Stopping the Trains

If Robert Helpmann had been alive today, he would be 112 years old and no less scary for it.  Readers of my age – and there are some, I’m sure, who battle through this twaddle sometime between morning porridge and evening Sanatogen – will nod in agreement when I say that if I can envisage a single person reaching that age in rude and menacing health, it would be he.  Mr Helpmann (actually Sir Robert Helpmann C.B.E.) played the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and, as such, was the man who terrified an entire generation.  Check it out, this is a children’s film, but there, in the company of Freddy Kruger, Chucky, the Alien, Hannibal Lecter, that bloody clown from ‘It’, Damien Thorn and Herbie the Love Bug (or perhaps that’s just me) in any list of Most Terrifying Film Characters of all time, there is the Child Catcher and, I feel confident in saying, he will not have been voted for by a single person of under sixty years of age: you had to be there.  You had to be the right age to be terrified to such a degree that each future whiff of Butterkist popcorn, Raisin Poppets and damp pants, each taste of Vanilla tub and wooden spoon, brings it all flooding back.  This is the power of early film encounters: to imprint on the brain like a duck to a newborn duckling, like a cuckoo to a clock…

Today, in the course of my work, I was introduced to a lady who said her name was Lydia and the song began playing so loudly in my head that I had to really concentrate on not letting it come out of my mouth.  The Marx Brothers films were made long before even my time, but I loved them.  They, along with Phil Silvers, were my introduction to a lifelong love of comedy.  I don’t know what age I was when I first saw At the Circus*, but I do know that ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ had me howling with laughter.  Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia / Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady / She has eyes that folks adore so / And a torso even more so…’ I’m pretty certain that I had no idea of what the ‘torso’ business was about, but I learned the words none-the-less and I knew then that I wanted to be Groucho.  Fifty years on and it took just the one mention of the seldom heard name to fill my head with so much of the past that it, fleetingly, ceased to operate in the present.

Another film that predated me by many years was Bob Hope’s ‘The Paleface’, but the bumbling attempts of his character to remember all the instructions he was getting for his gunfight: ‘He draws from the left, so lean to the right’ left me in helpless laughter at the ABC minors some twenty years after its release.  In my head I still hear that riff every time I try to write deliberately confused dialogue, but I know I will never match it.  Confused I’m ok with – I could probably claim to be a natural – but it’s the helpless laughter that eludes me.  So often, when I write, my mind is filled with these old films, not for the dialogue, but for the manner in which it was delivered.  Who could possibly write a carping couple without hearing Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen?  When I had a pond in the back garden, I was unable to stick my arm into it without worrying about leeches.  Thank goodness I have never owned a boat: I am far from convinced that I would be any good with improvised torpedoes.

In 1968 I was nine (work it out) and, as everybody told me, born to play The Artful Dodger1.  I didn’t, of course, Jack Wild did, and look where that got him.  A couple of years later I was sent to auditions for the role in some stage production or another, but I didn’t stay.  Most of the kids had their mum’s in attendance, wiping down their faces with a spit moistened corner of handkerchief.  I didn’t have anyone with me.  I went along because my then teacher asked me to do so and within five minutes I realised that I was at a serious disadvantage in that, although I could easily have been the Dodger, I certainly couldn’t act it.  I sneaked away and have never auditioned for anything in my life from that day.  But I still love the film and I could probably sing you every song from it here and now (although probably not in a key you would recognise).  Sadly, were I to audition today, it would be for the role of Fagin or, if I’m honest, having just looked in the mirror, Bumble.

And then came 1970.  I was eleven when The Railway Children2 was released, but I knew even then that, despite not being even remotely a child, the star of the show was Bernard Cribbens, who contributed both pathos and comedy to the character of Perks.  In ‘real life’, Cribbens was, of course, much too young to play Perks and Sally Thomsett, who played the younger sister, was actually two years older than Jenny Agutter who played the elder sister, but, you know, that’s the movie business: nothing’s really as it seems – I bet Julie Andrews doesn’t even own an umbrella.  I knew none of this at the time and even if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference.  All that occupied my mind as I left the cinema was Jenny Agutter’s bright red bloomers.  If I concentrate, I can still hear the hormones buzzing in my ears today, an echo of youth, like the Big Bang with fewer connotations.  I have no idea what subsequently became of Ms Thomsett, but I do know that Ms Agutter went on to star in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout a year later, and the boy became a man – albeit one still terrified of the Childcatcher… 

*The Marx Brothers at the Circus was made in 1939, twenty years before I was born.  I suppose that during those twenty years, the once ‘racy’ quips of Groucho became innocent enough to be shown on daytime TV, much as ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is now.  Progress…

1Oliver! Was voted the 77th greatest British film of the twentieth century and is most notable – as far as I’m concerned – for introducing me to Shani Wallis and the notion that girls were something that I really wanted to find out about.

2The Railway Children is widely regarded as perhaps the best Children’s Film of all time.  It was voted the 66th greatest British film of the twentieth century.  The film voted as the best British film of the twentieth century, in case you’re interested, is The Third Man.  My own favourite ‘If…’ is 12th, but as neither feature either Jenny Agutter and her red drawers nor a middle-aged ballet dancer with a false nose, they do not figure greatly in my childhood recollections.  But that, I suppose, is show business…

14 thoughts on “Stopping the Trains

  1. While I so remember Raisin Poppets and Vanilla tubs with wooden spoon, I missed most of the movies by being re-located at the age of 8. I do also remember,( yuk), the spit moistened corner of a hanky. I was taken to view a film, American, I’m sure, called “The Mole Men” that gave me nightmares for a long time. Starring no one in particular. Buster Keaton made me laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That indeed was when it only took an odd looking man, furtively stalking around and waving some old butterfly nets about, to be really scary. Pfftt, kids these days, spoilt with all that flashy wand waving and CGI’d demons.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Deliciously written, especially the popcorn and damp pants lingering memory. (My piddle on the Roxy’s cheap seats upholstery was ‘Jason And The Argonauts’ Talos comes to life and turns to the camera. Lucky there were spare seats on either side of me…)
    Is ‘IF’ the Lindsay Anderson flick? If so, ‘O Lucky Man’ and the bed-ridden patient almost gave me- or my seat- my second cinematic baptism.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. They knocked the old Roxy down long ago. The site is now a pubs car park. But somehow the uric acid smell hangs over it yet, especially on Saturday night/Sunday mornings.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I disliked the Child Catcher but I don’t recall being terrified because I knew it was just a movie. But I was also in love with Truly Scrumptious. I am a year younger than you and we have compared notes before. Herbie the Love Bug annoyed me to no end because I got that moniker tacked on me all the time. When I was a teenager I felt differently about it, of course…

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.