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Sunday, 14 September 2014

BFI SCI-FI: Days of Fear and Wonder: The Children’s Film Foundation Collection – Outer Space

Release date: 22 September 2014

Supersonic Saucer (1956);
Kadoyng (1972);
The Glitterball (1977).

Product details:
RRP: £19.99 / cat. no. BFIV972 / Cert U
UK / 1956 + 1972 + 1977 / black and white, and colour / 48 mins + 58 mins + 54 mins / DVD9 / Dolby Digital mono 2.0 audio (224 kbps) / Original aspect ratios 1.33:1 + 1.66:1 (16x9 anamorphic) + 1.85:1 (16x9 anamorphic

Special features:
Brand new High Definition transfers of all the films
Illustrated booklet with extensive credits and new essays by The Glitterballdirector Harley Cokeliss, Alex Davidson, Robert Shail and Vic Pratt

Another self indulgent pre-amble

Bear with me while I remove the grit from my eye
 - I'm not crying when I see this........honest
For me and my friends it became a Saturday morning ritual which became one of the true cornerstones of our weekend existence between the the ages of 9 and 11 years old. Looking back on it now with my middle-aged eyes, it brings to mind a heady haze of laughter, friendship, chocolate, pop and ice-cream - all of which was nicely wrapped up in a cosy blanket of cinematic treasures provided by a bastion of British entertainment. Good times.

For those of you that may not know (and boy do I pity you having missed out), The Children's Film Foundation (CFF) produced home-grown entertainment for young cinema goers in Britain for well over 30 illustrious years. It was originally set up in 1951 as a non-profit initiative by the owner of the Rank and Odeon cinema chains to give youngsters the chance to get into the film-going habit, and not only that, they would get the opportunity to see the types of entertainment that THEY wanted to see. So saw the birth of the Saturday morning picture club.

In truth it is difficult to over-estimate the importance and contribution the the CFF made to the entertainment landscape of Britain for over three decades. This wasn't some two-bit tin pot attempt to throw some cheap rubbish at the kids of this country in the hope of keeping us occupied for a few hours on a Saturday Morning (though if you ask my mum, she would say that my and my brothers weekly cinema trips were her much needed time of rest and sanctuary within the chaos of the Anderson boys' weekend). No, there was indeed a genuine warmth and rapport between the CFF and it's audience that was both unique and pleasurable. The Foundation knew what it was doing, and boy it did it well.
The old ABC cinema of my youth - 
apparently now a bloody nightclub....a nightclub!

It is pointless to try and accurately convey the excitement that I and many of my friends experienced each weekday until that long awaited Saturday morning came, and along with it, its many delicious delights. Each and every member of the audience would queue (not always that patiently though) and armed with enough sweets, chocolate and drinks to feed a small African nation, before plowing into the Halifax ABC cinema (now sadly gone I'm afraid) and bring good natured havoc and stress to the poor workers there who most probably dreaded the onset of this day just as much as we looked forward to it.

Each new feature during the morning would be greeted with raucous cheers from the audience now out of it's collective head on sugar products - ahh, good times, good times.

Perhaps the Foundation's greatest achievement (apart from keeping raucous under-12's off the streets for a while) was it's major contribution in not just nurturing young and upcoming talent, but also using the talents of many well-established stalwarts of the British film industry. This latest release from the BFI exemplifies those two points, being full to brimming in familiar faced character actors and stalwarts such as Harley Cokeliss directing The Glitterball. If you don't know who he is, then I suggest you read his IMDB page, but be warned, you may be a while.

The actual important section

The three features included one this marvellous DVD perfectly encapsulate the ethos of the CFF throughout its existence - to produce a variety of genre films all containing common ingredients such as mystery, adventure, science fiction and horror. 

This particular blast from the past contains three of the CFF’s finest science fiction adventures: Supersonic Saucer (1956), Kadoyng (1972) and the much lauded classic, The Glitterball (1977). The first two titles were before my time as a 'Saturday morning clubber', however the final one is a film that resonates for me from that period and one that I was more than looking forward to seeing again.

Before I talk about the films on this DVD themselves, lets be perfectly clear about one thing straight away. When it comes to special effects and SciFi imagery, none of the CFF offerings are going to have ever won an abundance of plaudits. British film and television through the 1950's and 1960's were never renowned for having money thrown into their science fiction products. You only have to watch any episode of Doctor Who from that period to see for yourself the small budgets that the BBC were prepared to spend at that time. The CFF were a notable exception to this rule because the budgets weren't small, they were minuscule. This cost effective necessity may have meant an almost complete tone down of FX, however perversely, it also meant that as a consequence the result for CFF SciFi was more emphasis than ever on concept, ideas and yes, entertainment.

This resembles absolutely no scene in E.T : The Extra Terrestrial
 - nope, definitely not. At all. Mr Spielberg, sir.
The first of the offering comes from the 1950's with Supersonic Saucer. It tells the gentle story of Meba, a tiny baby flying saucer from the planet Venus and complete with extra-terrestrial abilities, who arrives on an exploratory mission to Earth.

