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The Children’s Film Foundation

Between 1951 and 1982 this unique institution made films exclusively for those attending the hundreds of Saturday morning children’s matinees hosted in Britain’s cinemas each week.

Now a long-forgotten tradition, the first matinee was held in 1927. They became community events with singing and lectures on topics like road safety besides the film screenings. All kinds of back catalogue films were shown; Disney cartoons, Westerns, gangster movies and American cliffhanger serials like Tarzan and Flash Gordon.

The influential head of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation (owner of Odeon and Gaumont cinema chains) wanted British-made product within matinee programmes and had Rank’s Gaumont-British Instructional division make Tom’s Ride (1944). Rank wanted these films to provide useful moral lessons; Tom’s Ride (pictured below) warned against theft.

The unit continued making such films for Rank cinemas as the Children’s Film Department and, from 1947, as CEF – Children’s Entertainment Films.

The 1950 Wheare report, a study of Saturday morning cinemagoing, commended how the matinees were run but deplored many unsuitable, violent and frightening films shown and called for more films of the kind made by CEF.

Unfortunately, within months the CEF had closed. Rank alone had been unable to carry the CEF’s financial burden, so the British film industry’s producers, exhibitors and technical unions agreed to a unique collaboration.

In 1951, the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) was created to provide films for not just Rank cinemas but all of Britain’s picture houses. Mary Field, CFD head since 1944, was made the CFF’s first Chief Executive. Its first feature was The Stolen Plans (1953).

Production was funded by a voluntary levy taken from all cinema ticket prices, called the British Film Production Fund (known as the Eady levy and made compulsory in 1957). The CFF received around 5 per cent of this levy, granted £60,000 in its first year, £100,000 the next and £125,000 annually until 1957. Goodwill discounts were received in kind from studios and processing labs and some forms of union restriction were waived.

The films were made for set fees by independent producers, who then signed over their rights to the CFF on completion.

As a non-profit making concern, the CFF sold prints to exhibitors for a minimal handling fee and demanded entrance fees stayed fixed at sixpence (they remained at sixpence until decimalisation in 1971).

Just sixteen prints of each film were distributed to the chain groups on a rota system. There were 33 CFF features, nine serials, 23 shorts and 16 magazines available by the end of the 1950s, but even so, compared with American serials, CFF films were not that widely seen.

Still, by 1955, 1400 out of 1915 matinee cinemas (with a million attendees nationwide) showed some CFF product. This was the highpoint of matinees – by the end of 1957, there were 1655 with many cinemas closing as general cinemagoing declined.

The 1960s was a new era in many ways. Mary Field left to become director of children’s television at ATV in 1959, with Rank’s Chairman, John Davis, taking over the post. Henry Geddes, an experienced producer of films for the CFF, became head in 1964 (remaining so until its closure in the 1980s).

Geddes’ arrival coincided with an extensive market research survey of matinee audiences, and its findings helped rejuvenate output. While there had been occasional colour films since 1961, an all-colour policy began in 1967.

“We have frequently been accused of making middle-class pictures for middle-class children. Sometimes I wish those who complain would see some of our films with their intended audiences.” So said Henry Geddes, the long-serving Executive Officer of the Children’s Film Foundation in 1976.

Those who watched CFF films in the 1950s and early ’60s might have levelled this accusation, but those watching in later decades – in cinemas or on television – would more likely recall exciting adventures of everyday kids. In its four decades, the CFF did its best to move with the times.

Following J. Arthur Rank’s moral fables, the CFF’s first Executive Officer, Mary Field, preferred more subtle moral education to dogmatic instruction and relied on “intimacy with good example”. She moved from ‘goody-goody’ characters to “ordinary children and adults behaving well, but not too well”. The films allowed a little room for bad behaviour and moral ambiguity that could be shown to be wrong.

1950s output dealt in “clean, healthy, intelligent adventure” and was summed up as follows: “(it) concentrates on popular appeal; it does not, however, play for sensationalism or unhealthy excitement or vulgarity.”

Factual magazines and slapstick shorts were soon outnumbered by serials and (hour-long) features. Films like The Stolen Plans (1953) and The Dog and the Diamonds (1953, pictured at left) were simple stories of resourceful children who stumbled across escaped convicts, bank robbers on the run, spies, smugglers and jewel thieves and drew on all their pluck to overcome them.

