The Fourth Wall: Northern Male on the return of the Railway Children

I was putting my feet up near Otley recently feeling pleased we’d managed to finally arrive, park up and get sorted in my new caravan (on its maiden outing) when, just faintly, I could hear the theme tune to The Railway Children drifting through my open window played by another visitor.

The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway (KWVR) was not far and I assume the people playing the music were here to see and travel on the line made famous by the film and the book. But, read on and I’ll explain…

It’s been a busy summer in Yorkshire for TV and movies. Lockdown-lifted productions have been in overdrive to catch up on the 18 months of inaction brought on by the pandemic. The ever greedy tele-box in the corner needs feeding and cinema is about to get the jolt it needs to get us back.

Daniel Craig steps out for the final time in the UK as James Bond in No Time To Die on 30 Sept. Its gestation began five years ago in early 2016. EON productions fell out with its original director Danny Boyle and screenplay writer John Hodge. Then the pandemic struck. It’s the longest any Bond film has ever taken from creation to box office.

Films and TV series are often taken from books. Those familiar with favourite novels are usually quite disappointed with interpretations of their screen adaptations. This is because as we read we build a mental picture of the scenes painted by the author. This rarely translates to the screen.

As a teenager I read Lord Of The Rings and was so excited when the first animated film appeared in 1978. I made a special trip to London to see it – and felt totally let down. It was incomplete and absolutely nothing like I’d imagined. Despite this Peter Jackson (who also saw it) was inspired to make the movies we are all now familiar with. Maybe he wanted to undo the damage. This can work in reverse.

So it was with some trepidation last year when I learned that plans were afoot to make a follow up to one of my favourite films The Railway Children. How could this be bettered?

Edith Nesbit’s most famous children’s novel was originally published in 1906. She dedicated it “to my dear son Paul Bland behind whose knowledge of railways my ignorance of railways confidently hides”. It’s never been out of print since. Have you read it?

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As a child she spent three idyllic years living with her family at Halstead Hall in Kent playing with her brothers beside a railway line, swinging in a hammock and writing poetry. It was here much of the inspiration came for over 40 books she wrote for children. Her writing influenced C.S Lewis, P.L.Travis and J.K.Rowling. 

In her later years Edith was outspoken, sociable, left wing and well liked but dogged by financial difficulties as she was very generous to the point she was almost bankrupt when she died.

Her original book did not resemblance the 1970 film. It was actor Lionel Jeffries directorial debut and having bought the rights he chose to write the screenplay a little differently but still maintained its essential simplicity – the key to its appeal.

Emotional and absorbing, the movie gave the story new life and drew audiences into a plot which made you afraid due to the innocence of the children involved. I worried for the family, felt for their mother and wanted them to be reunited with the father and husband they so wanted back. The music still makes me well up every time I hear it.

Johnny Douglas wrote it. He was a renowned British TV and film composer but it was this score for which he is best remembered, received a BAFTA nomination for and what came wafting through my window. He died in 2003.

It’s September 2021 and I’m standing in a railway shed at Haworth. The film crew finished photography of The Railway Children Return in May and now it’s in the can. But some of the interior sets have been stored there so I sneak inside with some trepidation to have a look.

I always marvel at the care taken to make things look real on screen. The stored sets are amazing. The attention to detail is remarkable. Because we are able to view in HD and pause live TV, this work has gone to a new level. Still I take a moment to correct a small detail. After the event.

The film is due for release on the 1 April 2022 and it follows a group of children evacuated to a Yorkshire village during WW2 where they find a young soldier who, like them, is far from home.

There is a rule in show business. You don’t break the fourth wall. Where you turn and show you know you are being watched. 50 years ago there was a movie which did that – and it was this film. At the end the camera tracks towards the cast waving and Bobby holds up a slate saying The End.

Remarkably it is not. The place where lots of the action happened on both films is still there and fully operational.

Oakworth Station

Where Bobby, played by Jenny Agutter, saw her father, played by Scottish actor Iain Cuthbertson, coming through the smoke from the train at Oakworth station on the KWVR line is still there. Steam trains and the feeling for nostalgia are alive.

Noel Coward greatly admired Edith’s stories from childhood. When he died a copy of Edith’s story The Enchanted Castle was at his bedside.

Suffering from lung cancer, E. Nesbit died in 1924 at New Romney, Kent, and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary In The Marsh. She was 65. Her grave is marked by a simple wooden structure, the original being carved lovingly by her second and devoted husband Thomas Tucker, a bearded nautical cove known as The Skipper. Edith wanted no memorial stone. Her words are her epitaph.

I’ll leave Edith to tell you the climax to The Railway Children as she originally wrote it.

“Oh! My Daddy, My Daddy! That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone in the train and people put their heads out of the windows to see a tall pale man with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging to him with arms and legs, whilst his arms went tightly around her”.

When The Railway Children Returns come to a cinema near you next year, go to see it. Don’t stream it at home, watch it on your laptop or wait for ages to see it on terrestrial TV. See it as the author, director, cast, extras and crew meant it to be seen. At a cinema and with people you love.

Or maybe just read the book. I think Edith would like that.

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