Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
They cram into the rail carriages each weekday morning and head grimly for Liverpool Street. They commute daily from Clacton, Colchester, Witham and Chelmsford. They snooze, read newspapers, distract themselves with laptops and mobile phones or engross themselves in novels. They are the backbone of the nation ‒ the people who are supporting their families and paying off their mortgages, student loans or tax bills. Many of them, in addition to doing their jobs, will spend between two and four hours per day simply sitting on trains. A significant proportion of them will continue doing this for anything between ten and forty years. At Liverpool Street Station they will mill onto the concourse, before dispersing onto tube trains or buses and speeding to their workplaces. Some hours later, they will complete the return journey, merely in order to get home. Caught in a crossfire between the rail operator and the union, I would imagine that currently, the backbone of the nation is aching somewhat.
At time of writing, a proposed rail strike which might have paralysed the country this week, has been declared illegal by a court order. Union boss, Bob Crowe ‒ the RMT's very own version of Ashes to Ashes' D.I. Gene Hunt ‒ is an almost retro-style union bruiser who has sworn to that the battle isn't over yet. As a result of intransigence on both sides of the dispute, a summer of rail-related woe and uncertainty now hovers over us.
Perhaps, therefore, this isn't the best time to tell you that a cleaned-up print of my favourite film will go back out on general release next week The DVD comes out in early May. Things have changed a lot in the forty years since The Railway Children was first screened. Edith Nesbit's children's story is set in the Edwardian era. The bit which most people will remember is the ending, where young Roberta (Jenny Agutter) waits on a pretty country station. A steam train pulls in and a few passengers alight. The train pulls out again and as the steam clears, revealed there on the platform, is the figure of her father (Iain Cuthbertson), newly freed from prison, having been wrongly convicted many months earlier. Father and daughter see each other. She runs towards him. Her cry of :“Daddy! My Daddy!” which echoes all over the small Yorkshire station has had stronger men than me in tears ‒ except for Bob Crowe, possibly.
The Railway Children, whose director, Lionel Jeffries, died earlier this year, was also Noel Coward's favourite film. And when, at an early showing of it, the actor John Gielgud saw the last scene, he said to its director: “You've made me cry, you bugger.” Talk to most men of a certain age about The Railway Children and there'll be a brief pause. Then, like a solitary light going on in the long-empty office block of their youth, they'll say: “Ah. Jenny Agutter.” A further few may talk about the various classes of steam engine used in the film ‒ but it's usually best to walk away from them, or you'll be there all night.
It's interesting to learn too, that Edith Nesbit, the prolific author of the original book, far from being the sort of quiet ethereal recluse that you might imagine, was a lecturer possessed of a steely intellect and a strong social conscience. A proto-socialist, who co-founded the Fabian Society ‒ the precursor of the Labour Party ‒ had she been around nowadays, she might have found more in common with Bob Crowe's RMT than with the hapless rail passengers. Leaving that particular engine in the shunting shed, for now, however, the real hero of The Railway Children, is of course, the children's mother, played by Dinah Sheridan. Reduced to poverty by her husband's sudden imprisonment and exiled from her smart London townhouse to a rural Yorkshire cottage, she begins writing short stories. Whenever she sells one, she tells her children:“I've sold another story ‒ we can have buns for tea!” I doubt if there's a freelance writer on the planet ‒ myself included ‒ for whom that phrase does not resonate.
In an otherwise beautifully-crafted film, there are also a few unintentional mistakes. In one of the closing shots, after their parents have been re-united, as the three children walk away from the house, a tree falls over in the background. Once you've seen this, you can't stop watching for it and you begin to look forward to it happening ‒ which distracts from the film's poignancy, somewhat. In the end, The Railway Children and the type of travel depicted in it bears hardly any resemblance to the reality faced by modern day commuters. If I, for instance, were to don tweeds and a peaked Edwardian cap and then stand on an embankment waving at a train today, I'd be swiftly recaptured and given my medication. Either that, or some rough maintenance workers in dayglo orange jackets would point at me and give chase. In the coming few weeks, though, never mind whether your recently-freed father has alighted on the station platform, you'll probably be moved to tears of gratitude simply because an actual train has arrived: “A train! My train!” Don't you sometimes wish too, that there was a nice old gentleman somewhere on board, who, if we passed him a note, as the Railway Children did, might go down to London and use his influence to sort the whole shambles out for us? I know I do.