Lionel Jeffries – The Railway Children (1970)

The Railway Children (1970)

This adaptation of E. Nesbit’s story is now regarded as its definitive telling, its popular memory greater than that of her novel. It had been adapted for television in 1951, 1957 and 1968, and there are links between the latter serial and this feature film. Both used Yorkshire’s Keighley and Worth Valley Preservation Railway and featured Jenny Agutter as Bobbie.

Writer-director Lionel Jeffries keeps the grimier aspects of the family’s sudden descent from middle-class prosperity into poverty in the background. Instead the indomitable resourcefulness of the children shines through. The film celebrates childhood warmth and innocence and especially the unconditional love that exists between parents and children – Bobbie’s conviction of her jailed father’s innocence is the true spirit of the film.

Critic Dilys Powell called this a “deliberately nostalgic film”. Despite their newfound poverty the children’s innate joy for life is undiminished. Bobbie’s birthday – albeit not as grand as she would have expected before – is rendered as a dreamlike moment, achieved visually by having Agutter ‘float’ (courtesy of a camera dolly). While dwelling nostalgically upon a perfect state of childhood the film also displays a love for Edwardian England. As well as invoking the romance of the steam age, Jeffries dwells upon period props like the toy Zoetrope that opens the film.

This idyllic rendering should not suggest the film lacks emotional impact beyond sentimentality – its famous ending is one of British cinema’s most genuinely heart-swelling moments. Still, Jeffries’ relatively direct transfer of Nesbit’s text fails to rid it of its original weaknesses. Nesbit wrote The Railway Children as a magazine serial and its episodic nature is still all too evident here.

Premiering at Christmas 1970 (fittingly, since the narrative opens at Christmas), the film recouped costs from British takings alone. It later found an afterlife on British television as a perennial ‘holiday’ film.

3.81GB | 1h 49m | 720×480 | mkv


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