If you were of cinema-going age in 1970 or beyond, the chances are you know this scene by heart. Lionel Jeffries's film version of E Nesbit's 1906 novel about Roberta ("the eldest, called Bobbie"), Pete (who wanted to be an engineer) and Phyllis ("who meant well") was an unprecedented success. At the Royal premiere, the entire audience cheered and gave it a standing ovation. Bernard Delfont turned to Jeffries's wife and said, "Lionel's got you an insurance policy for life." News that the BFI has had a new print struck and that the restored film is going on a nationwide release may come as a relief to adults anxious to amuse children over the Easter holidays, but has caused consternation among those who take their cinema very seriously indeed. Sight and Sound, the cineastes' bible, will not be featuring it. One suspects they will be a little less snooty when Hitchcock's Vertigo is re-released next month. Yet, even those allergic to The Railway Children's carefully constructed naivety and period charm should look at it in context.
The beginning of the Seventies was the beginning of the end for British film. The number of cinemas was less than half what it had been 10 years earlier and attendances were plummeting by around 25 million every year. Even if you personally dislike The Railway Children, it looks like an unassailable giant in comparison with the utterly forgettable fodder that Britain produced that year: the drabbest of sex comedies like Twinky with Susan George, ghastly versions of stage hits like Loot and Spring and Port Wine (Susan George again... why?) or vastly over inflated trifles like Goodbye Mr Chips and David Lean's disastrous flop Ryan's Daughter, which was budgeted around the $20m mark. The Railway Children, the first film out of the EMI Elstree studio under Bryan Forbes, its new head of production, cost just pounds 300,000, which it recouped on its first release, then (as now) a rarity in British cinema. Not merely a parochial success, it opened in the States on the huge screen of Radio City. Life magazine hailed it as the best family film since Meet Me in St Louis a quarter of a century before.
Not until ET, 12 years later, did another children's film have a similarly emotional effect with performances and key sequences burnt into the memory of an entire generation. British cinema has never managed to repeat the trick. EMI tried in 1974 with Swallows and Amazons but, as Ken Russell remarked, "I have never read the Arthur Ransome classic, but if it is as dull as the film, I doubt I ever will." Stuart Orme's 1988 film of Joan Aiken's classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has an excellent score by Colin Towns plus a thrillingly camp Stephanie Beacham as wicked Governess Letitia Slighcarp but despite sharing its missing parent plot, it cannot compete with Lionel Jeffries's loving rendering of E Nesbit's masterpiece - a volume which he came across, literally, by accident.
"I was returning to England from America to play Grandpa in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," Jeffries recalls, "when the train was derailed in Chicago." By the time he and his family were on board ship for the final leg of the journey, he realised that all his books were lost, but his daughters Martha and Elizabeth happened to be carrying a copy of Nesbit's book which, upon their instruction, he read and fell in love with. "As soon as I got home, I bought a six-month option on it for pounds 300, sat down and began to write the screenplay." Trying to sell it was much tougher. MGM were interested but only if he relocated it to America and turned it into a musical with Julie Andrews. Nobody would touch a faithful screen version of a period children's film, until he sent it to his old friend, Bryan Forbes, at Elstree.
It was Forbes who persuaded Jeffries to direct it. "He said, `You know you can handle people from your war experience; you paint, which proves you can handle visuals; and you've acted in 100-odd films'." In fact, Jeffries had learnt about direction at the age of six when his father bought a camera and projector in 1926. "He did storyboards. I learnt about editing, how you match left and right on the return shot, the lot. Later, whenever I was acting in a film, I'd follow the special effects crew around or watch the lighting cameraman to see why the camera was in certain positions." Forbes gave him carte blanche and, together with producer Robert Lynn, he assembled his crew and set about casting.
Dinah Sheridan agreed to play the mother and at a meeting at Mayfair's White Elephant club she asked, "Have you got the children yet?" Lynn leant over to Jeffries and said, "Look at the person in the next booth." There sat Jenny Agutter, an actress since her schooldays - not only on film, but in the TV version of The Railway Children. Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren were found through the more traditional route of auditions.
Warren, now a furrier in Canada, appears to have separated himself from this childhood endeavour, but everyone else is happy to talk about the experience, which they all recall with unaffected pleasure. Thanks to tall co-stars, flat shoes and the voluminous cut of her pinafore dress, Thomsett, then 20 years old, merrily played a character half her age. "I had a boyfriend and a new Lotus Elite sports car that I was dying to get my mitts on," giggles Thomsett who, like Agutter, a shade younger, was forbidden to go to the pub during the shoot. The two of them drove into Leeds one night to go dancing. When they returned, they were met by a furious Lionel Jeffries, who gave them a serious dressing-down.
Twenty-seven years later, Agutter, who identified strongly with the character of Roberta, the serious girl on the verge of adulthood, is setting up a film based on Nesbit's life. Back then, she had already starred in Nicolas Roeg's atmospheric aboriginal encounter, Walkabout (although that film was not released until after The Railway Children). "It was strange doing them back to back, one all about innocence and the other all about loss of innocence," she muses, her low, carefully articulated, pale voice still betraying the distant, uninflected restraint which made her the unexpected sex symbol for a generation. That restraint is the hallmark of the film. "We never approached it as a children's film," declares Jeffries. "The mail we received from adults was incredible." He ascribes that to the decision to hold the reins on the emotions. Nesbit's own father died when she was three, the pain of which she returned to again and again in her writing but nowhere so directly as here. There is a comic veneer to the film version which rarely oversteps the mark, as in Perks's birthday party, but its dramatic resonance stems from the loss the children suffer with their father's abrupt disappearance and the fulfilment of their hopes when he returns. Wisely, Jeffries never shows the children crying, but when Roberta accidentally discovers a cutting about their father's imprisonment, Jeffries shot raindrops landing on the newspaper to evoke that response in the viewer.
Alongside its historical importance, it's the film's unique charge that persuaded the BFI's Robin Baker to re-release it. He acknowledges the current nostalgia-boom dreamed up by media thirtysomethings busily re- packaging their childhood, but refutes the charge of opportunism. "I think it's damn good. No other children's film has that emotional impact." His favourite scene is Roberta's birthday party. "The whole room is decked out and she appears simply to float across it. They recorded the music before shooting and it was completely choreographed to Johnny Douglas's score. I always cry at that scene." He's not alone. Noel Coward told Forbes it was his favourite film of all time and Gielgud poked Jeffries in the back at an early screening and said, "You've made me cry, you bugger."
Nesbit's story basks in innocence recaptured. Short of long-winded, expensive therapy, we cannot return to our childhood but a trip to the cinema next week may well be the next best thing.
Charity screening in aid of the National Children's Home at the Barbican, London, EC1 on 26 Mar. Tickets from Julia Judge (0171-255 1444). `The Railway Children' opens on 28 Mar with a nationwide release on 4 Apr