Glitterballs,Supersonic Saucers And Haunters Of The Deep: The Children’s Film Foundation Tales Of Science Fiction And Horror

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As a child, my peers and I had less than zero interest in the output of The Children’s Film Foundation, which produced short (usually just under an hour long) feature films between 1951 and 1985, when it fell victim to the removal of government funding Eady Levy scheme and changing tastes that saw the demise of many cinemas and even more screening options. Their films never really imposed themselves on my life – I don’t recall them ever showing at local cinemas, perhaps because I was more inclined to watch TV on a Saturday morning than attend the kid’s cinema shows where these films apparently played – even in the mid-Seventies, the whole concept seemed somewhat anachronistic. And while the critics dutifully gushed about the films, the few I did catch on TV felt rather like a lot of the BBC ‘family’ output that clogged up the later afternoon / early evening slot on Sundays – thoroughly worthy efforts, often adapted from classic children’s literature, that were the sort of thing that the middle classes thought we should be watching rather than anything most of us could relate to. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a cinema full of ten-year old ruffians in Stockport, hyped up on Black Jacks and Curly Wurlys, having much truck with most of their films. When the Saturday morning film show fizzled out, there was nowhere except television for the CFF to go, and while the back catalogue had some life on the BBC in the 1980s, the company was quickly forgotten by most film fans, remembered at best as a curious anachronism that viewers endured rather than enjoyed.

Still, we all get older and (believe it or not) I’m rather less the belligerent class warrior than I was as a snapper. In fact, these days it seems almost a novelty to hear someone thoroughly middle class who is not a villain or comedy toff in a British film, and so these productions feel like a bit of a respite from determinedly, desperately street-cred fixated yoof TV shows (all made, of course, by thoroughly middle class people who are desperate to display their Woke credentials). I wouldn’t say that the CFF films are lost masterpieces – though some are actually very good – but there’s a lot to enjoy in their works if you approach it with an open mind and don’t mind being taken back to a time when children were mostly jolly polite and well spoken, rather than being feral delinquents stealing scooters and robbing pedestrians.

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Of course, certain genres lend themselves to juvenile entertainment more than others, and science fiction has long been a favourite for kids – indeed was long seen as a juvenile form of entertainment by many in the mainstream –  so it’s no surprise then that some of the best loved CFF productions are in the genre. That these are also the most memorable and (thanks to BFI DVD re-releases in recent years) most widely seen of their productions is not coincidental.

Perhaps the earliest CFF science fiction films was Supersonic Saucer, made in 1956 when supersonic flight was still an exciting new thing. This is, in many ways, a prime example of what I suspected Children’s Film Foundation productions would be like when I was the target age for them. A tale of a Venusian visitor who turns up at a boarding school where three children remain during the summer holidays, it’s frightfully upper-middle class stuff and the world this takes place in was probably as alien as Venus to most viewers outside the Home Counties. Certainly, it’s set in that same world that most children’s literature of the time existed in, and it’s a world that didn’t speak to me, or most other kids I imagine. It’s obvious that the filmmakers genuinely thought that everyone would relate to the idea of boarding school and incredibly posh children – we’re told that Sumac (Marcia Monolescue) hails from South America and Greta (Gillian Harrison) is from Sweden, but they both have incredibly plummy English accents. The idea that their parents could afford to send them to public school yet couldn’t be bothered bringing them home for the summer holidays is also portrayed as entirely normal. The girls are still not as posh as headmaster’s son Rodney (Fella Edmonds) though, who is frightful in all ways, being a thoroughly smug prig who presumably grew up to be a Tory MP. Even the villains all sound like public schoolboys, despite the odd attempt to affect a ‘rough’ working class accent.

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And the sensibilities are very Middle England – when the alien visitor they name Meba (after Amoeba) tries to please his new chums by visiting a cake shop and collecting a feast of pastries, the kids all shame him and dutifully cough up the pennies to cover the cost of the cakes they’ve eaten. All very public-spirited, but the kind of actions that probably had most Saturday morning audiences hooting in derision. Things become more serious when Meba also robs a bank for them, and the money has to be returned – but not before some cartoon villains have had a whiff of it. Failing to steal the cash, the cads instead steal Meba, leading to a daring rescue mission.

If I’m making Supersonic Saucer sound dreadful, I don’t mean to. I would’ve almost certainly been appalled by this as a child, but I can watch this now as a slight, but oddly charming bit of sci-fi fluff. It’s comic book stuff  – that is, very British weekly comic books like Tiger and Eagle and Hotspur – essentially, with little in the way of a plot, but it’s curiously good fun, and the wildly dated social attitudes actually lend it a curious charm now – though I can only imagine what kids watching it today would think.

