The year is 1967. The place is your local ABC cinema. The venue – the ABC Minors Children’s Matinee, to which thousands of grateful parents had dispatched their little brats with 1/- worth of pocket money that was a small price to pay for a peaceful Saturday morning. First on the bill of fare was the famous ABC Minors song, which complete with lyrics flashed on the screen and a bouncing ball…
We are the boys and girls all known as..Minors of the ABC…And every Saturday all line up…To see the films we like and shout aloud with glee..We like to laugh and have our sing-song…Such a happy crowd are wee..eeeeeWe’re all pals together…We’re Minors of the ABC.
After this rousing number, the cinema’s manger (or, more likely, a press-ganged assistant manager) would host some obligatory birthday singing and talent shows along the lines of skipping contests, the latter usually accompanied by hails of flying gob-stoppers. Finally came the moment that the budding juvenile delinquents were all waiting for – Calamity The Cow, shot in glorious black & white and brought to you by those jolly nice people at the Children’s Film Foundation or CFF.
The star of this epic was a sixteen year old and very pre-cockney Phil “Gosh the villains are stealing our prized cow” Collins, who was just one of the many future young stars that the CFF nurtured. Other notable graduates of the Foundation included Michael Crawford, David Hemmingway, Dennis Waterman, Susan George, Gary Kemp, Keith Chegwin and even Matthew The Wright Stuff Wright.
Sadly, despite such luminaries, and the fact that BBC television was screening Children’s Foundation Films as recently as the 1980s, far too many of the CFF’s works remain a vague memory amongst middle aged film goers of well-spoken urchins discovering buried treasure on the Isle of Wight. But the CFF’s thirty year lifespan, with its encouragement of both young talent and regular cinema-going amongst children, deserves to be remembered as an integral part of post-war British cinema as much as Hammer Horror or the Carry On films.
For much of the CFF’s lifespan, the Foundation existed to provide films of quality for the children’s matinees that had been an integral part of British cinema-going since 1927. Entry prices had to be kept to pocket money level, but many an enterprising manager realised that most of his young patrons would be satisfied with serials that were ten or even twenty years out of date.
However, after the Second World War, several educationalists were raising objections as to the films being screened for children and, following the Wheare Report of 1950 into juvenile cinema-going. The answer was the Children’s Film Foundation in 1951. Funding for the CFF was via the British Film Production Fund (or ‘Eady Levy’), a voluntary levy taken from all cinema ticket prices, some 5% of which was destined for the CFF.
In 1951 this meant that the production budget was an incredibly low £60,000, even allowing for the fact that most CFF films lasted for less than an hour and were filmed in less than a fortnight. As the CFF was a not-for-profit-body, ticket prices remained at a very reasonable 6d until 1971, leaving many urchins with sufficient monies to buy ice-cream to either consume or hurl onstage during the balloon making demonstrations, according to choice.
These early offerings were nearly all shot in black & white and followed the CFF’s official template for “clean, healthy, intelligent adventure” that would never “play for sensationalism or unhealthy excitement or vulgarity.” This was the world of 1953’s The Dog and the Diamonds, where England was under threat by a wave of cockney-accented villainy prone to various combinations of jewel thieving, low-grade spying and fairly non-violent bank robberies.
Fortunately the children of the average CFF epic were utterly brave and resourceful (the fact that the average 1950s CFF villain was an utterly thick working class type was also a help) and the drama would conclude with the police arriving in their bell-clanging black Wolseley as the villains floundered in a convenient duck pond. The Inspector would then inform the children that they were a credit to their nation and a jolly super time would have been had by all. With such an ethos it was entirely natural that the first film of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five would be made by the CFF.
By 1963 the monies allotted to the CFF were sufficient to allow for colour filming on location with Treasure in Malta (featuring some brilliantly hammy ‘international master criminals’ of no fixed accent and any number of Ford Consuls) but a market survey for the following year suggested that the ‘cops and robbers’ dramas were losing their appeal in favour of pictures that appealed to “children’s strong instinct for fair play and a pronounced sympathy for the underdog”.
The archetypal 1960s CFF film in this regard was 1963’s Go Cart Go starring Dennis Waterman (who did not sing the theme tune), where teenage cads would utterly fail to sabotage a soapbox race, a formula that possibly reached its apogee with 1968’s Magnificent 6 & A Half, a series which mutated into BBC’s Here Come The Double Deckers – and must hold some kind of record for the word “gosh!” in a British film. In fact it is the soundtracks of the Children’s Film Foundation that is their most fascinatingly dated aspect, not so much for the steam trains, the ‘press Button A’ telephone boxes or police Wolseleys with bells but the child actors’ incredibly precise diction.
