50 years of The Railway Children

As the iconic 1970 film celebrates its landmark birthday this year, we look at some behind-the-scenes secrets of this much-loved family classic.

Railway children film

by Katharine Wootton |

It’s a film many of us will have watched time and time again, and yet half a century on from its first release, we still haven’t found a way to stop ourselves bawling into our handkerchiefs by the time the final credits roll on The Railway Children.

From the beautiful Yorkshire countryside to the portrayal of the lost innocence of Edwardian England, the rousing music to that heartbreaking, “Daddy my daddy” scene, it’s a film that seems to have only got more enchanting with age.

Edith Nesbit’s story of the Waterbury family plunged into hard times after the mysterious disappearance of their father had been adapted for TV and film several times before. But it’s little Martha Jeffries, daughter of the comic actor, director and screenwriter Lionel we have to thank for the 1970 version of The Railway Children that we so love. She suggested to her dad that he should adapt Nesbit’s story she’d just finished reading for the big screen. Thanks to his belief that there were more wise children in the world than wise adults, he immediately set to work on her suggestion. For the adult characters he cast the already established Dinah Sheridan as Mother, along with his mate Bernard Cribbins as Perks and All Gas and Gaiters actor William Mervyn as the Old Gentleman.

Casting the children, however, was more difficult and he went for three then mainly unknown young actors. Jenny Agutter was cast as the eldest sister Roberta although she nearly didn’t take the part. She later revealed in interviews, “I was reluctant to accept the role of Roberta because I’d played her two years earlier in a BBC series [] and it felt like going backwards.”

However, Lionel Jeffries soon worked his charm on her and in no time she was in the film. Sally Thomsett was cast as the other Waterbury sister, 11-year old Phyllis, despite the fact she was actually 20 the time. While she looked young enough to play the part, Lionel made her sign a contract to say she wouldn’t reveal her age to anyone, meaning she was banned from drinking alcohol, driving or being seen with her boyfriend in public.

Instead, all the crew treated her like a child, giving her sweeties while they chatted to Jenny – who was younger than her - like a grown-up. One night in the hotel room Sally and Jenny shared on location, they got bored of drinking squash and did a runner to a nightclub in Leeds. Shortly after getting there, though, they bumped into Lionel Jeffries and the film’s producer Robert Lynn and were quickly frog-marched back to the hotel with a flea in their ears!

It’s a fact! The doctor’s house in the film was actually shot in Haworth parsonage, once the home of the Bronte family where Jane Ayre and Wuthering Heights were written

But it wasn’t just the cast who caused chaos, the set had its fair share of problems too.

The scene where Roberta rushes to her daddy on a smoky station platform is the film’s most iconic but initially, it went wrong. The scene demanded lots of smoke to fill the platform so Daddy could suddenly emerge and a train had been specifically modified so that it generated lots of smoke.

On the day however, everything was set up and the actors in place when they realised someone had accidentally swapped the trains over with no means of creating the much-needed smoke. Long pipes were urgently dragged in to pump water to try to recreate the effect but these were no good and the filming schedule had to be delayed until the trains could be swapped back.

As for one of the film’s other landmark moments – the scene where a landslide collapses onto the train line forcing the Waterbury children to get creative with their undergarments – it was so dangerous, nothing was allowed to go wrong.

As the train gets right up close to Roberta (Jenny Agutter) and she waves her petticoat to the driver, the crew actually filmed the train moving backwards away from the children and then later reversed the footage for the film. To create the effect of the landslide, they also used fibreglass trees set into channels on the side of the hill. The trees were then pulled down the channels by ropes until they hit railway sleepers that triggered a huge explosion.

Did you know? The Railway Children author Edith Nesbit lost her own father when she was just four years old and so missing dads – like the Waterburys' own father- became a common theme in her books

It was such an exciting film to shoot, not just for the production team but for all the dozens of volunteers on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway where much of the film was shot. Many got to play extras – as did local schoolchildren - and most days there’d be crowds gathered to watch cinematic magic unfold in front of them on this once sleepy rail line.

As for us viewers, it’s remarkable how much the film still keeps us gripped and enthrals the new generations introduced to it. Maybe it’s no wonder then that 50 years on it’s still as loved as ever.

Where are they now?

Jenny Agutter currently (and famously!) plays Sister Julienne in BBC TV series, Call the Midwife.

Sally Thomsett gave up acting to be a mum but regularly attends fan conventions.

Bernard Cribbins is still working as an actor and has written a book of memoirs called, Bernard Who?

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