Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Whatever the theme by which the BFI chooses to link the three features that make up each of the volumes in its on-going Children’s Film Foundation DVD range, the content is invariably -- and comfortingly -- extremely similar in its design and method. Despite decade-specific modifications employed by each era’s film-makers in their approaches to the storytelling, we can always expect to encounter resourceful kids (shedding their tweed and sprouting longer hair and thicker regional accents as the black-and-white 1950s melt into the Technicolor ‘70s) learning about team work and moral responsibility, and usually managing to thwart the activities of a sorry collection of bumbling adult crooks and spivs in the process -- whether our young heroes and heroines happen to be involved in the business of building and racing their own go-carts, accidentally acquiring madcap superpowers, or helping out teen runaways who're looking for their lost families. The same principle applies to this latest trio of tales, which follow on from the recent Weird Adventures volume in presenting another grouping of fantastical fantasy fables, this time all of them set in the banal but recognisable everyday environments of home or school that would have been exceedingly familiar to the films’ young audience, each film centred on their child protagonists’ interactions with a varied selection of peculiar beings from outer-space.

All of these films are set on earth, probably for budgetary reasons, but involve groups of children who stumble upon and befriend extra-terrestrial intelligences who, though very different in kind, each happen to have special “magical” powers that make them a potential target for adult connivance and duplicity. Included in this set is the 1977 classic The Glitterball, long considered one of the very best of all the CFF’s productions; at one time this was as regular a Christmas treat as The Wizard of Oz, on British TV and when the CFF and its successor the CFTF were honoured, back in the mid-nineties, with a celebratory screening at Leicester Square Odeon, this sparkling jewel was chosen to represent the organisation’s thirty year mission to entertain and engage the imaginations of generations of Saturday Morning Film Club goers and their successors, the troupe of kids who also came to encounter these films during their perennial outings on UK television in the 1980s.

The first film here was made in 1956, but leaps to attention immediately for some obvious coincidental similarities it has retrospectively been discovered to bear to Stephen Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster ET: The Extra-Terrestrial: the basic scenario is from the outset, of course, necessarily very similar thanks to the subject matter, but with its sober backdrop of rural England in the 1950s, Supersonic Saucer plays amusingly like the plummy voiced, middle-class and extremely well-behaved cousin to its more famous sci-fi relation, in which a group of well-mannered boarding school children who find themselves left behind during the summer holidays, discover and befriend a bizarre-looking alien creature that's stuck up a tree in some quaint English woodlands on the outskirts of their now empty school, and decide to hide it from adults whom they believe otherwise would seek to “put it on display in a zoo” or else exploit its magical powers for ill-gain.

There are a number of uncanny visual similarities to the Spielberg phenomena that cannot help but link the film with ET forever: for one thing, although the diminutive alien in Supersonic Saucer is the primitive puppet product of a company called John Wright Puppeteers and PB Cow Limited, and essentially consists of nothing more elaborate than an elongated rabbit shape conveniently obscured beneath a white hijab-like shroud from which a pair of large round eyes peer adorably through a face- slit, the image it casts is undoubtedly similar to that squat, tortoise-like creature created by Italian special effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi for Spielberg’s classic. Both puppet designers have homed in on the single most important factor for creating the “cute effect”, and in fact John Wright & Co have reduced their creature to just that one particular attribute: two large, sad eyes, copiously fringed with luxurious lashes from which leak streams of tears whenever MEBA (the children’s own name for their intergalactic chum) accidently does something that vexes his/her small charges, or inadvertently gets them into trouble.

Like ET, MEBA also has special powers that appear miraculous to earth eyes, although, being deprived of limbs and digits, it is unable to wave a glowing finger whenever it wishes to accomplish its feats as Spielberg’s entity was inclined to do, but must resort instead to spinning its massive round eyes in a comical fashion in order to, say, make time and events run backwards for brief periods; it can turn itself into its own flying saucer vehicle in order to get about -- an effect which appears as an animated insert whizzing across a series of photographic stills; and the creature is also able to forge telepathic links with the children, leading to much mischief occurring whenever any of them lazily makes a wish without thinking of the consequences first, as the eager-to-please MEBA is likely to procure it for them immediately. Thus, at one point, the alien raids the local bakery in town to rustle up a feast of cake and jelly when the hungry kids express dissatisfaction with the tasteless plate of biscuits that’s been provided for them in their playroom; although, being the conscientious, well-behaved children that they are, they end up forcing the alien to replace the stolen hoard of goodies after solemnly coughing up their own pocket money pennies to pay for what they’d already eaten before it occurred to them that the produce was illegally obtained!