Meba himself is a triumph of ingenuity over budget, a shameless puppet looking like a cast off from Potty Time and dressed in a hijab (meaning only his eyes needed to move!), with cell animation used for the scenes where he transforms himself into a spaceship. Oddly, he looks a little like E.T. at times, and if I thought for a moment that Spielberg or Carlo Rambaldi or anyone else involved in that film might have seen this, I’d suggest blatant copycatting – that seems a very unlikely possibility though. The scenes set on Venus, with a whole bunch of mini aliens, also have a genuine low-budget charm. And it’s good to see a film of this age where the girls take the lead – Meba, being a good judge of character, declines to communicate with the awful Rodney and instead talks telepathically to the two girls. He also brings a much-needed touch of anarchy to the plot, not only being a thief but also something of a pyromaniac (of course, these transgressions are down to a misunderstanding of Earth rules, not a dubious nature).

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In the end, Supersonic Saucer is entertaining despite its dated style. It’s certainly more enjoyable than 1972’s Kadoyng, which despite its best efforts is a rather flat sci-fi comedy.

Kadoyng is an alien reject from a planet of giants, who has travelled to Earth in his run down space ship in search of acceptance. He meets three children who are allegedly from the same family, though appearances and accents suggest otherwise, and gets caught up in their village’s fight against a motorway extension. It’s slight stuff, but definitely odd – Kadoyng (played by the film’s writer, Leo Maguire) wears a Mork and Mindy style red jumpsuit and has a weird antenna that looks like an onion growing out of his head, and seems at one moment a blundering buffoon, and the next as a sly manipulator of events. There’s something oddly sinister about him as he screws with the minds of people at a public meeting about the bypass, which of course is seen as a Bad Thing (though when these NIMBYs win the day, it will presumably just be relocated to another village that doesn’t have an alien helping them out), even if the actual scene is amusing and oddly subversive, a local MP made to spout “blah blah blah, rhubarb rhubarb and totally meaningless clichés” in a neat satire on political hot air that is the closest the film comes to sophisticated humour.

The kids here are a lot less posh than the ones in Supersonic Saucer, though this is still very much a middle class, Middle England world, set in a nice village with a family who – apart from the three presumably adopted kids – seem a mismatch. Dad is a pipe-smoking, tweed wearing and grey haired fellow of a certain age, while Mum looks like a BBC producer. I can only assume they are both university lecturers or something.

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The odd environmentalist bent of the film is interesting, if often simplistic and annoying, and Kadoyng’s egg-shaped spaceship is certainly novel, but the humour is juvenile, even given the target audience. Everyone seems to be either hamming it up or doing the acting equivalent of SPEAKING VERY SLOWLY as if talking to simpletons. But it’s inoffensive stuff in its own way, and it’s always good to see Bill Owen doing something that isn’t Last of the Summer Wine.

If Kadoyng was quickly forgotten, then The Glitterball is arguably the best known and best loved of the CFF films, made at the height of the 1977 sci-fi boom. While it is clearly a lot cruder than many of the films of the era, it’s more fun than most.

Directed by Harley Cokeliss – who had an interesting career ranging from J.G. Ballard to monster trucks, it becomes obvious immediately that this is a step up from the previous films. For a start, it looks like a real movie rather than an extended kid’s TV show, opening up with the RAF sending fighter jets to intercept a UFO, only to find nothing there and the blip vanished from the radar. That’s because the football-sized spaceship has crash landed in a garden shed, and it’s occupant – a silver ball – has exited in search of food. Boy, is this alien hungry, and he’s soon munching through the sugar, breakfast cereal and fruit of the new occupants of the house he’s invaded – one of whom just happens to be the RAF sergeant (Barry Jackson) tracking the mysteriously vanishing UFO.

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Naturally, the family assume they have an infestation of vermin, but when the son Max (Ben Buckton) finds the silver ball, his curiosity is piqued. Soon, he and new chum Pete (Keith Jayne) have figured out how to communicate with the alien creature, but they’ve been seen by a local petty thief, the splendidly-named Filthy Potter (Ron Pember), who figures the alien can help him in his criminal endeavours.

As well as having a more cinematic feel to it, The Glitterball also has a tighter story, better performances – no-one seems to be phoning it in just because it’s a kid’s film – and more relatable characters. The alien is, of course, an ingenious way of managing with a tiny budget. What could be simpler than a silver snooker ball? Moving through a mix of stop motion and rather more basic means (i.e. rolling), the ball doesn’t have a lot of personality, but still works more effectively as a character than you might have expected. And I can’t knock the actual spaceship, which though small is pretty impressive (and created by Brian Johnson, who had worked on everything from Star Wars to Gerry Anderson shows).

