When it comes to children’s and family film directors, there are few noted auteurs, namely those with their own distinct set of themes and stylistic moves. Many filmmakers (from John Favreau to Steven Spielberg) detour through family film territory without truly planting their flag in the ground. That kind of ownership and name recognition is now the practice of studios or production companies like Pixar, Studio Ghibli, Blue Sky Studios or the great behemoth that is now Disney. All of which makes the work of the late Lionel Jeffries – who directed five kids’ faves through the 1970s – so fascinating and truly singular. These films are not only unmistakably the output of Lionel Jeffries, with their instantly recognisable sense of style and storytelling, but they are also distinctly unlike the work of anyone else.
Despite his five essential works as director, London-born Lionel Jeffries was largely eulogised upon his death in 2010 at the age of 83 as a much loved character actor. Best known for a handful of roles (Grandpa Potts in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; the nasty Marquis of Queensberry in 1960’s The Trials Of Oscar Wilde; Professor Joseph Cavor in 1964’s First Men In The Moon; King Pellinore in 1967’s Camelot), Jeffries appeared in scores of films in both England and the US, and later became a regular supporting player (and occasional lead) on British TV shows like Minder, Tom, Dick & Harriet, Father Charlie and Inspector Morse.
A noted quiet conservative, Jeffries often lamented the lack of quality, morally grounded material for children and older audiences in the freewheeling 1970s, and turned writer/director as a kind of creative remedy. Jeffries bough a six-month option on E. Nesbit’s frequently adapted novel The Railway Children, and wrote his own screenplay. “I found the climate of the story just right for me, a way in which to start entertaining people and help not destroy our industry,” Jeffries told The Guardian. “I knew we were taking a big, calculated risk in swimming against the permissive mainstream with such a story. All I could do was make it as honestly as possible: a Victorian documentary.”
The story of a well-to-do family who hit hard times when their patriarch is accused of being a spy, The Railway Children begins with pain, but ends with joy. The Waterburys are forced to move to rural Yorkshire, where the family’s three children (radiantly played by Miss Jenny Agutter, Miss Sally Thomsett and Master Gary Warren, as credited) soon become inextricably linked with the town’s railway line and the people that run and use it. Eventful, poetic, charming and wonderfully traditional, The Railway Children became a huge success, and remains a much loved family favourite today. “This is a film whose warm sympathy for its central characters doesn’t preclude frequent touches of dry wit, in dialogue and direction,” says The British Film Institute in its entry on the film. “A genuinely charming film for all ages, The Railway Children fully deserves its classic status.”
Jeffries returned to children’s literature for his next film, adapting Antonia Barber’s 1969 novel The Ghosts for his 1972 film The Amazing Mr. Blunden. The curious, mysterious, decidedly Dickensian and occasionally flat-out weird tale of a family who encounter the ghosts of the children of a rickety country mansion, the film also involves various forms of betrayal and skulduggery, along with liberal doses of grief, sadness, adventure and even time travel. It’s a highly unusual cinematic concoction, but Jeffries grounds it all with his rich sense of traditional storytelling. “Handled with that sense of enchanted stillness which is one of Jeffries’ great gifts as a director, the apparitions, the apprehensions, and the atmosphere of brooding menace about the house are exquisitely done,” wrote Time Out of this glorious little curio.
Jeffries’ next film as director remains his most atypical, with 1973’s Baxter! a far more contemporary affair. The deep sense of melancholy at the heart of the director’s previous works, however, is certainly present here too. Based upon Kin Platt’s book The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear, Baxter! follows Roger Baxter (Scott Jacoby), an American boy with a speech impediment who relocates to England, where he has to deal with the strained relationship that he shares with his parents. Also starring the great Patricia Neal and a typically luminous Britt Ekland as two of Roger’s supporters, Baxter! is largely forgotten today but well worth seeking out if you can find it.
Jeffries’ final two films as director were situated more solidly in the family sphere. A somewhat ground-breaking mix of live action and animation, 1978’s The Water Babies evokes the musical Oliver! with its milieu of chimney sweeps and child thieves pressed into service by irascible adults with skewed moral compasses, but shifts gears ingeniously early on. When the film’s young hero, Tom (Tommy Pender), hurls himself into a river pool to escape capture for a crime that he didn’t commit, the film switches over to animation as it introduces a vivid underwater world of talking fish and marine creatures, with Tom charged with saving the title characters from a killer shark. Boasting a strong cast (James Mason, Billie Whitelaw, Bernard Cribbins), The Water Babies is a wonderful mix of earthy grit and rich fantasy. Jeffries’ final film as director was 1978’s Wombling Free, a big screen version of the popular TV series about strange creatures who live on Wimbledon Common and pick up the litter left by the humans. Though very British in Jeffries’ typical fashion, its TV roots prevent it from really singing in the way that the director’s other films do. Innocent and charming, but not without wisdom and profound darkness, the wonderful films of Lionel Jeffries prove irrefutably that directors with a sense of vision can make children’s films too.