The story kicks off proper when MEBA overhears a conversation between the two young girls who, of its four earthling acquaintances, become the main focus of the alien’s ability to empathise telepathically. Foreign students Greta (Gillian Harrison) and Sumac (Marcia Monolescue) are forced to stay behind and live at their school during the summer holidays, looked after by the Headmaster and Headmistress who live on-site with their pompously professorial and self-regarding pupil son Rodney (Fella Edmonds), because the trip home (to Norway and South America respectively) would be too expensive for their parents to afford. This is what tempts the two girls, during a night-time conversation in bed, into wishing that they had a million pounds, prompting MEBA to take a flight to the bank in town after dark while they sleep and relieve the branch of exactly that amount, spiriting it back to the astonished children’s schoolroom where it is discovered by them the next morning after the town has become far too busy for the alien to be able to venture forth again and replace it. 

The children are thus forced to temporarily hide the money, alongside the school’s already secured trophy-horde of silverware, in the Headmaster’s safe until the following evening -- when MEBA is to once more fly off and put it all back in the vault it was originally taken out of. Unfortunately, the children’s plan is interrupted by nosey caretaker Mr Pole (Patrick Boxill), who’s actually a member of a criminal gang of professional thieves operating from a nearby derelict building. They've already been sizing up the school’s valuable trophy collection for its silver and Pole spies the kids bundling large quantities of cash into the school safe and reports this and the existence of MEBA back to ‘Number One’ – a gruff, over-coated Peter Lorre-type crime overlord (Raymond Rollett). Hoping to put the alien’s bank vault raiding abilities to criminal use, the bad guys abduct MEBA (tempting it into entering a box that is then quickly padlocked behind it by tricking it into thinking it’s going to be part of a surprise for the children) and spiriting it back to their headquarters, leaving Greta, Sumac, Rodney and their diminutive moppet-of-an-accomplice Adolphus (Andrew Motte-harrison) to track down the outfit’s lair in order to rescue their friend using MEBA’s telepathic distress signal as their only guide.  

These forty-seven minutes of cheerful, charming fun end with an image that would become a standard convention of the CFF’s output for most of the rest of the ‘50s and ‘60s, in which the adult wrongdoers are shown ritually humiliated in their stand-off with a bunch of morally determined and resourceful children who, this time out, also have an alien with magic-like powers to help them turn their enemies into bumbling clowns … although, it must be said, even with this type of slapstick conclusion being as common as it so often was in CFF adventures of this vintage, the particular criminal gang in question here must be a contender for the most oafish in the Foundation’s history, as its members prove themselves seemingly unable to spot children hiding in plain sight on several occasions, and invariably fall over themselves whenever given even the slightest opportunity to do so during their pursuit through the tumbledown building they use as their base. 

The screenplay was an adaptation of a story by Frank Wells (the son of H.G. Wells) but it plays like one of the two joyously quaint Famous Five serials the CFF also produced back in the day, and which used to play in weekly fifteen minute instalments alongside its Saturday morning feature presentations. In fact Gillian Harrison also played Ann in those Enid Blyton spin-offs, and it is her character Greta (and her older female schoolmate Sumac) who becomes very much the centre of attention in this story. On the one hand Greta and Sumac’s relationship with MEBA is a reinforcement of traditional 1950s nurturing female roles, since they take charge of MEBA's care as though the alien creature were a human baby (it is after all swathed in a white shroud and prone to shedding plentiful tears!). MEBA clearly mimics the appearance of, and behaves a lot like, a human baby, and Greta often cradles it as though it were one; also, it is the girls who take charge of the creature at night by resting it in a human child’s crib in their bedroom. But the affinity between the alien and the girls, and special to the younger Greta in particular, is also founded in their sharing a certain ‘otherness’; both of the girls and their alien charge are foreigners, cut off from their families and seeking friendship; and, like MEBA so often is, Greta is pictured crying profusely at one point -- in that instance because of her homesickness.

