The first episode in a new production for BBC Television. See colour feature on centre pages.
2: The Coalminers Sunday 19 May 1968 17.25
It was Peter's birthday and Father had to leave with two mysterious callers. Mother and the children have left their house in London for a small cottage in the country without Father.
3: The Message Sunday 26 May 1968 17.25
Bobbie, Peter, and Phyl have made friends with Perks, the railway porter, but they have disgraced themselves by stealing coal from the station to help Mother, who is trying to make a living by writing stories.
4: The Foreign Gentleman Sunday 2 June 1968 17.25
Bobbie, Peter, and Phyl have made friends with an old gentleman who at their request has sent Mother a hamper during her illness, but instead of being grateful Mother is very angry.
5: The Secret Sunday 9 June 1968 17.25
Bobbie has read something terrible about Father. She has tried to keep it a secret but Mother has discovered that Bobbie knows the truth about Father's disappearance.
6: The Rescue Sunday 16 June 1968 17.25
Bobbie, Peter, and Phyl have saved a train from being wrecked. Perks has told them that there is to be an official vote of thanks.
7: The Meeting Sunday 23 June 1968 17.25
A boy injured on a paper chase is trapped in the tunnel. Bobbie, Peter, and Phyl try to rescue him as the train approaches.
[Repeated Thursdays around 5:15pm 14 August 1969 - 25 September 1969]
The third adaptation by the BBC, the 1951 versionand the 1957 versionno longer existing. The story follows the lives of three children who move with their mother to the country when their father has to go away and money is tight. They take an interest in the local railway line, befriend the stationmaster and ticket collector (Perks), and have adventures, all linked to the railway.
Having loved the 1970 film for many years, it was with a little trepidation that I bought the 1968 television serial, never having seen it before. However, it's quite a delightful adaptation in its own right, perfect for its Sunday tea time slot. One note however, as the vidcaps show, the videos show wear and tear, particularly tracking lines, damaged when run through a telecine, some worse than others. BBC staffer screenwriter Denis Constanduros does a lovely job of structuring each of the seven parts around the major events, and the novel is hardly action packed, so that you don't notice the episodic nature of the story, as you do with the film. Leisurely paced but without longueurs, helped by including the character of The Stationmaster, who was excised from the film.
Oddly for a BBC serial of the time, there's extensive location shooting, and not just for stock or background actions but featuring the cast, and not silent either (both then being the norm). The serial uses the same Keighley & Worth Valley railway facilities and pretty much the same Bradford locations as the film. This adds tremendously to the serial coming alive. We don't get that dread studio claustrophobia that afflicts many British 60s studio TV video productions and makes most of them unwatchable today (and it's nothing to do with being in B&W, as B&W filmed series are still capable of being enjoyably watched). The interiors are studio based, but they're cleverly intertwined by director Julia Smith with the location work.
Much credit must go to Julia Smith, a BBC staff director from 1963 to 1993 who became a writer/director/producer of much repute, a co-creator of BBC's flagship soap EastEnders. She coaxes fine naturalistic portrayals from all concerned, there's not a hint of melodrama. She is especially good with the child actors. Then only 15, Jenny Agutter, in particular gives a superb performance as the eldest Bobbie. Finely capturing the young innocence of the character who grows up during the serial, discovering the secret about her father, taking charge of affairs when Mother is ill, and finding first love with the boy Jim, played by Christopher Witty who, like Jenny, reprised his role for the 1970 film.
Neil McDermott, in his only screen role plays Peter, and if Gillian Bailey mugs a little too much, she perfectly captures the slightly annoying youngest Phyll, whose annoying nature is partly explained, and excused, by her exasperation at not quite getting the nuances of what's going on around her. She's now a Professor of Women's Performance Histories in real life, and I wonder what she thinks of her own performances as a child actress?
And how does it stand up compared to the 1970 film? That's an unfair comparison I would say. The film is a classic, and the budget and shooting schedules of film allow a large amount of rehearsal and takes before the final take is accepted, whereas BBC practice at the time was four days rehearsal, then one day for a camera & technical run-through, followed by filming one episode, normally in one take as there wouldn't be time or money (video being then expensive) to redo.
I was expecting the TV serial to be fairly boring and dull, but it isn't. It works as a companion piece, a template for the classic 1970 film. The latter has a nice comedic sense missing from the TV serial (and the source novel), as well as the money for a film star cast and more polished performances. The TV serial manages the action sequences fine, but they pale against the multi-angle and editing of the film version, the children don't stand on the tracks for instance. All in all, a fine children's TV serial for Sunday tea time. Pass the scones & strawberry jam ...
Mother ............................................................................................ ANN CASTLE
Roberta ........................................................................................... JENNY AGUTTER
Peter ............................................................................................... NEIL McDERMOTT