Stephen McGinty: Film industry keeping us on rails

Sally Thomsett, Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins during filming of The Railway Children. The classic received its first-ever complaint this week. Picture: PA
Sally Thomsett, Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins during filming of The Railway Children. The classic received its first-ever complaint this week. Picture: PA
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IT was a close thing, but a dastardly 40-year campaign by the film industry to corrupt impressionable young minds with dangerous images has been exposed, rejoices Stephen McGinty

I ONCE wrote a column for another newspaper called “The Best Bit”. It was a short, 600- word weekly despatch in which a celebrity or notable figure would enthuse not just about a cultural work, a book, a play, a television series or concerto, but a specific part. The idea was to capture the enthusiasm that bottles up during a pub discussion when you compete with your friends to narrow down a work to its most crucial nugget: “The Best Bit”.

I no longer have the faded yellow cuts and even the new digital retrieval systems can’t quite reach the back page of this particular weekend supplement, but, for example it might have included a paeon of delight about the trash compactor scene in Star Wars or the final image of The Great Gatsby. I can’t quite remember and it didn’t last that long, barely 12 weeks. In fact, the only column I can specifically remember was writing up an interview with Julie Burchill, then the highest-paid columnist in Fleet Street, who each week dipped her quill in acid in preparation for autographing her name across the flesh of whomever had recently provoked her ire.

Over the phone she had the smallest, most girlish voice and her choice was surprising. It wasn’t a scene from her own novel, Ambition, as many might have expected given her healthy ego, perhaps the daring chapter in which the heroine turns herself into a naked coup from which to serve up vintage champagne, or given her view of herself as a literary gunslinger, perhaps a scene of rat-a-tat dialogue in Howard Hawks His Girl Friday. No. Julie Burchill, the co-founder of the Modern Review, had a specific scene she wished to celebrate from British Cinema. Julie Burchill’s “The Best Bit” was from The Railway Children and for 15 minutes she eulogised the final scene in which Jenny Agutter runs down the smoke-filled platform and into the arms of her father.

Those last few minutes of the children’s classic never failed to make her cry, no matter how many times she had watched the film. It was the sheer joy on Agutter’s face at the prospect of being reunited with, as she calls out repeatedly, during her sprint her “daddy”. As Julie Burchill explained, how could anyone not love The Railway Children? However, as we now know, Julie Burchill and many millions of viewers over the past 40 years, have been quite blind to the subversive, hooliganism that has flickered past our eyes at 24 frames per second. For what is this film but a blatant attempt to tempt the young from the safety of their playgrounds and parks onto “Death’s waiting room”: the railway line? How could we not have seen the dangers that have been flickering past in the dark for so many decades? And what has been the cost in young lives?

All we can do now is thank the foresight and bravery of the anonymous person who wrote to the British Board of Film Classification to complain about The Railway Children being given a “U” certificate as “universal” and suitable for all. Although we do not know what certificate the complainer actively sought to have the film elevated to, we must assume it was an “18”, for only when one is comfortably able to access pubs and seek the solace of strong liquor will the dangerous lure of railways lose their fatal attraction to the addled young mind.

Yet what is shocking is the disdain with which this brave individual has been treated by the authorities charged with protecting impressionable young minds from dangerous images. Has the BBFC immediately recalled all DVD copies of the film so as affix the new “18” certificate and a strongly worded text along the lines of: “Warning: Most likely to provoke children into pestering their parents to purchase petticoats and hob-nailed boots with the sole purpose of whipping them off and brandishing them at train drivers.”? No, I’m afraid, the BBFC have done no such thing instead they have dismissed the complainer as a crank and refused to countenance any changes to the film’s original certification. Clearly when it comes to nudity and copious amounts of arterial spray the BBFC are quick to whip out the “18” but in the face of trains and the might of the RMT union they are clearly powerless.

Yet, it is often said that when something has been seen it cannot then be unseen and so it is with The Railway Children. Thanks to that stoic, clear-headed critic we can now see Jenny Agutter for what she really is: a feral youth, who would surely by now have collected a string of ASBOs. She and her brother are but pied pipers dancing a generation of youths to their deaths. As a resident of Glasgow, a city where the last words of many a citizen’s close family friends is: “Watch this!”, I can only deplore the BBFC’s failure to act on what is the continued promotion of dangerous high-jinks masquerading as family entertainment.

The caul has fallen from my eyes and, for once, I can see clearly the morally destructive films on which two, sometimes three, generations have been weaned:

• DUMBO (U) A baby elephant born with giant ears discovers he can fly. Buried beneath the surface of this Disney cartoon is a deeply destructive message. It encourages the bullying of those children blessed with over-large ears and offers them false hope that if they can stoically withstand the playground taunts they, too, will one day be able to take flight powered only by the their powerfully vibrating ear lobes. How many more children must face the crushing disappointment of leaping off a park bench only to come tumbling down to earth until this film is re-certificated an (18)?

• FANTASIA (U) In order to complete domestic chores more swiftly a mouse meddles with magic and brings brooms to life. No amount of classical music can drown out the siren call of the Old Nick from this colourful concoction whose sole purpose appears to be to consign our children’s souls to eternal damnation. A cute mouse with a lop-sided hat is still an apprentice Satanist and what message is it to send to the younger generation that chores are not to be embraced as a rite of passage towards the adult world of responsibility but to be passed on to devilish walking appliances who will eventually turn on their animator? New certificate: (15)

• MARY POPPINS (U) Unless one is naive enough to believe in magical nannies capable of transporting their charges from city roof-tops to cartoon landscapes, there can only be one chilling reading of this contentious “children’s classic”. Let us put aside for a moment the cynical promotion of the dangerous, lung-blackening work of the chimney sweep as a suitable career opportunity for young children and focus instead on the actual behaviour of the film’s anti-hero. The subtext of the film is that, like many nefarious nannies before and since, Ms Poppins has clearly drugged the children into a hallucinatory state with opium and laudanum, before making off with the contents of the vault and the family silver and into the arms of her black-faced (clearly racist) heel clicking accomplice. New certificate: (18)

• ET (U): For 30 years this film has made a mockery of the cardinal rule drummed into successive generations of children: “Do not talk to strangers”. In mitigation the consequences of talking to strangers are brought home rather forcefully with the eventual arrival of various government agencies and the necessity that one’s house be wrapped in plastic for fear of alien contamination but still the lasting message is that talking to strangers can lead, at the very least, to having your heart broken and abandonment issues which means the film should only be suitable for those of (18) and over.

• CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (U): It is 35 years since I first saw it and the thought of the child catcher still gives my shivers. You don’t need to look for dark sub-texts or hidden meaning in this film, it’s just too scary for kids, at least, it certainly was for me. Long before the Cybermen, it was the child catcher who chased me behind the sofa. Still, kids are more resilient today so it should at least be a (PG).

We may mock the bold complaint of The Railway Children’s anonymous critic, but it is nice to know that the mettle of the late Mary Whitehouse lives on.