The schoolgirls’ experience of being outsiders is dramatized through their relationship with Rodney, the head teachers’ son, who also rather pretentiously likes to think of himself as their carer because of his family connection, and assumes a superior attitude from the off: ‘I have to help look after those two beastly little girls!’ the science-obsessed boy moans to a friend during a school outing at an observatory near the start of the film, and when Sumac informs him that her family come from South America, his instantaneous reply of ‘oh, I see -- foreigners!’ at first marks the spectacled, tweed-clad youngster down as an comically small-minded buffoon with an inflated sense of his own self-importance. Gradually though the children form an allegiance through their conspiratorial shared custody of MEBA, and the friendship bond between the children and the alien illustrates how racial and cultural barriers can be overcome through empathy. It is also the two girls who are shown to be the most intelligent and resourceful of the four children when challenged in adversity. This message is contrasted with a flashback to MEBA’s Venusian homeland in which we see the little alien ostracised among his identical-looking puppet peers for being unable to transform himself into a flying saucer as efficiently as them, and consequently being left behind alone on the planet's gaseous rocky surface before deciding to come to earth for a visit.

This theme of outsiders finding acceptance and sharing an understanding with those who might seem very different to them, but who nevertheless share an experience of not quite fitting in, also has some application to the second film on the disc, which transports us forwards in time to 1972 and introduces us to the colourful whimsicality of the peculiarly titled Kadoyng. The film starts, in traditional ‘70s fashion, by setting up our agreeable trio of young protagonists -- siblings Billy (Adrian Hail), Lucy (Teresa Coding) and Barney (David Williams) – in opposition to the flower-bed trampling adolescent yobbery of their stripy tank-top sporting long-haired nemesis Eric (Ian Pigot), whose park vandalism in the company of his loutish friends is dismissed by the lad’s bullish land developer dad Mr Fenton  (played by The Last of the Summer Wine’s Bill Owen) as an irrelevancy, since the lovingly tended flower beds of the trio’s friend, grounds-keeper old Robbo (Jack Haig), and the local plane fields the children spend most of their time traversing in play, are soon set to be ploughed up in order to make room for a motorway bypass that Fenton has been negotiating the contract to build, and which is set to carve its way through the countryside -- destroying the picturesque village of Byway in the process.  

Standing against and protesting Fenton’s plans are Billy, Lucy and Barney’s oddly matched parents, ageing, cardigan-wearing Professor Balfour (Gerald Sim) and his younger, middle-class hippy wife (although this marital set-up seems more down to the vagaries of casting than any attempt at characterisation), who are excitedly looking forward to a village meeting in the town hall at which Prof Balfour will be rallying the locales with a passionate environmentalist defence of the local landmarks which are set to be ruined by Fenton’s development plans, unaware that Fenton already has local political bigwig Pander-Willoughby (Michael Sharvell-Martin) in his pocket, and that the deal has already been decided behind closed doors!

This green parable about the greed and corruption of big business and the destruction of rural England takes place alongside a quirky tale of extra-terrestrial visitation. This being the early 1970s, the alien takes the form of an affable wandering cosmic astronaut hobo from the planet Stoikal (Leo Maguire) whose very glam-looking, gold Easter-egg-shaped sentient space pod 'Babble' crash-lands in a field in the rural idyll of Byway, where it is instantly discovered by Billy, Lucy and Barney. The kids soon determine that the friendly visitor isn’t an invading Russian, but also observe that the otherwise benign-looking humanoid will find it difficult to blend in to village life thanks to the vaguely rude proboscis-like antennae protuberance which sprouts disconcertingly from the top of his head! 

With the aid of their father’s top hat, the children are able to get Kadoyng (named after the sound the antenna thingy makes when the hat is whipped off too quickly) accepted in the community as a visiting friend, and thanks to his use of a portable teleport device, his space pod is soon hidden away in the barn adjacent to the spacious farmhouse that is the Balfour home while the alien attempts to fix it. It’s not long before Kadoyng becomes involved in both the Balfour children’s personal grudge match against gormless Eric and his thuggish comrades, and the fight against Fenton’s destructive motorway construction plans: it turns out that Kadoyng’s protuberance is a sort of organic alien magic wand and has many outlandish special powers, like magicking the bemused village bobby into disappearing each time he threatens to stumble on Kadoyng’s true identity, and the ability to turn the diminutive Barney into a martial arts expert able to fulfil every bully victim’s dream by besting the older, bigger Eric Fenton in a tussle on the plane fields.