The story not only boasts a rich SciFi heritage from writer and producer Frank Wells, whose father happened to be none other than perhaps the greatest Science Fiction writer of them all, H.G. Wells, but it also strikes a marked resemblance here and there to a certain E.T : The Extra-Terrestrial. However, I'm sure that my overworked legal team have far more adept knowledge of Internet defamatory laws than I, so at this point I shall say that Mr Spielberg's film parallels were entirely coincidental.......especially the theme of children befriending an alien and as a consequence taking on a hoard of nasty grown ups until he can go home. Honest your honour, I suggest no more than that.

Supersonic Saucer was a genuinely surprising delight, full of exquisite touches of excitement and humour throughout as the ever-so-innocent Meba and the children take on a very 1950's bunch of villains in order to stop them robbing their school.

A year's supply of 1972 kitchen foil was used up in this one scene
In the the second feature we find ourselves in the early 1970's where the children are still very pleasantly polite and distinctly middle class in the wonderfully peculiar Kadoyng. I say that the story is somewhat 'peculiar' it because on the surface the it's a charming and very sweet story of a pleasantly likeable Alien who finds himself alone on Earth (again).  Shortly after arriving from his home planet of Stoikal, he is found by two brothers and their sister and subsequently helps them in their attempt to stop their quiet English village being demolished in order to build a motorway. We've all been there.

Now, it could be my 'love all all things horror' head talking, but there is also a more disquieting tone to the story, masked skilfully by the light, playful dialogue. For one thing,  there is the distinctly phallic looking antenna that adorns Kadoyng's head. Then there is the use he makes of the said antenna - now clean out that dirty mind! he uses it to telepathically control the mind of some of the humans, no matter who they are. Nobody, especially the childrens rather mis-matched parents (she is younger and distinctly fanciable, he resembles an old boring Oxford professor) seems to bat an eyelid at the sight of this 'grown man' accompanying the children everywhere. Nor the fact that he seems to have some Pied Piper influence over them.

However, that all just be my contemporary view of a lovely paced and humorous piece of work which is full of some nicely played scenes. The one that takes place at the motorway bypass protest in the local village hall where Kadoyng manipulates the thoughts of some of those involved is particularly priceless. 

Yep, the food option really was that bad in the 1970's
As I mentioned earlier, the third and final offering is one that I have fond memories of seeing in person when it first appeared as a feature in 1977. Once again, in the award-winning The Glitterball, we see some young children (this time, two young boys) helping a (yes, another) stranded alien. The alien may indeed resemble a silver painted snooker ball, but this should not hide the fact that although the CFF could never hope to contend with a certain release by a Mr George Lucas that same year, The Glitterball still boasts some more than decent special effects.

I will be honest, this particular feature is one I have now watched three times since receiving the DVD from the BFI earlier this week. Not only is it a skilfully directed and acted piece that also comes with a delightful script, but also it provided me with a wonderfully nostalgic visit to a time where telephones were big, cumbersome and tied to the wall, cars were boring square boxes and the food available in a 1970's British superstore was pretty abysmal. Don't ever let anybody tell you that we were happier then, because we were not - life may have been simpler then but we didnt have the internet...I rest my case. And I know for certain that I'm not alone in my love for The Glitterball, as many others have been touched by it's warm cosy nostalgia of a time and event that never return again. But that nostalgic feeling would never be there if the film itself wasn't a dream of an exceedingly well told and exciting story.

This is quite simply a lovely collection of stories.

A little more about the CFF

For over 30 years the Children's Film Foundation produced quality entertainment for young audiences, employing the cream of British film making talent. Newly transferred from the best available elements held in the BFI National Archive, these much-loved and fondly remembered films finally return to the screen after many years out of distribution in specially curated DVD releases from the BFI.

The golden years of the CFF were during the 1960's and early 1970's had weekly national attendances not far short of the half a million mark - staggering figures. Alas, by the mid-1980's the audiences for these Saturday morning rituals were beginning to dwindle. Age, work and and an obsession with the opposite sex meant that yours truly had long since ceased to join my fellow manic throng at the Halifax ABC. In a wider sense, the output of the CFF was dealt two separate death blows. Firstly, the small tax on cinema tickets that channelled funds into British Film production was cancelled in the early 1980's by Margaret Thatcher and her band of society cut-throats. The cessation of the Eady Levy not only dealt a mortal blow to the CFF but it also meant deep trouble for the wider remnants of the British film industry that were holding on by their crumbling fingernails. 

The second death blow came in the form of television with the onset of children's Saturday morning shows with their selections of toy swapping or custard pie throwing. The organisation tried in vain to change with the times by negotiating production deals with the major TV companies and changing into the Children's Film and Television Foundation (CFTF), but the damage had been done. The production money and the audiences were gone. Film production from the CFF eventually stopped in 1987. 

The company is still in existence, with it now known as The Children's Media Foundation. It is an independent non-profit organisation which campaigns for good quality entertainment for children and young people throughout the UK. Not only that, it actively supports production and is determined to further wider understanding of cultural  media for children.

It would be all-too easy to become too blinded by the nostalgia of my childhood when talking about the special place the CFF and those Saturday morning get-togethers have in my and millions of others who shared that unique experience. What is perhaps more important is the knowledge that this company produced entertainment that never preached or patronised but always achieved the highest quality in all artistic areas.

This collection of stories is a prime example of that need for preservation. That movies of a dark and risky nature, such as the 3 in this series were being made by an organisation in trouble is testament to the ethos of the CFF. 

Outer Space is released on 22 September 2014 as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, a nationwide celebration of Sci-Fi film and TV.

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