I think I’m typical of my generation in that I only encountered the work of the Children’s Film Foundation in the clips shown on Screen Test. I don’t remember what I saw, at least not as much as some of those scary films that amateur auteurs sent in themselves. So my very low level of curiosity was settled recently when I watched the copy of The Race Is On I bought months ago. This contains 3 films loosely connected by the idea of sporting contests. All of them start with the CFF logo imposed on footage of the fountain in Trafalgar Square.
Soapbox Derby (1957)
A group of young scamps who call themselves The Battersea Bats have a jolly old hideyhole near the river, in view of the Power Station.
A rival gang from Victoria are watching them.
Inside, our gang are inducting 2 new members: technical whizz Four-Eyes, and Tony Hadley-lookalike Lou Lender.
Four-Eyes is required to provide the know-how for creating the go-kart our lads are going to enter in the forthcoming Soapbox Derby. He’s jolly clever with engineering details. But first of all they have to deal with the spying activities of the Victoria boys, which leads to a jolly old scrap. But Lou Lender proves himself to be a bad sort when confronted with the enemy: you see him drop his weapon like a coward , but then he kicks another boy when he’s on the ground.
After a dramatic moment when a boy has to be saved from drowning in the river, Lou the rotter still has to be given the red card formally: “We don’t want dirty fighters in the Batterseas.”
So he goes off to join the Victorias and lead their go-kart project team. Of course they realise that they don’t have the advanced qualities of the Battersea team’s work. So it’s a downward spiral of dirty tricks, industrial espionage, deception and theft, spurred on by Lou’s dad, a scrap metal dealer who seems to be a bit of a dubious character in general. To be fair, it’s just him and a random market trader who seem to be the only people in this world who don’t speak in fairly posh accents that sound nothing like anyone who grew up near the Thames. Although there seem to be broken down old cars to salvage, the housing in this world is already composed of nice new post-war estates.
Misunderstandings are resolved and friendships restored after an exciting escapade to recover the stolen car and get to the finals. Of course it’s only boys involved. Girls turn up to cheer them on but the only one with a speaking role is obsessed with her dolly.
The Sky-Bike (1967)
We’re now in colour. Young Tom Smith is fast asleep in his bedroom, full of aeroplane-related models and pictures.
Everything goes blue as he has a dream of flight, and groovy theme music plays.
But he has to wake up and deal with the everyday life of summer holiday at home with his nice parents. He goes off on his bike to the nearby disused airfield, where he’s surprised to find jolly old Irishman Mr Lovejoy testing out his experimental pedal-powered aeroplane.
It’s a serious business – there’s a prize of £5000 for whoever can make a vehicle that can complete the figure-of-eight test route first. But meanwhile Tom is getting told off by his mum for neglecting his holiday chums Bill and Daphne. Tom calls Bill “Porker” because he’s a bit fat, you see.
It is indeed – there’s another group creating a competition entry and testing it at the airfield, and they seem to be a bit more ruthless about it all.
Because Tom didn’t get contact details off Mr Lovejoy he has to do a bit of research in phone directories and the reference section of the library in order to get in touch with him again.
With a bit of brainstorming our boys hit on a new two-seater design.
Although he’s been sneaking around and not been totally honest with his parents, Tom eventually has to call in Dad for help ringing him at his office. Notice that it seems he’s working as an estate agent, and also the calendar shows June 1967, as does the other we see in the Smith’s kitchen.
Like Mummy, Daddy is very supportive of the boys once it is all explained, and he gives them the character-building lesson that they need to make sacrifices and go the extra mile if they want their team to win. Especially as the rival team are a bunch of rotters once again, using dirty tricks and sabotage.
Daphne plays a role for the girls this time, stitching up the holes in the fabric wing-material.
Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978)
Let’s go to a slightly different part of Britain, where the streets look like this, and the kids have slightly rougher accents:
Young Sammy is in training for the big race. He’s practising on expanding his biceps, with the help of inspirational training cassettes.
His favourite T-shirt has a design of a tiger on it, and it’s his “lucky” shirt is it is too big for him, and he hopes to grow in to it with his fitness regime. No, that doesn’t make much sense, but the lad is 12 years old. And he’s got a personal trainer, Marvin, who inspires him with facts and figures from a book of sporting details.
On their way over to the Comprehensive School to sign up for the race, they are attacked by a pair of rotters (yet another set of unscrupulous rivals) and Sammy’s shirt ends up thrown through the window of the nearby CHEMI-TEX research lab, to be used in their latest textile experiments.
Our heroes sneak inside.
Of course Sammy’s T-shirt has gone through the process and become “indestructible”, to the amazement of scientist Trotter and his boss Mr Becket.
Notice the “We are exporting and expanding in ’77” poster in the background – this is in the same universe as The Stone Tape, where a British company is throwing everything in to cutting-edge research to come up with some magic new gizmo that will beat Japanese competition. This explains why Becket and Trotter set out on a fairly ruthless campaign to retrieve the shirt when Sammy and Marvin liberate it. The pursuit is difficult as it seems the shirt also confers super-powers on Sammy when he wears it, leading to lots of moments parodying The Six Million Dollar Man, a Saturday teatime favourite for several British children who couldn’t find something less boring to do instead. During the chase Marvin suggests splitting up briefly, as a pairing of a black and a white boy would be easier to track – the only time that aspect of their friendship is mentioned.
The baddies are pretty unscrupulous, and even grab Sammy and bundle him into the back of their van to stop him telling on them – a moment which must have seemed a bit off even in 1978. But the good guys triumph in the end and there’s an uplifting message about being honest and believing in yourself. There were no girls in this story, though we do hear from 2 different mothers.
As with all BFI DVDs, this has a booklet of all the production details you could possibly want.