Monday 18 July 2011


To London, and specifically Waterloo, where my wife and I treated ourselves to two tickets to York Theatre Royal's production of The Railway Children. It's a brilliant, imaginative staging, anchored by Marcus Brigstock's excellent Perks, which we enjoyed tremendously. For me, though, it goes much further than merely "enjoying". The story's emotional hooks are so deeply embedded in me that I am powerless not to be swept along, guaranteed to be reduced to tears on at least two occasions. I suspect that the significance of The Railway Children is very much a British thing, and probably a generational thing as well, but perhaps its reach is wider than that.

The 1970 film, starring Jenny Agutter, is by far the best known version of the story beyond Edith Nesbit's 1906 book. In the UK at least, it's been a staple of television repeats for many years - Christmas, bank holidays, sunday afternoons. I must have seen it dozens of times before I acquired a DVD copy. There had been three previous television adaptations before Lionel Jeffries' film, of which the 1968 production also features Agutter - but I've never seen any of them. As for the 1970 version, I've no recollection of seeing it earlier than about the age of eleven or twelve, and perhaps even older than that. The youthful Bernard Cribbins, who takes the role of Perks the stationmaster in that film, has of course featured in recent episodes of Doctor Who as the grandfather of the Donna Noble character.

The 1970 version will always be the definitive screen adaptation for me, but I've also grown very fond of the TV film from 2000. In a nice touch, Jenny Agutter returns, but this time as the mother of the children. Gregor Fisher supplies an enjoyable Perks.

As a child it was the train sequences that endeared the film to me, and of course the romance of railways and railway travel is an inescapable element of the story, ably captured in the York Theatre Royal production. More than that, though, what gets me every time is Bobby's reunion with her father, returned from false imprisonment after being wrongly accused of treason. The dramatisation of that moment in the 1970 film, as the smoke clears and Jenny Agutter at last sees the reason she has been called to the station, is very possibly my favorite moment in cinema. And if that makes me a big crybaby, so be it.

Not a clip from the film, but a link to a YouTube song by the splendid and much-missed Kitchens of Distinction.

Softly softly comes the train into the station.
She has often waited and wondered if he'll come.
Why was he kept away then, held from coming home now?
Was it troubled loyalty or a brand new family?


  1. Aha, I sense a family anecdote coming on. My uncle David Waller was an actor at York Theatre Royal in the 1940s; later he was with the RSC, and in 1983 I saw him at the Barbican playing Gloucester in King Lear*, where he was tied to a chair and had his vile jelly eyes plucked out by that nice Jenny Agutter herself as Regan** (done so violently the people in the row behind me muttered 'Ooh, I don't think that was necessary').

    * for casts.
    **I distinctly remember her doing it, though online texts show Cornwall (Pete Postlethwaite then) is supposed to do it. So I have asked at the Jenny Agutter website!

  2. If you're going to have your eyes plucked out, at least it would be Jenny Agutter doing it.

  3. The Jenny Agutter websitemaster has responded and my memory was mildly off: "I can confirm from Jenny herself that you have misremembered the scene. She says that she took a needle and gave it to her husband who then carried out the deed itself - as if Jenny could ever be so cruel!"

    Still, I'd forgotten Pete Postlethwaite was involved - in 1983 I don't suppose I knew who he was, as that was before all his film work and I wans't much of a theatre-goer. So now when either of them crop up in conversation I can invoke both, as they were involved in a joint enterprise to do the dirty on my uncle.