Looking back at the wholesome period time travel ghost story that was once a Christmas TV regular.
Full disclosure: I worked on the new blu-ray edition of this film. I don’t get extra payment for giving it a good review though.
The Amazing Mr Blunden, much like Lionel Jeffries’ previous film The Railway Children, is often referred to as a ‘family favourite’, though which family this is has never been explained. Certainly, both films seem to be more beloved of adults – often dewy-eyed with nostalgia – than kids, and I have strong memories of being bored silly by the pair of them during their frequent – some might say constant – TV broadcasts in the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t know a single kid who liked either film, and Blunden – with its promise of ghostly action – seemed especially irritating.
Still, we all grow and mature, and now I’m of an age where I might be charmed by such tales, if only because they hark back to a time when young people in movies were not all foul-mouthed oiks. And I have to concede that to a large extent, The Amazing Mr Blunden is a charming film.
Set in 1918, the film opens with war widow Mrs Allen (Dorothy Alison) and her children Lucy (Lynne Frederick) and Jamie (Garry Miller) being visited by the mysterious solicitor Mr Blunden (Laurence Naismith, in a role you might have expected Jeffries himself to play), who offers them the job of caretaker in an old, and supposedly haunted house. Desperate to escape their cramped Camden flat, they agree, but as soon as they arrive, Lucy and Jamie encounter the ghosts of fellow children Sara Latimer (Rosalyn Landor), and her younger brother, Georgie (Marc Granger), who lived in the house one hundred years earlier. The ghostly children tell their tale of woe, and we flash back a century, to see how the orphans fell victim to wicked housekeeper Mrs Wiggins (Diana Dors), who is keen for them to pop off so her daughter Arabella (Madeline Smith), married to the pair’s Uncle Bertie (James Villiers) can benefit from a much-needed inheritance. The ghosts implore Lucy and Jamie to return to the past with them (via a magic potion) to help change history and prevent their deaths.
As an exercise in nostalgia for ‘simpler times’, The Amazing Mr Blunden is very effective. Jeffries – who spent his entire directorial career making oddly nostalgic children’s movies – directs with a steady hand, keeping the story moving along and giving the film a lush sense of style, but also avoids becoming overly treacly – the mean-spirited Mrs Wiggins (played with an impressive lack of charm by Dors) is a spectacularly nasty piece of work, and the sense of threat from her is notable. It is, of course, kept to child-friendly levels of unpleasantness, but the film is a lot grittier and more dramatic than you might expect from such a cosy tale. Certainly, given current BBFC guidelines, it’s surprising to see such scenes of genuine peril and tension (and to hear someone referred to as a ‘slut’) in a U certificate film.
The juvenile leads who have to carry most of the film are pretty effective, though Miller and Granger are perhaps a bit too ‘excitable small posh boy’ to seem relatable (it’s probably this that put me off the film as a youth) while the two girls seem strangely similar, given that they are supposed to be from different times (Lynne Frederick, incidentally, although cast in a child role here, was eighteen at the time of production and had already starred in Vampire Circus – topless scenes in Schizo and marriage to Peter Sellers were just a few years away), and both girls they do their best with rather limited roles, managing to carry the story impressively. Naismith, as the ghostly character who sets up the story, is a suitably kindly old chap, and Villiers and Smith make for great comedy half-wits, more victim of Dors’ sinister plans than actual monsters.
However… if we have to look at the film from a modern political point of view (and I’ll never get that job writing for the New York Times if I don’t judge every piece of art through intersectional eyes) it’s notable that the film effectively pits nice, upper-middle class people against nasty, grasping, murderous working class monsters, and that does tend to leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. Everyone nice in the film is frightfully well spoken, and everyone nasty (Villiers aside – and he’s portrayed as simply bumbling, not malicious) a rough Cockney type – the exact inverse of anything made today, thinking about it. How the mass media class wars have changed. You could argue that the film seems to essentially be about the dangers of people not knowing their place in society – everything bad happens because posh Bertie marries music hall performer, gold-digging social climber and possible prostitute Arabella. No wonder I didn’t take to it as a working class kid.
Still, we all mature and we can all see that this is very much in the classic tradition of children’s fiction and the slightly spooky Victorian ghost stories for Christmas. Indeed, the film opens at Christmas and you might well believe that it is a festive film – that’s when you’d see it on TV and it does have that atmosphere, even though there is nothing in the bulk of the film to connect it to that time of year. But then neither, of course, is there anything Christmassy about the MR James stories that the BBC would routinely adapt throughout the 1970s – I guess the mere ghostly atmosphere is all that is needed. As it is, it’s not hard to imagine viewers slipping into a brandy and Christmas pudding-induced nostalgic comfort zone while watching this now, and that’s no bad thing. At a time when kids entertainment is awash with cynicism and street wise unpleasantness, it’s oddly reassuring to see something like this now.