This was quite deliberate on the part of the CFF – the restrictions on the use of child performers in terms of union and educational legislation meant that the CFF would use students of the Italia Conti Stage School, all of whom at that time had been trained in the art of clear speaking in the theatre.
Mary Field, the CFF’s Chief Executive believed that provincial audiences would not understand regional dialects – and so the CFF promoted RP speech. To a 2008 filmgoer this can make the dialogue of a CFF film sound utterly hilarious, but then after a bout of either The Goonies (a film with possibly the most garbled actors in the history of English-speaking cinema) or the public school mockney of the Guy Ritchie/Dick Van Dyke School of Dialect, a 1950s CFF offering can be very refreshing contrast. Filming was often carried out during the school holidays and a fast growing lead actor often provided a real challenge to the enterprising film maker.
Supporting the child cast would be the utter reliables of post-war British screen such as Ronnie Barker, David Lodge, Patricia Hayes or Sydney Tafler, all working for minimum Equity rates, and the directors were usually reliable pros such as Don Sharp, film-makers who could apply their experience on the British B-film circuit in making a short feature. The very notable exception to this rule were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – 1972’s The Boy Who Turned Yellow is not only one of the best made of the CCF films but also holds the distinction of being the last ever production of The Archers.
The success of the CFF in the 1960s meant that their budgets were steadily increased throughout the decade and so the films were being shot as far afield in location in Holland, Australia, Kenya, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. However, only two years after Phil Collins’s desperate battle with the cattle rustlers of deepest Surrey. ITV launched Zokko, the first ever children’s Saturday morning television programme.
Zokko was to be followed by Tiswas in 1974 and the BBC‘s Multi-Coloured Swap Shop in 1976, but the CFF fought against these unwelcome developments with an all-colour policy (British TV was largely black & white until 1970 and colour sets were not in the majority until as late as 1977). They also began using rather more naturalistic child performers such as Linda Robson, and CFF films of the 1970s were to concentrate less on spiffing adventures (although these still had their place with Mr. Horiato Nibbles, Professor Popper’s Problems or Egghead’s Robots) and more on dramas that captured a now lost England of Spangles and Vauxhall Chevettes.
This was also the era when British picture houses were closing at a rate of knots and many of the surviving ABCs and Odeons now resembled a mausoleum where a horse had recently died behind the ticket kiosk. Regular cinema-going now belonged to another era and cinemas were being kept afloat by a succession of exceedingly grim sex ‘comedies’ starring Robin Askwith’s arse and some very entertaining CFF films that maintained a genuine link for children with their local cinema.
Naturally the Children’s Film Foundation’s budgets meant that Star Wars-style special effects were not really an option – the Sky Bike that was obviously dangling on the end of a crane remains a fond memory for many film goers of a certain age – but the child actors were refreshingly un-cloying compared with much of Disney’s output, and the adult cast members were nearly always good value for money; 1978’s A Hitch in Time boasted a script from none other than T.E.B Clarke’s script and a stand-out performance from Jeff Rawle as gleefully sadistic school teacher.
But despite the valiant efforts of some very enterprising cinema mangers and the CFF’s own Oscar, ‘The Chiffy Award’, the number of Saturday matinees was reduced to a mere 300 by 1978. The CFF even tried using children’s television for publicity by supplying clips to the film quiz show Screen Test but the fact that so many of the CFF films provided were at least a decade out of date cannot have helped their cause at a time when Christopher Reeve was indeed Superman.
By 1980 the ABC Minors were no longer all pals together, and Rank disbanded the Super Saturday Club in the following year. The newly renamed Children’s Film & Television Foundation continued with a vestigial production but the abolition of the Eady Levy in 1985 dealt the organisation a mortal blow (although the fact that it also killed the British sex comedy was a very genuine consolation).
The CFF’s film production programmes ceased in 1987/88 with Just Ask for Diamond but the body still exists as an advisory organisation under the guidance of its Chief Executive Anna Home, the former head of BBC Children’s Television.
Ironically, the vast success of the Harry Potter films – with their innate sense of fair play and a pronounced sympathy for the underdog, combined with excellent performances from child and adult actors alike – demonstrates that the CFF formula can be applied to a modern day audience and that there is a real need for well-made children’s films. At a time when British television is cutting back on much of its children’s programmes, it could well be argued that the CFF, now utterly starved of funds but still rich in ideas, has even more of a role to play in British cinema than it did back in the days when a Saturday morning meant pocket money, The Beano – and films where a magic Austin Seven would rout a gang of trilby-hatted super-villains.