Jeffries: The Railway Children (1970)

‘The Railway Children’ Shows the World Needn’t Be Beastly

Lionel Jeffries’ film version of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children is rich with a charm rooted in a bedrock of social awareness as hard as Charles Dickens.

The Railway Children
Lionel Jeffries
Kino Lorber
15 June 2021

“Very beautiful and wonderful things do happen, don’t they, and we live most of our lives in hope of them.” That observation or philosophy occurs near the end of The Railway Children (1970), Lionel Jeffries‘ film version of Edith Nesbit‘s 1906 bestseller. Such a combination of optimism and realism captures the story and its author’s attitude, as can be seen in Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of the film.

With its annual TV showings in England, this film has achieved a beloved cultural status similar to The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) in the US. We surmise that this nostalgic vision tells the English something they wish to believe about themselves: a world of decency, hard work, rural beauty, goodwill, locomotives and, as one character says, what the Bible calls loving kindness. The fact that it’s set in an unrecoverable and perhaps non-existent past underlines the sweetness.

The first image we see is pure red across the screen, revealed to be the back of a woman’s dress as she moves forward–that is, away from us–having seemingly walked out of the camera or out of our own reality. The camera might be her own mind as she steps into a space of memory, as this room seems: a collection of antique knick-knacks.

Here are sepia photos. Here’s a gramophone and a hand-held stereopticon with slides. Here’s a spinning zoetrope that creates the illusion of an animated bird flying freely. This scene feels like the film’s version of an invocation to the Muses. While calling forth the precursors of cinema, the room aches with nostalgia for vanished magic. Over personal talismans, the credits announce the cast members, identified quaintly as “Miss” or “Mr.” and all scored by Johnny Green’s lyrical yearning music. The spell has been cast immediately and surely.

The woman is Bobbie Waterbury (Jenny Agutter), and the memory room is the first of the film’s gently self-conscious gestures. As she begins to narrate the story in flashback, it’s clear she’s watching The Railway Children with us, seeing the same things we see.

This device corresponds to Nesbit’s personable style, in which she often refers to herself and to the fact that you’re reading a book, or that the characters exist in a book. Hers is the voice of a friend in the room, playing a game of pretend with you. Here are Nesbit’s opening paragraphs:

"They were not railway children to begin with. I don't suppose they had ever thought about railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne and Cook's, the Pantomime, Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud's. They were just ordinary suburban children, and they lived with their Father and Mother in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa, with coloured glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a bathroom with hot and cold water, electric bells, French windows, and a good deal of white paint, and 'every modern convenience', as the house-agents say.

There were three of them. Roberta was the eldest. Of course, Mothers never have favourites, but if their Mother had a favourite, it might have been Roberta. Next came Peter, who wished to be an engineer when he grew up; and the youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well.

There were three of them. Roberta was the eldest. Of course, Mothers never have favourites, but if their Mother had a favourite, it might have been Roberta. Next came Peter, who wished to be an engineer when he grew up; and the youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well.

These three lucky children always had everything they needed: pretty clothes, good fires, a lovely nursery with heaps of toys, and a Mother Goose wall-paper. They had a kind and merry nursemaid, and a dog who was called James, and who was their very own. They also had a Father who was just perfect—never cross, never unjust, and always ready for a game—at least, if at any time he was not ready, he always had an excellent reason for it and explained the reason to the children so interestingly and funnily that they felt sure he couldn't help himself.

You will think that they ought to have been very happy. And so they were, but they did not know how happy till the pretty life in the Red Villa was over and done with, and they had to live a very different life indeed.

Peter had a birthday—his tenth. Among his other presents was a model engine more perfect than you could ever have dreamed of. The other presents were full of charm, but the Engine was fuller of charm than any of the others were.

The dreadful change came quite suddenly."

Other Edwardian writers for children are full of charm but Nesbit is fuller of charm than most of the others. Please observe that while the above passage describes a blissful wish-fulfillment of childhood such as few people enjoy, it knows it’s doing so with its sly details (“‘every modern convenience’, as the house-agents say”), and it offers both foreboding and awareness and critique of what’s normal in “ordinary suburban” families, as in Nesbit’s gently pointed notes on how these “perfect” parents don’t behave.

Digging under Nesbit’s charm and whimsy, you pass through a layer of acid to a bedrock of social awareness as hard as Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, she contrasts the way things are with how they could be if people were kinder and more aware. Also like Dickens, she sees no reason why people shouldn’t choose such behavior as free individuals within imprisoning systems. She doesn’t knock readers on the head with social philosophy and awareness of strife, but it’s there.

