Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Michael Powell, Jan Darnley-Smith
Screenplay: Mary Cathcart Borer, Emeric Pressburger, T.E.B Clarke
Producers: John Halas, Gus Angus, Harold Orton
Starring: Ronald Howard, Mark Dightam, Patrick Troughton, Jeff Rawle
Year: 1961, 1972, 1978
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 59 min, 55 min, 57 min
While watching the BFI’s new DVD Weird Adventures, a compilation of three hour long films made by the Children’s Film Foundation, I felt a sense of disappointment being evoked. Not on my own behalf but on the behalf of the many adults who will rediscover these films from their childhood via this release and probably realise that they are not as good as they remembered. This depressing tendency to realise fondly remembered entertainments from our youth have been tarnished by a loss of undiscerning pre-teen attitudes is no doubt something we’ve all experienced at some point and it is a phenomenon that has been brought forward for the Youtube generation by the comparatively easy access to what, for those of us in our thirties and above, would previously have been half-remembered blurs. The experience of realising Duck Tales did not have the same production values as Bambi is not a happy one.
Not everyone will experience this disappointment with these films. They do, after all, have a certain charm linked with their era and those who remember when children’s entertainment looked like this will no doubt feel a strong sense of nostalgia. Those who saw the actual films on offer here as part of Saturday morning cinema trips will likely feel extremely warm and fuzzy and want to watch them multiple times. But for anyone else, especially those attracted to this release by the banner names of Powell and Pressburger (as well as a wealth of other considerable talent), there are no lost gems to uncover and place next to A Matter of Life and Death or The Red Shoes.
One of the biggest problems with Weird Adventures is that these films simply aren’t weird enough. The strange, uncanny and spooky are always strongly evocative memory triggers and children’s productions are often full of such (both intentionally and unintentionally) creepy material. The ideal here for me would be Round the Twist, an 80s/90s children’s show from Australia based on the writings of Paul Jennnings which was truly inventive, unexpected and often haunting (check out the episode ‘Know All’ for one of the scariest children’s TV episodes ever!). The same was true to a lesser extent of Eerie, Indiana, a sort of kid’s answer to the films of David Lynch. Compare some of the concepts and scripts in those two shows with what supposedly passes for ‘weird’ by the BFI’s reckoning and only The Boy Who Turned Yellow, a bizarre tale of lost mice, beefeaters, personified electrical currents and skin colour alterations, begins to compare in terms of ambition. The other two films here, The Monster of Highgate Ponds and A Hitch in Time, have the depressingly predictable concepts of a sea monster and time travel.
The Monster of Highgate Ponds tells the story of a trio of terribly plummy children who are given a mysterious egg by their Uncle Dick (no laughing at the back there!!) which hatches into a small monster. Although they attempt to keep it a secret, the monster grows at an alarming rate, so much so that they have to take it to the local pond. But they hadn’t reckoned on the terrifying threat that is… the working class!
It’s easy to make fun of this vaguely charming but utterly unexciting little film. Of the three films on offer here, it looks the best simply by virtue of being in black and white, which protects it from that cheap TV look that the other two films have in abundance. However, in every other way The Monster of Highgate Ponds is the worst of the batch. It’s hard to imagine any but the very youngest of children enjoying it and even pre-schoolers won’t be fooled by the uninspiringly lifeless monster.
The major film talents involved here are Halas and Batchelor, who provide the monster’s animation, and Alberto Cavalcanti, who directs. Halas and Batchelor were major names in British animation, their masterpiece being the brilliant Animal Farm, Britain’s first commercially released animated feature (they also directed the very first British animated feature of any kind, the Navy training film Handling Ships). Their work can be seen in the early scenes after the monster hatches and it is the highlight of the film. The little creature is jerkily but amusingly brought to life but, unfortunately, as the monster grows it becomes a ludicrous hunk of rubber with a frozen face and a person waddling around inside it. This half-hearted effects job is the main thing that so totally scuppers The Monster of Highgate Ponds, draining away what little magic Halas and Batchelor’s early animated sequences established. A few animated shots of the monster’s face (including one of him stinking drunk right at the climax) can’t save it.
