[3 June 2014]
I’m seriously beginning to believe that the National Film and Television Archive at the British Film Institute is so gargantuan that it stretches from the entrance of its hub in Hertfordshire all the way down to an administration office somewhere around the Earth’s inner core. (Maybe the closing matte shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn’t represent a colossal American government storage facility at all, but rather the BFI’s Distribution Centre, readying itself for the imminent monthly releases).
I jest, I jest. Nevertheless, it’s a fun way to explain how the Institute is able to release such a massively diverse range of film and television material on such a frequent basis, often collated into large multi-title volumes and collections, as is the case here, and almost without exception containing films that are restored, and therefore visually impeccable.
Indeed, such repetitious releasing patterns are welcome if the quality of material is as fascinating as the majority of period films released by the Institute usually are. By comparison, take the endless and awful low budget titles foisted upon a reluctant British public around 15 years ago by VIPCO, which represented a sad decline for the once iconic and independent UK distributor, by then going through its death throes. Such sloppiness exemplifies the need for us all to cherish the BFI, for it truly represents quality and quantity, and remains a beacon of consistent artistic integrity.
Fan-boy musings aside, this is another great collection of films from the currently-dormant British arts organisation for younger viewers, The Children’s Film Foundation. This three-film DVD focuses on the subject of youthful runaways and child rebellion, always told from a child’s perspective. Each of the trio of short tales, running at around an hour, is simple and engaging, with a narrative that combines the requisite elements of education, entertainment and social commentary.
The first film is the black and white Johnny on the Run (1953). An early work of Lewis Gilbert (later to direct major motion pictures, including the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me), this sweet short is beautifully staged, with both Hitchcockian overtones and a rather unsubtle but nevertheless charming nod to Eisenstein (think large stone steps, a descending crowd and a runaway baby’s pram).
Johnny on the Run tells the story of Janek (Eugeniusz Chylek, in his sole film role), a young Polish orphan staying in Scotland, who is bullied by both his peers and his cruel foster aunt and cousin. Unhappy and apparently longing to return home to Poland, Janek decides to run away from his foster home, and, determined to raise the £17 required for the boat journey, inadvertently gets caught up with a spiv burglar on his rounds.
Coming to realise that a crook’s sidekick isn’t the job for him, Janek flees once again, going on to find refuge in a lakeside village community for international orphans, where he can immerse himself in the multicultural group without fear of seeming different. It’s a cinematically convenient utopia, but a moving one, nonetheless.
Heralded by a wah-wah guitar track that firmly establishes its production year as 1972, the second film is the streetwise Hide and Seek, a cleverly-written, entertaining and charming short about Keith (Peter Newby), a teenage runaway who absconds from an approved school in the West Country and travels to Deptford in London in the hope of reconciling with his estranged father.
Going to ground alone in a ramshackle squat and shoplifting from local stores for food, Keith is quickly labelled the “Deptford Dodger” by both the police and the local community, who organise a manhunt to find the petty thief, little knowing it is a child. However, they are all thwarted by Chris, a local lad who befriends Keith a helps him stay hidden from the circling authorities.
In addition to having an exciting crime narrative, the film is remarkable for its talented and interesting supporting cast: Alan Lake and Robin Asquith as fake cops who are in on a heist (which is all part of an ingenious subplot); the excellent character actor Roy Dotrice, then just 49, but here playing an elderly Great War veteran of almost eighty, and Gary Kemp, about a decade before Spandau Ballet hit the big time and almost 20 years before The Krays gave him leading man status.
It’s also worth marvelling at the location work, too, fascinating as it is to see such vivid colour scenes of a long-gone Deptford, with its lack of crowds and its great rows of proud and tatty Victorian tenements, looking as much like those in Brooklyn as South East London.
The final film is Terry on the Fence, representing the ‘80s and the least effective of the trio, despite the potentially excellent subject matter of youngsters attempting to identify with one another across the boundaries of age and culture. Following the fortunes of young Terry, who runs away due to a family argument, the film is an examination of the dangers of growing up too fast and getting in trouble with the police, after Terry falls in with a gang of older criminal teenagers and comes to realise that the way forward is actually back: to his home, to his loving family and to redemption.
Again, there is some excellent London location work in Terry on the Fence, and a zippy, driving orchestral score by Harry Robertson (created pseudonymously as Harry Robinson here) keeps proceedings exciting and pacey, but Bernard Ashley’s rich source novel doesn’t always translate brilliantly to the screen, even with the veteran British producer and director Frank Godwin at the helm. Not a bad effort then, but the weakest of the three films in the collection.
Overall, another fascinating and reliably entertaining release from the BFI, with the films included guaranteed to appeal to viewers from their early teen years to those on the cusp of adulthood. There are certainly flaws within the trio, but even a weak entry in any BFI collection will still be full of artistic merit. Indeed, the only real surprise and disappointment here is the almost complete lack of extras (bar the accompanying colour booklet), which is remarkable considering the wealth of supplementary material usually offered by the Institute.