Films owed much to Enid Blyton’s adventure books; there was even an early serial adaptation of the Famous Five story Five on a Treasure Island (1957).

Some provincial audiences disliked the ‘posh’ accents of the child leads in 1950s CFF films. Most young actors at that time had been trained in clear diction for the stage and gave less than naturalistic performances. Field believed in promoting Received Pronunciation (‘RP’) and did not think provincial audiences would understand regional accents. Television – ITV in particular – would soon change that.

A 1964 market survey charted changing tastes and heavily influenced subsequent features. It reaffirmed basic principles – “Children are bored by slowness, lack of action, excessive dialogue, too many characters and a too psychological slant. The film must be simple, clear (and) stimulate by action, surprise, suspense…” – and suggested simplistic ‘cops and robbers’ stories were losing their appeal.

Crucially it found children “have a strong instinct for fair play and a pronounced sympathy for the underdog”. The template for the ‘underdog’ film was perhaps Soapbox Derby (1958). Starring a young Michael Crawford, it showed a gang of enthusiastic kids competing in a cart race, despite the attentions of a rival gang of mean-spirited saboteurs.

Max and Pete in ‘The Glitterball’ (1977).

The story of cheats who never prosper was replayed in dozens of CFF classics from Go Kart Go (1963) to Headline Hunters (1968).

A growing back catalogue meant CFF output began to dominate matinee programming. Funding was also high – by the end of the 1960s, the CFF had spent a total of £3m on productions.

1969 was the 25th anniversary of children’s cinema and a welcome opportunity for publicity. Otherwise, the trade press ignored the CFF, whose non-commercial status also meant that, for example, no posters were issued for their films.

Matinee attendances declined further, and by 1969 350,000 children were attending weekly, the number of matinees falling to 750.

Films were resolved by actions not words: usually a big, noisy event such as a race. CFF villains were dispatched via slapstick – the swindling garage owner of The Adventures of HAL 5 (1958) is dunked in a muddy pond – and comedic treatments became more pronounced after the 1964 survey showed it was the most popular genre, liked by 27% of boys and 37% of girls.

Importantly, it was thought to “call forth a response which produces no anxiety” while fulfilling another CFF aim of “avoiding shock, brutal violence, or stimulation of morbid excitement or attitudes.”

The 1960s brought a broader range of child heroes, but Junket 89 (1970, pictured at right) was the first to use kids from the Anna Scher drama school in Islington; Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson were among the snotty-nosed, scruffy urchins.

Such actors were probably an accurate reflection of the raucous, enthusiastic tykes sitting in the stalls. Director Harley Cokliss recalled a screening of one of his films: “I have never known such a rowdy audience . . . I thought ‘What a dire disaster’, but everyone told me it was a marvellous reception.”

CFF screenings came to resemble celluloid pantomime, and directors tailored films accordingly, filling them with action to which children could react. Watching CFF films in isolation today, it’s key to consider that a vital part of the intended viewing experience has been removed.

Boisterous, good-natured gang antics are what CFF is remembered for, whether dressed up as science-fiction or period drama.

The 1970s brought a touch of emotional subtext to some output, however. Hide and Seek (1972) centred around a bank raid, but focused on a boy who had run away from an approved school to seek his father – the villain masterminding the raid. Tense disaster picture One Hour To Zero (1976) used action to frame the story of a borderline delinquent boy ignored by his busy father. The anti-pollution theme of The Battle of Billy’s Pond (1976) demonstrated a social awareness.

Terry on the Fence (1985).

The 1980s move to television ended any need to ‘play to the gallery’ and more time was spent on dialogue and character development in films like Friend or Foe (1982), about a Nazi pilot who crashed in WWII England.

Restructured as the Children’s Film and Television Foundation (CFTF) in 1982, its films were sold to some regional ITV stations, like Thames, and a major deal struck with the BBC, which showed 26 features and one serial between 1984 and 1989.

One of the CFTF’s final films, Terry on the Fence (1985, pictured above) delved deep into the pitfalls of delinquent theft and peer pressure – its updated demonstration of “intimacy with good example” nonetheless showing not so much had changed in thirty-odd years.

The Eady levy was abolished in 1985, spelling the end for the CFTF, and in 1987 it was wound up as a filmmaking concern. The CFTF continues as an advisory body helping develop TV and film production for children, playing an important part in successes like Danny the Champion of the World (1989).