It’s easy to see why The Glitterball became so popular and is so fondly remembered. It’s evidence that you can actually make something that is low-budget and aimed at kids yet which holds up to adult viewing. The same can be said of 1985 production Out of the Darkness, which would not only be one of the last CFF productions but also the final film made by John Krish, the director some of the best-remembered public information films as well as interesting features like The Wild Affair and The Unearthly Stranger. Here, Krish tackles the rather more problematic-for-children genre of horror – something that was always a difficult thing to pull off, thanks to the belief of the British censors that horror was strictly for adults, even when shorn of sex and violence – particularly at a time when video nasty hysteria was in full flow and horror was seen as toxic not only for kids, but for adults too (and, in the words of censorship-happy MP Graham Bright, for dogs too!). The mere idea that kids might be scared or traumatised by a terrifying story was enough to ensure adult-only ratings for the genre – but without scares, a horror film is quickly made a toothless affair. Of course, if anyone could persuade the BBFC that their horror film was, in fact, suitable for the audience it was made for, it was the CFF.

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Set in the Derbyshire countryside, Out of the Darkness is an authentically chilling ghost story, up there with the likes of Children of the Stones in terms of showing what children’s horror was capable of. In this story, extraordinarily ginger family Mike (Michael Flowers), Penny (Emma Ingham) and their mother (Jenny Tarren) inherit a country cottage and, along with chum Tom (Garry Halliday) travel up for a visit. It soon becomes clear that there is a ghostly presence in the village, at first seen only by Tom. In true kid’s movie style, they persuade the mother to let them stay behind under the care of the local guesthouse when she has to leave, and begin to investigate. With the help of friendly local museum owner Julian Reid (Michael Carter) – yes, this was a time when no-one raised an eyebrow at a single man taking children up to the hills – they discover that the village has a dark secret. A child accused of carrying the plague was hounded and eventually murdered by the villagers, and the guilt has been carried down the generations. The ghost of the boy returns once a century, and the race is on to find his body and put the curse to rest. But with the villagers behaving suspiciously, will history repeat itself?

Writer-director Krish manages to give this slice of folk horror a very naturalistic feel – there’s no sense of acting here, and for once the kids actually seem like real kids, their jokey insults and banter coming across as authentic dialogue. Yet he also builds an impressively paranoid atmosphere, as it seems the villagers are plotting against the outsiders who know too much, and then creates a powerful finale with the ghosts of the killers returning to carry on their murderous ways against Tom. This is as effectively nightmarish as anything you’ll see in any ‘adult’ ghost story, and Krish deserves congratulating on pulling it off in a way that is still child friendly.

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Also worth a look is 1984 production Haunters of the Deep, which might sound like a Lovecraft story, but is actually another – and very different – family friendly approach to the ghost story, one that even seems to be taking stab at international sales with the inclusion of an American father and daughter at the heart of the action. As her businessman father opens up the old Strangles Head tin mine, Becky (Amy Taylor) and local kid Josh (Gary Simmons) are paired up to keep them bot out of mischief. But local mine captain Tregellis (Andrew Kier) has warned against opening up the mine, a known death trap, and Josh has seen a ghostly child who turns out to be Tregellis’ dead brother. When the mine collapses – with Becky’s father and Josh’s brother inside – the pair have to team with the aged captain to find another way out – a route that they are guided to by the ghostly figure.

Although nothing dates as badly as the recent past – especially for kids – Haunters of the Deep remains fairly impressive. Avoiding the horror of Krish’s film, the story manages to combine boy’s own adventure, a wholesome ghost story (these spirits are the helpful, not vengeful sort) and a degree of social commentary as it explores the dying Cornish town, where work is scarce and jobs at the new mine, no matter what the dangers, are jumped at. Kier gives a dignified, steadying performance to keep the story anchored there’s some genuine tension in the well-staged scenes in the collapsing mine. Director and co-writer Andrew Bogle does a solid job at keeping the tension going, and this is a pretty decent effort.

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Much of the CFF’s work is pretty much forgotten now, and in many cases, it probably deserves to be. But the best of the movies are a reminder of a time when not only was there a curious alternative film business making movies especially for kids (even if the kids didn’t appreciate them!) but also of a period when children’s drama was allowed to explore dark fantasies – when it was acknowledged that kids love to be scared, and to be so would not result in life long trauma. There’s also a lack of cynicism and pandering here that feels increasingly impressive. Even the weakest of the films covered here is entertaining, well crafted and sincere – and when was the last time you could say that about any British kid’s TV? While younger audiences might find them a little staid now, these are all worth a look – and I’d put Out of the Darkness up against any mainstream ghost story even now. 

DAVID FLINT