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Steam Up For A Famous Film's Birthday Party

Steam railways make popular tourist attractions. The fortieth anniversary of the Lionel Jeffries film of Edith Nesbit's book The Railway Children was celebrated in style. Sally Thomsett, one of the film's stars, took part; trains steamed up and down the line and local people acted some of the scenes from the story along the platforms at Oakworth Station surrounded by crowds of visitors. It raises issues about the value of this kind of 'playing at trains'.

Image: The Railway Children 1

Image: Worth Valley Railway


The author of the Railway Children produced a classic, much loved story that might be called feel-good fiction today. The characters are all sympathetic, kindly folk, especially the Old Gentleman who pops up repeatedly like a fairy godfather to wave a magic wand and smooth out the lives of the Waterburys. And he is a railway company director with a special carriage on the train that takes him to and from his work. The children are taught the firm values of the Edwardian English middle classes – honesty, caring for those less well off and an acceptance of the life that they have to take on. Perks, the railway porter, has his strong sense of pride even though his place in life is not far up the social scale. He touches his cap to his social superiors and will not accept what he thinks at first to be charity when the children collect presents for his birthday. But, of course, he relents on realising he is actually surrounded by people who respect him for his place in the life of the village. At the end of the story wrongs are righted, father is released (not a dry eye on the platform) and we can assume life will return to the cosy suburban style that they once enjoyed.

No wonder the book has remained in print ever since it appeared in serial form in 1905. And no wonder the railway where the best of the many films and TV adaptations was made decided to celebrate it, and lots of people turned up to enjoy it.

So it might be a bit of a surprise that the author was a left-wing writer and editor who, though married, enjoyed sexual relationships with other men. Her husband, Hubert Bland, had relations with other women. Both are said to have been open with each other about these activities within their own fragile marriage. She brought up two children of his who were conceived during his long-lasting extra-marital affair with their live-in housekeeper, a long-standing friend of Nesbit’s. These two were brought up alongside the couple’s own two children.

Some people might think that Edith Nesbit’s real-life story destroys her famous fictitious story: that what they might find shocking, even unwholesome in the one undermines the positivism in the other. But The Railway Children represented rather more of life’s gritty side than might at first appear. It was not, unlike Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows which appeared about the same time an escapist tale. It was about wrongful imprisonment, poverty and political persecution (in an episode about a Russian seeking sanctuary from threats in his home country) as much as it was about nice families and neighbourly behaviour. Edith Nesbit and her husband were founder-members of the left-wing Fabian Society. In one sense the book is about social problems on the one hand contrasted with a homely exemplar of what community caring should be about on the other.

Some critics of heritage tourist attractions might point to the nostalgic day watching steam trains with some of the happier moments from a children’s story thrown in as a block to understanding “real” history. It is a barb that has been driven in to the world of historic houses, museums and preserved transport operations for a quarter of a century at least. At one extreme there was Robert Hewison’s book The Heritage Industry of 1987 which poured vitriol on all and every kind of effort to kindle and encourage interest in the past through such attractions. At the other, and not long after Hewison’s squib, came Theatres of Memory by Raphael Samuel (1994), a much more learned and balanced study. But before Hewison there was On Living In An Old Country by Patrick Wright (1985), a seminal study of the heritage trends within societies, thoughtful, honest, and properly critical while still being understanding about what was happening. A second, updated edition of his book was published in 2009.

Before considering some of the issues raised as they might apply The Railway Children/Worth Valley event, it’s important to get a bit more detail on what that event entailed.

The Worth Valley Railway laid on a three-day celebration over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, 1-3 May 2010. On each of the three days it ran steam trains up and down the five-mile line between Keighley and Oxenhope. Every other train was designated a ‘Railway Children’ train and hauled by one or other of their smaller locomotives labelled as The Green Dragon or else their much larger British Rail-style 2-8-0, number 90733 carrying the headboard name The Scotch Flyer, the two key trains mentioned in the book. At intervals between 9:30am and 4pm children and adults suitably costumed enacted snippets from the story, culminating in the return to his family of Charles Waterbury after being proved innocent of the crime for which he had been sent to jail. I went to see two of the afternoons’ events, Pat being with me for the first of them on the opening day. A short cloudburst with hail cut down the fun on that day and we abandoned it rather than wait an hour and a half between episodes as we would otherwise have done. The Sunday was better, staying dry.

On both days there were good turnouts of visitors – not too many, which would have been difficult for the stations and trains to handle, and not too few which would have made for thin audiences watching and poor income for the railway. There were no tickets to be bought, although technically platform tickets at 20p would have been needed, so revenue to pay the many expenses had to come from sales of refreshments, souvenirs and, of course, passenger tickets for those who chose to travel on the trains.

It is one of the problems of running a preserved railway that they are often enjoyed best, and at no cost, by merely walking onto platforms. It is much easier to take in the movement of trains, rail staff and passengers by watching from the platform. Once on a train the view is restricted to looking through, or possibly leaning out of, a window. You could arrive or leave Oakworth Station, where the events were taking place, by train, sure, but the time spent in the carriages was not being spent in the ‘theatre’ where all the action occurred. I often think that a museum line ought to arrange a ticket-buying audience on its biggest station platforms and then put on concentrated steam events in front of them, plus some small human drama in and amongst, while a public address system provides commentary and further audio effects. Such an idea would be anathema to those lovely steam-heads who want to run railways As They Used To Be Run – on the other hand, this particular weekend of events was a step in that direction.

