Review: Children’s Film Foundation Collection – The Race is On / Cert: Uc / Director: Various/ Screenplay: Various / Starring: Michael Crawford, Denis Shaw, Spencer Shires, Liam Redmond, Reggie Winch, Richard Vernon / Release Date: February 18th
Between 1950 and 1987, the UK Children’s Film Foundation dedicated itself to providing cheerful, low-budget entertainment for the country’s youngsters in the wake of escalating fears about the negative influence of the cheap American serials and cartoons which had been typical Saturday morning cinema fare following the end of the Second World War. This second volume in the collection presents three titles which are not only a wonderful exercise in charming nostalgia, they also provide valuable snapshots of the changing face of British culture and, more specifically, representations of British youth in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the decades from which these three short films hail.
The theme all three have in common is childhood’s abiding love of gimmicks, gadgets and the spirit of competition. In 1957’s Soapbox Derby, a young Michael Crawford plays the leader of the Battersea Bats, a gang of scruffy young herberts mucking about on the banks of the Thames in the shadow of the Power Station, designing and building a soapbox car for an upcoming local rally as their bitter enemies from rival group the Victoria Victors conspire to steal the Bats’ designs. Beautifully shot on location in a London just beginning to shake off its post-war austerity, Soapbox Derby is a sweetly innocent picture postcard of an era it’s now hard to believe ever existed, such is its blissful insouciance. 1967’s The Sky Bike is a much more middle-class affair as imaginative Tom Smith, from a fine upstanding working family (but with apparently only one sweater to his name), encounters batty inventor Mr. Lovejoy, who’s working on a flying bike which he hopes will win him £5,000 in a competition. But unscrupulous fellow competitors are on the scene and will stop at nothing to sabotage Lovejoy’s flamboyant creation.
We fast-forward to 1978 for Sammy’s Super T-Shirt and the world has changed. This is a multi-cultural London without a hint of received pronunciation and the story, in which sports-mad Sammy is given super powers – agility, strength, endurance - when his favourite tiger-motif T-shirt falls into the hands of a blundering scientist, is a more overtly comedic and slapstick affair, occasionally evoking the spirit of the worst episodes of TV’s The Tomorrow People which was popular at the time. Decent visual effects and a breathless storyline make for an energetic and amusing hour’s entertainment.
The Children’s Film Foundation ceased original film production in 1987, a victim of the success of Saturday morning kid’s TV and other forms of entertainment vying for the attention of the CFF’s once-captive audience. The Race Is On is an endearing and often fascinating document of a very special piece of British cinema history and we wouldn’t be averse to the BFI, who have compiled the DVD releases, exhuming a few more of these uniquely British treasures which have stood the test of time far better than we might have had any reason to expect.
Extras: Commemorative booklet