The Railway Children (1970)
Director: Lionel Jeffries
Screenwriter: Lionel Jeffries
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Gary Warren, Sally Thomsett, Dinah Sheridan, Bernard Cribbins, William Mervyn, Ann Lancaster
The Railway Children is one of those stories that you think is unique to you, your family or at least your region, and in growing up only 30 miles from where the movie was filmed, and spending wholesome sundays and half terms at old train stations with my grandparents, it’s hard to fight the sense of nostalgia that comes with taking a retrospective look at Lionel Jeffries’ much beloved family classic. That said, it’s clear that this story is one that beats in the hearts of many, not just us simple Yorkshire folk.
The Railway Children is the tale of a young family who have to leave their perfect upper middle class life – one in which they’re well off enough to have paid help, but not so rich that the parents don’t parent their own children – for a “poor” life outside of the big city in rural Yorkshire. Of course, their “poor Yorkshire life” is one in which they live in a cottage on the outskirts of the beautiful Keighley village and their mother has to work (by “work” I mean “write”) to afford food and the assistance of just one maid. It’s a problematic take, and one which reinforces the trope of Yorkshire being representative of poverty in 20th century British cinema, but it has some level of feeling beneath its many layers of privilege that mask just how poor British people were in 1905 (when the film was set) and 1970 (when the film was released). This is a very different experience to fellow Yorkshire movie Kes (1969).
The idea of Yorkshire as cold and dark, and filled with constant rain, is a common theme in films set in the UK’s largest county. This idea of Yorkshire as “other” and “bad” is emphasised as immediately as its presence is felt on screen, the very first scene set in the county being at night and featuring an unsettling secondary character, the next featuring the family working under the dangerously stereotyped assumption that the woman they had paid to bring food to their house in advance of their arrival had taken the money and run.
It’s not all this way however, and the idea of Yorkshire as a sanctuary from the hyper-individual culture of the city and the evils of human nature comes to the fore, the next morning being one of rolling Yorkshire hills gleaming in the sunlight, the birds singing and the aforementioned woman visiting the house to ensure the family had found the food she’d stored the night before. Sometimes, it really is not all that grim up north.
The children begin spending their time down by the railway, waving to the trains and sending their love to their father – whom they do not yet know is imprisoned while on trial for sharing government secrets. It’s here where we are first introduced to the film’s most rounded Yorkshire characters, the first being Mr. Perks – the station porter – a funny, kind and welcoming presence to both the children and ourselves. Played wonderfully by Bernard Cribbins (‘Doctor Who’), a father figure for all generations, Mr. Perks shows the children how much of a community there is in their tiny new village; his role at the train station being one appreciated by the village masses in a way he comes to understand in an an emotional birthday celebration in which he stubbornly refuses the charity of a wheelbarrow full of gifts before being convinced of his value to his neighbours in probably the best scene in the entire movie.
The Railway Children themselves are, at times, frustrating; but which big screen child isn’t? They act out, blatantly ignoring instructions from their mother and accidentally waving their privilege in the faces of the relatively poor villagers, young Peter (the boy of the three children) stealing coal from the station in an act he sees as merely “mining” being perhaps the greatest example of this – on the surface it is the act of a boy desperate to heat his home, but in reality it is a gross misunderstanding of where his family sit in the social ladder. As a child, the Railway Children may have seemed perfect, but as an adult that is clearly not the case, their entitlement being a driving factor for their actions, and an aspect of their personality they sadly never have to sacrifice in order to grow. They are, however, wise beyond their years (maybe due to the actors being, remarkably, 20, 18 and 16), and exemplify the do-good child examples that many a privileged family would look to champion – they help their village friends, they take in a cold and unwell stranger, they save a train from derailing because of a landslide.
Despite class and representational issues coming to the fore through adult eyes, there remains a joy in watching The Railway Children. It’s a film that feels like a homecoming of sorts, and is very much an English Little Women. There are moments of innocence, joy and innocent joy that are remarkably accurate to the child experience, and the finale, though flawed, is likely to bring a tear to your eye.
The Railway Children is not perfect by any means, but it is a nice way to spend a cold nostalgia-filled afternoon.