Children’s Film Foundation: 10 fabulous films from the home of kid-based hijinks

The kids’ adventure films of the Children’s Film Foundation were high on hijinks and low on boring stuff. From the 60 we’ve now released on DVD, here are 10 that might bring back memories.

19 April 2024

By Vic Pratt

Sammy's Super T-shirt (1978)

Do you remember the Children’s Film Foundation? It was one of the most fantastic British filmmaking initiatives of the 20th century, crafting hundreds of hours of high-quality, eclectic entertainment for the young – fabulous films shown at the cinema in the old days before TikTok.

It began in the post-war period, decades before the internet was a gleam in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee – back when even television was a novelty. Kids spent Saturday mornings at cinema clubs, featuring cliffhanger serials, rootin’ tootin’ westerns, creaky comedies and cartoons, mostly from America. However, the public and the press fretted over the dreadful effect of imported entertainments on young England. And so, circa 1950, the CFF was founded, a philanthropic enterprise founded by Odeon and Gaumont cinema chain mogul J. Arthur Rank. Its non-profit mission was to provide wholesome homegrown entertainment for young cinemagoers. And so it did, for decades, only ending in the late 1980s, after stay-at-home 1970s television and the end of the Eady Levy (a tax on cinema tickets that was fed back into film production) sounded the death knell for the Saturday morning pictures.

But what a legacy it left. CFF films are good, clean, fast-moving, well-made fun. Short and sweet, they are high on kid-based comedy hijinks, action and adventure, and low on boring grown-up nonsense like romance. Awards and proud plaudits sometimes jostled slightly awkwardly alongside critical flak for a perceived middle-class focus, but the CFF always tried to move with the times. Later CFF filmmakers strove to create films with broader appeal, better reflecting up-to-date children, fads and fashions. Scruffier kids, hairier kids and kids from more diverse backgrounds even began to appear. Talented writers, directors, crews and performers – some already well known, others who went on to be – contributed to enduring, well-deserved success.

Including the upcoming set The Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box Volume 5, which includes nine CFF films, the BFI will have released 60 CFF feature films on DVD from a glorious back catalogue, not to mention a splendid surfeit of shorts and serials. To celebrate the astounding array of effervescent escapist entertainment, we’ve selected 10 fabulous CFF films already available.

Adventure in the Hopfields (1954)

Adventure in the Hopfields (1954)

Long before directing The Towering Inferno (1974), acclaimed action-specialist John Guillermin cut his directorial teeth on this fast-paced drama of a feisty London schoolgirl who skips town to become a Kentish hop-picker. This formative work reveals the director already had a flair for a fiery climax, as a nearby windmill goes up in smoke. Luckily, a grubby local urchin – played by ragged-trousered whippersnapper Melvyn Hayes – is on hand to help battle the blaze.  

That’s an Order! (1955) 

That’s an Order! (1955)

As well as features, the CFF made loads of short films – including bonkers comedy quickies starring Carry On legend Peter Butterworth as hapless bowler-hatted handyman Dickie Duffle. In this, one of six supremely silly slapstick extravaganzas, shopkeeper Dickie tangles with a naughty chimpanzee called Whizzy, accidentally deep-freezes a dog, but helpfully defrosts the icy hound on the radiator, before tipping his grumpy boss – and himself – into a huge barrel of treacle. 

Blow Your Own Trumpet (1958) 

Blow Your Own Trumpet (1958)

One of the multitudinous joys of CFF is when you unexpectedly spot famous names and faces, in front of, or behind, the cameras. Speaking of which, Michael Crawford honed his comedic chops here, umpteen years before he’d find sitcom immortality as accident-prone Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. He’s brilliantly cast as an unfortunate young horn player whose trousers keep on falling down in the middle of a music contest.

Runaway Railway (1965) 

Runaway Railway (1965)

The CFF films – atmospherically shot on location – are fascinatingly brimful of period detail, social history and pop-cultural gold. Here, groovy 1960s kids rescue a train engine at risk of retirement in a rollicking adventure riotously revolving around redundant rolling-stock. What’s more, the comedy carriages are crammed with glorious guest stars, including Ronnie Barker and Jon Pertwee, hamming it up mightily for the cameras. This trainspotter’s delight trundles straight out of the steam era: just the ticket.  

A Ghost of a Chance (1967) 

A Ghost of a Chance (1967)

In CFF films – eerily like real life nowadays – switched-on kids have to battle to sort out society’s problems, because most adults are too corrupt, or just too plain dumb, to do the right thing for themselves. In this slightly subversive spectral stonker, clued-up youngsters enlist the aid of friendly ghosts at their local haunted mansion to see off money-mad property developers. Eccentric activist Miss Woollie (Patricia Hayes) is on hand to help out too, while bumbling corporate stooges Ron and Perry (Bernard Cribbins and Terry Scott) fall foul of possessed digger machines.

Mr. Horatio Knibbles (1970) 

Mr. Horatio Knibbles (1970)

Budgets were small, but the CFF never allowed this to stifle its kaleidoscopic ambition. Animal antics were always a favourite theme; and here the foundation, at its most experimental, went freakily full-on psychedelic. A mischievous, intermittently invisible giant rabbit in Victorian garb helps the young, Chopper-bike-riding heroine of this absurd extravaganza to batter the boys at cricket, then hoovers up all the cucumber sandwiches at her birthday party – thus bewildering brown-cardigan-clad adults, all way too square to see our cunicular hero. Far out!

Blinker’s Spy-Spotter (1972) 

Blinker’s Spy-Spotter (1972)

Weird, wonderful magic with a twitchy, mop-topped Joe 90-specs boy-inventor, up against sinister spies including beastly Bernard Bresslaw in brown suit and red braces and dastardly Bond villain Milton Reid, who are trying to steal a secret power-source – hidden in a cheapo plastic football – from Blinker’s eccentric inventor dad. More marvellous still, Blinker has a special electronic invention that dispenses freshly warmed polyester Y-fronts each morning. That’s what technology should be about.    

The Man from Nowhere (1976) 

The Man from Nowhere (1976)

The CFF made potent period drama, too, usually on a shoestring but with a stylish look belying meagre budgets. This spooky tale of Victorian visitation sees an orphan girl, sent to a remote rural spot to stay with a sick uncle, warned away by a mysterious black-clad figure, who appears and disappears like a ghost.

Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978) 

Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978)

Strange, imaginative sci-fi was also a speciality. Sammy grabs a high-tech T-shirt that’s been zip-zapped with electrical energy, and suddenly you can’t see his flares flapping for dust – because he’s as fleet-of-foot as bionic television hero The Six Million Dollar Man (on telly at the time). 

Pop Pirates (1984) 

Pop Pirates (1984)

A middle-aged Roger Daltrey of The Who – who, thankfully, in defiance of the lyrics of his famous song, didn’t die before he got too old – is a music talent contest compere on Brighton Pier in this perky period piece from the CFF’s latter days. A participating reggae band – led by Ricky Simmonds, sometime big-haired Grange Hill television heartthrob – becomes embroiled with a very 1980s crime: video piracy. Can they prevent an immensely valuable Rod Stewart video from being flogged for serious money on the black market? Grab a copy to find out!

Explore Children’s Film Foundation films in the BFI Shop.