In real life, this scribbler of charming fairy tales was an unconventional and committed activist and socialist who co-founded the Fabian Society.

Much of the above narration is intact in the film, only now it’s put into Bobbie’s mouth, with Peter (Gary Warren) delivering his awestruck opinion of the toy engine. The first notable alteration is that “the dreadful change” doesn’t occur on Peter’s birthday but on Christmas, which is one reason this film gets shown on that holiday. A minor alteration is that the film now implies Peter as the youngest because he’s the shortest, so he’s introduced last instead of Phyllis (Sally Thomsett).

The explosion of the engine, which uncannily resembles the first real engine they’ll see in their new lives, is paralleled with the “blowing up” of their old lives. It won’t be until the last act that the film reveals why two men took Father (Iain Cuthbertson) away on Christmas, although we’ll suspect strongly that he’s been taken to prison.

Mother (Dinah Sheridan in fashionable hats), who now supports the family by writing stories, clearly parallels Nesbit. She moves the family from London to Yorkshire and a very large old house called Three Chimneys (one per child?) with a day-woman to do for them, so it’s still very genteel. Except for the shadows surrounding Father, which the polite and ignorant children are forbidden to ask about, the film feels almost as idyllic as moving to Eden.

The rest of the episodic narrative concerns their relations with the locals, such as Dr. Forrest (Peter Bromilow) and working-class railway porter Albert Perks (Bernard Cribbins), whose proud disdain of “charity” nearly ruins his birthday party. A surprise interloper is a Russian writer (Gordon Whiting) who’s run away from exile in Siberia after having written “a beautiful book about poor people and how to help them”. Nesbit’s humanized politics is showing.

We shan’t go into all these events and how the siblings become “the railway children” but one mysterious deus ex machina must be mentioned. His machina is the train and its deus is called only the Old Gentleman (William Mervyn), who pronounces the statement at the beginning of this review. It’s difficult not to see this upper-class figure as a God-substitute, for he’s the one who continually receives the children’s prayers (via letter) when they’re in trouble.

Happily, he’s a deus they can see directly and who never fails to come through. Again, this may seem too good to be true, but it’s part of Nesbit’s vision of a society where kind people help each other because everyone’s connected. By an astonishing yet necessary coincidence, he turns out to be related to a minor character who shows up late in the story needing the family’s help. If we read this development metaphysically, their acceptance of this challenge signals the worthiness of their plea. “One good turn deserves another,” as Perks puts it. Perhaps these are the “perks” of living in society.

As for the ending and its shameless emotional string-pulling–well, anyone who doesn’t feel glad for it has no business watching films. And then, just to underline the artifice once again, The Railway Children pulls off one of the friendliest codas in film history.

Lionel Jeffries, an actor known for comic roles, wrote and directed this film after falling in love with the book and perceiving it as the kind of old-fashioned yet intelligent property he believed the English industry should be making. He found an ally in Bryan Forbes at EMI Studios, and the result was a hit.

Although deliberately classical, Jeffries’ visual style uses just enough gentle self-consciousness to echo Nesbit and inject notes of freshness and mild surrealism, such as his Jean Cocteau-like handling of Bobbie’s birthday. The mood is cemented by Arthur Ibbetson’s photography, especially rich on the prevalent greens and occasional sharp reds.

Agutter, who was 17, reprised her role from the 1968 BBC serial version. As the brother, Warren was 15 and looks younger. As the very childlike and immature Phyllis, Thomsett was 20! No wonder the film is unspecific about their ages and order. They’re all good, as is the rest of the veteran cast.

In his commentary, Australian film historian and podcaster Paul Anthony Nelson discusses the locations, background information, careers of the major contributors, notes on Nesbit, and real-life details. For example, he names the Russian exile writers whom she knew, and he mentions that scholars believe the father’s troubles were inspired by the Dreyfus Affair of recent memory. That notorious French scandal’s elements of anti-Semitism and official perfidy don’t parallel her Waterbury affair, however.

Despite its cultural embrace in England, The Railway Children hasn’t been widely known in America. The lush colors, warm emotions, and subtle intelligence on display in Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray rendition, licensed from StudioCanal, are likely to attract new fans. Perhaps they’ll even move on to Nesbit’s books.

RATING 9 / 10