As a child, I loved Edith Nesbit’s books. I read and re-read the Bastables’ treasure-seeking adventures, and was totally immersed in the magical world of Five Children and It (although, because I borrowed them from our small village library, I never managed to read any of the series in the correct order). But it was The Railway Children that really stole my heart, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a lovely book, and Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 film adaptation really captured its essence. Both book and film deserve their classic status.
Sequels, though, are tricky things. Sometimes they spill out, one after another, quickly diluting the potency of the original (Home Alone, I’m looking at you). And sometimes it’s fifty-two years before one shows its face. Is it worth the wait?
In the main, I’d say the answer’s ‘yes’. Although The Railway Children Return will never match its progenitor, it’s nonetheless a charming tale, and remains true to the spirit of Nesbit’s novel.
Time has marched on since a trio of young children first arrived at Three Chimneys, reeling from their father’s sudden absence and their resulting change in circumstance. But, hey – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It’s 1944 and, although Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) is a grandma now, history is about to repeat itself. Lily (Beau Gadson), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) are evacuees from Manchester – and Bobbie can’t help but empathise. Her daughter (Sheridan Smith) was only planning to accept one child; she’s very busy, after all, as headteacher of the local school, and how is she supposed to feed three hungry mouths? But she acquiesces; of course she does. Her son, Thomas (Austin Haynes), is a sweet-natured boy, and quickly befriends them all. If it weren’t for the constant background rumble of the war and their separation from their real family, this would be an idyll. But the real world keeps intruding: bombs fall; fathers die. And one day, whilst playing Hide and Seek in the railway station, the children make a startling discovery: an American soldier on a secret mission. Can they help Abe (Kenneth Aikens) achieve his goal?
The Railway Children Returns is a lot earthier than the original: Lily, Pattie and Ted are tough, working-class, city kids (although Danny Brocklehurst’s script avoids any obvious Goodnight, Mr Tom-style clichés), very different from the privileged Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter, for whom Three Chimneys – with its single, not even live-in servant – was quite the comedown. These kids scrap and tell mucky jokes, and they don’t mind lying to protect themselves. “You can’t kid a kidder,” says Lily.
Politically, the issues are different, but the tone is similarly liberal and progressive. In The Railway Children, Mrs Waterbury empathises with Russian dissidents, and takes in a refugee. In this sequel, the focus is on racism, particularly among the US troops, improbably stationed in the village. Abe is black, and has suffered horribly at the hands of his fellow officers. The message is a good one (‘racism is bad’), but it’s all very superficial, and it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest that only the Americans are prejudiced, while the local British community refuses, as one, to accept such bigotry. I know it’s a children’s tale, but children aren’t stupid, and they can deal with more nuance than this.
For the most part, though, director Morgan Matthews competently straddles the line between the bucolic dream and the wider-world nightmare, with moments of genuine sadness piercing the children’s fun. This, at least, feels very believable. It’s a shame, though, that Agutter isn’t given more to do.
Gadson’s Lily is the perfect successor to Bobbie: she has the same lively, attractive nature; the same determination and chutzpah. I think Beau Gadson is a name we’ll hear again. Who knows, maybe she’ll even appear as a granny in The Railway Children 3: Full Steam Ahead, coming to a cinema near you in 2074.