You might judge for yourself the comparison between the film adaptation of the book and the Worth Valley’s small re-enactments of the film. The characters will not look the same. The actor playing Roberta looks different from Jennie Agutter. So what? She fits the character described in the book in outward appearances and personality. Perhaps the book says that Roberta had hair of one colour but the actor has another. Does it matter in relation to the points that Nesbit was making? There is a bigger difference between Perks in the film and Perks in the re-enactments. In the film Bernard Cribbins was around 40 but the actor looks about half that age. Again, does it matter? You might say that Perks has a large family – essential to certain points in the story – whereas this actor looks too young for that. Indeed, he does not appear to be much older than Roberta as the eldest of the Waterbury children. There is more of a problem here perhaps as there is a particular relationship between the two characters that depends on Perks being quite a bit older than her but younger than her father.

When considering depictions of characters like this we are firmly in the realm of theatrical interpretation. Must Othello be played by a black man? Some would argue for that, especially to avoid the use of a white actor blacked up like an old style minstrel show performer. Others might say a white actor is OK and blacking up is not necessary. Currently there is much discussion amongst fans of Dr Who as to the ‘rightness’ of Matt Smith compared with earlier performers. He is the youngest actor to take the part. The original was William Hartnell who was described as the grandfather of the very first companion, Susan. When Hartnell bowed out it was a stroke of dramatic genius to have the character regenerate as someone quite different, and that has happened ten times. What are the limits? Could Dr Who in future be female?

Similar considerations apply to the plot. Nesbit’s story was inspired by – well, either a railway in Kent or one in Derbyshire according to some writers. The Lionel Jefferies’ film is Yorkshire down to the very gritstone mills and houses and the character of the local people. Ah, yes, that last bit is something of a value judgment and open to argument. A key issue for film-makers of The Railway Children is the existence of a good steam railway, available for hire and use in the film. The Worth Valley line had the rolling stock and settings that suited the story, even though we might want to assume that the poverty-struck Waterbury’s would really have settled into a cottage somewhere in the Home Counties. A bigger issue for many a rivet-counting male could be that the famous Scotch Flyer traversing England on the Great Northern and Southern Railway is running through Oakworth on a single track line rather than the kind of multiple-track route that it ought to be on. Of course the convention is that we suspend judgment of this. We accept a compromise for the sake of sheer practicality, knowing that steam-hauled preserved railways cannot supply everything that would be needed for a really ‘authentic’ presentation.

We accept that where history is concerned films, books and plays can only recreate elements of the past. History is about what has gone. Gone. For good. The big problem is therefore that we have to say history is about what we think happened in the past. It is also about what we think life was like, what we think were the relationships between people and what we think they thought about their world. If tourist attractions with historical subjects were seen as libraries of objects (ie collection-museums), stage sets (eg historic houses, gardens, open air museums) and theatres (eg re-enactment events) it would be possible to get beyond the hang-ups that some people have about them. Plays and films are judged on their own merits – good ones help us to get some way to understanding the past, bad ones prevent it. Is Shakespeare’s Richard III good history as well as successful drama? Which is a better depiction of life in a northern mill town – Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go (1934) or some Mitchell and Kenyon actuality films shot in the textile districts in 1900? The better viewpoint is to say that they each represent a particular perspective having selected scenes, themes and activities. Sing As We Go has a dimension of actions, characters and emotions missing from the point-and-shoot camera work of Mitchell and Kenyon. On the other hand, the actuality film is of the real thing, even if selected according to what the photographers thought would amuse or thrill. The Gracie Fields narrative is to modern eyes contrived and folksy, but it was highly popular with many mill-worker audiences who saw in her personality themselves writ large.

But it is one thing to sit watching a film from a comfortable chair or even reading a good book about mill life in former days. It is entirely another to have all the senses engaged by standing in Queen Street Textile Mills Museum in Burnley when hundreds of looms, powered by a steam engine with drive shafts and belts whirring away. There is noise, smell and the tactile nature of the yarn and cloth. It is easier to begin to imagine what long hours and the exposure to the noise, dust and physical danger of such machinery did to those who worked there.

In the same way watching a film about coal mining is one thing: to understand the life better it is necessary to go underground in a real (if no longer working) coal mine with a real life miner who tells from first hand experience what the life was like. From that kind of visit comes a clear feeling of the dirt and danger on the one hand but also the heroic standing of the miners in their own communities on the other. The national miners’ strike of the early 1980s can be better understood, whatever is thought about the political strategies involved, if first of all a trip has been made down into the bowels of a coal field.

Tourist attractions themed around history have a potentially very effective part to play in understanding the past. Those which attempt re-enactments – including those of The Railway Children/Worth Valley variety – have something to add to the mix. They may be good or bad: that’s a judgment open to everyone. Plenty of examples are described and commented upon in the pages of this web site. All of them ought to be considered as parts of a very special kind of mass medium that is communicating messages to their audiences. The aim should be to examine and debate how well they do that in order to get the highest quality results possible.

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