys’ subsequent escape attempts and their grown-up foes’ increasingly hapless pursuit of them along a river as Sammy “power-paddles” in a canoe, lead to plenty of good natured hijinks and comic interludes (Marv even manages to fool Trotter by scrawling a crude tiger drawing with a biro onto a white replacement T-shirt) in the ensuing extended chase scene which makes up the majority of the rest of the picture.
Another element of peril is introduced when it is revealed that the shirt’s altered molecular properties have become unstable, making it dangerous and its powers correspondingly unpredictable. The CFF’s perennial message, imparting the importance of fair play and self-belief, comes through in the end when Sammy manages to join the race at the track just in the nick of time using his super-speed to catch up after Big Sid trips him up at the starting line, but is thereafter forced to rely on his own determination to win and all the training and self-improvement he’d previously been engaged in before his shirt acquired its power, when the tiger shirt suddenly starts to “malfunction” and attempts to force him to run backwards, or else glues him to the spot on the track as the other competitors race towards the finish line. Marvin has to persuade his disheartened friend that he still has the inherent ability to succeed anyway, and to discard the t-shirt and carry on under his own steam.

Director of photography Norman Jones (a former camera operator for a host of genre films like The Blood Beast Terror, Corruption, Tower of Evil and The Fiend) lends this quirky classic its air of everyday ordinariness with his simple, straightforward location lighting, while the content remains attractively comic-book and light-hearted in tone. The younger performers all acquit themselves with an unpretentious naturalness that helps the film remain as delightful a watch today as it was back in 1978 and then in the television repeats of the 1980s which later helped it become the most requested of CFF titles.
All three films appear on a single dual-layered DVD disc, all with their original aspect ratios, and they have been restored in high definition from the original interpositives stored in the BFI National Archive. The 2.0 mono audio tracks generally retain some background crackle but everything possible has been done to minimise this with the available technology, and in truth it barely registers at all after the first few minutes. The films have been digitally re-mastered to remove the worst instances of ‘dirt and sparkle’ and the anamorphic transfers all look wonderful, fully preserving the original aesthetic of each film. All three features are enchantingly watchable classics. The disc comes with a small booklet with a short essay on each film, screen credits and cast lists for each film and overviews by Andrew Roberts and Vic Pratt. Here’s looking forward to volume three, scheduled for June!

Soapbox Derby (1957)/The Sky-Bike (1967)/Sammy's Super T-Shirt (1978)/Releasing Company: BFI/Genre: Children's Fiction/Format: DVD/Region: ALL/Aspect Ratio: 2x1.66:1 /1x1.85:1/Directed by Darcy Conyers/Charles Frend/Jeremy Summers/Cast: Michael Crawford/Spencer Shires/Reggie Winch

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