Alberto Cavalcanti was a producer and director at Ealing Studios and in his prime he directed the brilliant wartime film Went the Day Well?, the hugely enjoyable music hall romp Champagne Charlie and the genuinely scary ventriloquist dummy portion of horror portmanteau Dead of Night. Sadly, he brings none of his considerable talent to The Monster of Highgate Ponds. The direction is barely workmanlike, with the pair of comedy villains embarking on some of the worst slapstick routines ever thrown together. Falling over with a net is not intrinsically funny and the actors don’t even seem to be trying to invest it with anything more. According to the reminiscences of BFI curator Jez Stewart in the DVD’s accompanying booklet, Cavalcanti considered this project beneath him and spent his time on set harking back to past glories. His lack of interest unfortunately shows up on the film, although even the greatest director, presented with the seven feet of green rubber that Cavalcanti had to work with, would probably have given up and got it over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.
The major attraction of Weird Adventures for many will be the chance to see the final collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the men behind a considerable list of British classics including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. The Boy Who Turned Yellow, written by Pressburger and directed by Powell, is not a late-period return to past glories however. Sadly it is not even really worth seeking out for anyone other than curious completists. A distracted young boy who loses his pet mice at the Tower of London, turns yellow on his way home (along with a whole tube train and its passengers), then meets a personified electric current called Nic (short for ElectroNic) who helps him save his mice from a Tower of London which suddenly seems to switch eras around them.
The synopsis sounds quite promising but the key is in that terrible ElectroNic pun. For all the accompanying booklet’s talk of creating a children’s film that doesn’t talk down to children, The Boy Who Turned Yellow is full of crap jokes and wildly overplayed comedy reactions that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in The Monster of Highgate Ponds had Cavalcanti summoned up the motivation to ask for them. Ultimately, The Boy Who Turned Yellow is a well-meaning but underachieving oddity that suffers from too many ideas rammed into too short a time, although it feels longer than its 55 minutes.
By far the best film in the set is A Hitch in Time, a primitive but fitfully amusing time travel adventure with a likeable script by T.E.B. Clarke, another Ealing studios veteran whose finest moments include Passport to Pimlico and his masterpiece The Lavender Hill Mob. It’s not worth comparing A Hitch in Time to any of these past glories but Clarke never seems to be aspiring to anything more than an enjoyable trifle and, despite some lamentable performances from the child actors, he just about achieves his aims. Good support comes from a couple of very enjoyable performances by second Doctor Who Patrick Troughton as the Professor who invents the time machine but can barely control it, and Jeff Rawle as odious teacher Sniffy Kemp (as well as a string of his ancestors). Fans of British sitcoms may recognise Rawle (here in his debut performance) as the hapless George from Channel 4’s 90s newsroom sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey and his comic flair is immediately apparent, especially compared with the dismal adult performances of the previous two films.
With these three stronger elements in place, A Hitch in Time emerges as a comedy adventure that kids might actually enjoy. With all the different generations of Sniffy Kemp played by Jeff Rawle, viewers might be reminded of classic sitcom Blackadder (or, heaven forbid, the dreadful special episode Blackadder: Back and Forth, which shared A Hitch in Time’s era-hopping theme) but the reference point that sprang to my mind was Tony Robinson’s brilliant 90s children’s show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, with Rawle’s performance particularly evoking some of the performances in that show. It’s nowhere near as good or funny but A Hitch in Time at least passes an hour in enjoyable fashion and Doctor Who fans who seek it out for Troughton’s performance will likely go away smiling.
The BFI are to be applauded for continuing to rescue these films from languishing in obscurity and there is always going to be someone somewhere who will be delighted by their emergence, which is reason enough to get them out there. But anyone sniffing around for forgotten classics will be sorely disappointed.
The Monster of Highgate Ponds:
The Boy Who Turned Yellow:
A Hitch in Time:
Weird Adventures is released on 17/06/2013. Although it lacks any special features, like all BFI releases it comes with a high quality colour booklet filled with essays