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




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