The village hall meeting also doesn’t go the way Mr Fenton planned it to when Kadoyng intervenes in order to force the smug ministry official who’s been paid off and drafted in by the land developer to give a speech in defence of the unsound construction plans, to spell out the truth that lies behind his deceptive rhetoric instead (‘Blah, blah, blah. Rhubarb and totally meaningless clichés -- I promise you rubbish, rubbish and only rubbish!’). This sort of whimsical humour is crowned by the unexpected events that occur as a result of Kadoyng’s madcap efforts to thwart the construction permanently by drafting in the children and their eager parents (happily accepting of this cosmic eccentric) to help him make a bizarre alien chemical brew called Conkey -- meant to cause giant immovable alien plants to shoot up on the site at which the bulldozers are scheduled to start work. The humour throughout is absurdist slapstick, buttressed by the central performance of Leo Maguire (who also penned the screenplay) playing his role of quirky alien as though it's part Play School presenter, part mischievous child, and part absent-minded professor whose plots and plans rarely go the way they are supposed to. This last aspect of the story sits somewhat ambivalently with the environmentalist theme, since, in the concept of ‘Cronky,’ the film whimsically seems to endorse and make use of the notion that an advanced alien form of ‘wonder science’ is able in principle to solve all worldly problems, while in practice the formula becomes corrupted through human error and leads to even more potentially catastrophic damage being caused -- although in this case the ‘mistake’ also averts the threat of the motorway project coming to fruition.

The primary coloured exuberance and pleasant humour behind this offbeat comedy is nicely augmented by Edwin Astley’s moogish, vintage echo-chamber electronica soundtrack, while underpinning all the riotous, faintly subversive oddness there remains the issue of the reason Kadoyng ends up having to live among his earthling friends in Byway: like MEBA, he’s considered to be the oddball among his own kind on his home planet; but MEBA was merely made fun of by his peers for not being very efficient at transforming into an animated flying saucer ... the alien still came to earth of its own free will (for no other reason than to see what humans are like) and it was able to leave again as soon as it was rescued from its criminal captors and had begun to miss its home. Kadoyng on the other hand has been cast out as an undesirable influence by a race of ‘mental and physical giants’ who labelled him REJECT 642 and then gave him his sentient craft Babble so that he might find another home for himself far away from them! He ditches the craft on earth when the spaceship develops a fault, and finds his quirkiness translates into something like what is considered to be an agreeable childlike nature in human earth culture -- allowing him to blend in relatively easily … so long as he’s wearing a hat! The otherness of the alien creature in Harley Cokeliss’s The Glitterball though (the third film in this set -- from 1977) is not merely rooted in its possessing strange abilities or in some alienating abnormality of appearance, but in its complete defiance of the normal categories that divide living beings from inanimate objects!

The genius of this simple movie lies in how a production decision made purely for convenience, in order to avoid having to interpret Howard Thompson’s original story idea through a traditional creature design (which would have necessitated effects that most likely would not have been very convincing given the budget Cokeliss was working with), turns out to be its most unique and memorable feature: instead of a puppet or a model alien filmed against inevitably duff looking blue screen, the alien here is nothing more than a golf ball-sized silver sphere which emerges from a football-like UFO after it crashes through the roof of the shed in the back garden of the Fielding family on the night before its three members are due to move into their new home. Using a combination of carefully controlled blasts of compressed air and stop-motion animation by The Wombles animator Barry Leith to organise its movements, as well as utilising simple in-camera techniques such as occasionally running the film in reverse, Cokeliss and his crew manage to make this unassuming everyday object feel like an entirely new form of life, seemingly with its own personality and unique identity, a fact which accidentally puts the film in a similar category to those surrealist works by film-makers such as Jan Svankmajer that mix animation and live action to bring life to old toys and discarded bric-a-brac. 

Helping to achieve this effect are the ambient electronic sounds of former BBC Radiophonic Workshop soundman Malcolm Clark, whose wibbly-wobbly roster of unearthly blips and bleeps become associated with the sphere’s ‘moods’ and perceptions, and are just as important as the film’s animation for creating the illusion of a sentience and a Gremlin-like mischievousness behind the ball's otherwise blank exterior whenever it is shown eating the Fieldings out of house-and-home or, say, evading capture in the chocolate-primed mousetraps that have been laid for it by a family believing itself under siege from a plague of mice, rather than just one greedy little space ball!

