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.
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.
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.
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.
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