This DVD is a treat for lovers of children's adventure films and for anyone who enjoys seeing footage of old London streets. It has taken the BFI an age to realise that old children's films are for fans of all ages including those who remember seeing them at the cinema the first time round. There were a few video releases in the 1980s and later a set of four DVDs but this is the first outing for CFF feature films in over a decade. This DVD contains three feature films and a short documentary.
The Salvage Gang is a simple but beautifully filmed story of four children and their attempts to raise some cash. The cast includes Frazer Hines and Amanda Coxell (from the CFF Masters of Venus and Famous Five series). While making a rabbit hutch one of the children damage their dad's saw and they spend the rest of the film painting a barge, washing dogs, cleaning cars and collecting salvage to sell at the local scrap yard in order to get the money for a new saw. Made entirely on location there is lots of old lovely footage of the Capital's streets to drool over including various back sreets near Islington Geen (Devonia Street, Chantry Street, Colebrook Row and Union Square), Scrubs Lane in Willseden and an exciting chase on the number 78 bus from Shoreditch to Tower Bridge to rescue an old iron bedstead. The children then have to push the bedstead back though London streets including a wonderful scene by St Lukes Church in Old Street where they have to dismantle the bed and an encounter with a tramp (Wilfred Brambell) in Clerkenwell Green in Farringdon where he decides to take a kip on their bed. Lovers of old commercial vehicles will enjoy the glimpses of buses, mechanical horses, lorries and coaches which are in abundence on the main road while the back streets are almost empty.
Operation Third Form has similar elements but is a crime story about a gang of school children (led by a young John Moulder-Brown and Roberta Tovey) who thwart a villain's attempt to steal a valuable painting. Again made entirely on location we here see extensive footage of parts of Hampstead, Highgate, Swiss Cottage and Regents Park with more buses and lovely old vehicles including classic cars. Guest stars include Derrin Nesbit.
Night Ferry is another crime tale this time from 1976 in glorious colour about a villain called `Pyramid' (Bernard Cribbins) who plans to smuggle an ancient Egyptian mummy out of the country. A gang of children save the day ending in a dramatic chase via Victoria Station and Clapham Junction with two of the children on the train with the villans and the other in pursuit. Here we see loads of shots of South London's myriad of overground railways and viaducts in and around Clapham and scenes of Latchmere Road in Battersea plus shots of Arding and Hobbs department store and on board the night ferry train from London to Dover.
All in all three genuinely exciting films plus Topic - a short documentary made in 1959 looking at the concept of the specially funded Children's Film Foundation by two visting American journalists. This is interesting because it includes footage of The Salvage Gang being filmed and interviews with young fans of CFF films. The girls interviewed both say they like the adventure films more than the romantic stories.
The soundtracks of all three films are superb by the way. The Salavage Gang is composed by Jack Breaver who was a stalwart at Gainsborough films in the 1930s and the latter two are both by Harry Robinson who does a particularly good job with the memorable James Bond-style score for Operation Third Form.
By comparison the booklet that comes with the DVD is disappointing. Here is a missed opportunity to tell the story of The Children's Film Foundation and to supply some useful background information about the films and the cast members, the soundtracks, even details of the locations (this DVD is after all sold on the strength of the films' locale - London). Instead the booklet includes three rather dull 'essays' which are not really essays but one page reviews and not very good reviews at that. The writers waste a lot of time describing the plot (which you would already know if you have just watched the films) and include some rather obvious cliched comments.
The introduction by Andrew Roberts (who we learn is doing a PhD on 'Middle Class Identity' whatever that means) is little better where, for example, he tells us that The Salvage Gang includes scenes in cafes "filled with men in demob suits" - there are no such scenes in this film and anyway this was thirteen years after the war ended - why would anyone be wearing demob suits?! There is also a longer, more interesting piece about the CFF but this is reprinted from the two BFI Famous Five DVD sets. This seems very cheeky and lazy. Come on BFI, try harder next time.
Hopefully the BFI will release other films in this series - a mega box set would be nice - but preferably with more informative and accurate notes (If they're looking for volunteers I'm available).