After becoming fascinated by the little creature/object when he suspects it of wrecking the family kitchen during the night, the film’s main hero Max (Ben Buckton) becomes the alien being’s protector and interpreter, enlisting the help of his new mate Pete (Keith Jayne) whom he meets while trying to save the sphere from this film’s equivalent of Mr Pole in Supersonic Saucer -- a sleazy, light-fingered pickpocket and shoplifter known as ‘Filthy’ Potter (Ron Pember) that the boys encounter in the shopping precinct’s main supermarket and then spend the rest of the film trying to bring to justice or evade, depending on the situation. Ironically, Max and Pete are left to their own devices largely because Max’s dad (Barry Jackson), who’s a Sergeant in the air force, has been charged with investigating the UFO buzz that caused a fighter-plane-mobilising red alert at his base overnight, thus explaining why he’s not much concerned about his son’s interest in odd-looking silver balls or the rodents that have supposedly been causing havoc in Mrs Fielding’s (Marjorie Yates) kitchen! 

The film becomes the strangest of buddy movies as Max and Pete -- camping out in the latter’s tree house, where he usually goes to look at the stars through his telescope or read his now-vintage copies of House of Hammer and Ghoul magazine (the latter only lasted for one issue, so Pete got himself a real collector’s item there!) -- start to bond with their inscrutable alien charge after they discover that it is actually alive because it’s insatiable appetite for custard, crisps and Gobstoppers gives it away (though it's not too keen on stale meat pies it seems: the sphere comically pukes one of those back up after wolfing a discarded crust found on the floor of Pete’s tree house!). This quest for food is not just greed, despite the enthusiastic slurping noises added to the audio track: the sphere needs energy in order to contact its Mothership, who will send it more little silver helpers to guide the lost alien back home. After the boys go on a messy custard-making spree back at Max’s house, they manage to supply the cosmic Glitterball with enough ‘energy’ be able briefly to communicate with it in English, through the speaker of the Fielding’s battery operated transistor radio!

Director Harley Cokeliss manages to disguise the thin budget incredibly well, and the film even starts out looking like a decently financed action thriller, competing with Close Encounters of the Third Kind handsomely in that regard with its smart opening depiction of an air-force base alert and the radio tracking of the sphere’s ‘football’of a spacecraft, all of which is achieved thanks to some kind help from The 56(F) Squadron Air Force Strike Command and Military Air Traffic Operations National Air Traffic Services. But Cokeliss also struck lucky in obtaining the services of Brian Johnson, Stanley Kubrick’s model-maker on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, at the time, effects and model work supervisor for Gerry Anderson’s live action series Space: 1999. Johnson made the Glitterball’s model spacecraft and the Death Star-like Mothership which eventually comes to earth to rescue it and the boys from the clutches of George Potter, who, by the way, really is one the CFF’s most unlikable villains, happy to rough up two young boys in order to get hold of the alien entity because, once again, he’s a thief whose twigged that its powers will enable him to break locks and gain quick entry to the main safe of the local supermarket -- meaning he’d no longer have to be dependent on petty shoplifting or opportunistically pilfering whatever he can from people’s houses whilst ostensibly doing their window cleaning for them! 

The climax, in which the Mothership releases hundreds of its alien Glitterballs to flood the pristine white floors of the supermarket and bring their comrade home, while teaching old Filthy a lesson at the same time, provides a fittingly surreal, flamboyantly ‘other’ take on the alien contact theme so wonderfully and variously elucidated throughout this collection of  likeable little children's films,  but here made all the more enjoyable thanks to the spaced out cosmic electric ‘psych’ cues supplied by '70s Hammer Films composer Harry Robertson. 

The Glitterball is a film that manages to combine all the tropes essential in any typical CFF movie while still bringing an almost indefinable sense of originality and strangeness to its engaging, comic depiction of unfathomable alien intractability.

All three films look predictably splendid in their new BFI restored DVD versions -- and the disc also comes with an essential booklet featuring several nicely written essays, credit lists for all three films, and archive stills.        


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