The story is simple and episodic. The Waterbury family, well-off middle-class inhabitants of a comfortable Edwardian villa in suburban London, are thrown into turmoil when the father is arrested on accusations of espionage. The mother and three children are thrown into (very relative) poverty and forced to move to the Yorkshire Dales to a house near a railway line. (Yes, I know.The ignominy.) The station used in filming is Oakworth Station and you can get to it on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth is another location.
The children have a series of adventures. They prevent a train crash, they take in a Russian political dissident, they rescue a boy who gets trapped in the tunnel. They steal coal, in a good cause. They become friends with the station porter and wave to the old gentleman who is a regular passenger on the 9.15 am down train.
Part of the distinctiveness of The Railway Children is the added resonance it brings to familiar tropes of children’s film and literature. The absent father; an idealised view of childhood in which children are free to roam and have adventures; idyllic rural and natural backgrounds; kindly adults who offer protection and facilitate happy endings are encountered in Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens among many others.
But here the reasons for the father’s absence place the film in a wider context. His Kafkaesque night-time disappearance, false imprisonment and ultimate vindication, set against the background of the recent Dreyfus affair, reflects the social and political realities that concerned Edith Nesbit, a socialist, political activist and ‘genuine Bohemian’, as Noel Coward called her. The Russian who is rescued by the children is based on Peter Kroptopkin, a Russian anarcho-communist who Nesbit met in London through her friendship with William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. The children’s social conscience and sense of communal responsibility are depicted with warmth. Their charitable activities, at first resented then accepted as coming from the heart, highlight issues of class and poverty.
The pain of the father’s absence and the difficulties of this new life without him are the emotional background to the whole film. That is what makes the final scene such a powerful moment. The train pulls in, the steam gradually clears to reveal the figure standing on the platform. Bobbie’s (Jenny Agutter’s) cry of ‘Daddy! My Daddy!’ pulls at the heartstrings no matter how many times you see it.
She is great, as is the whole cast. Also making impressive appearances are the trains. Magnificent steam locomotives with livery colours derived from existing rail lines, brown, apple green, white and maroon, plough through the rolling countryside, linking village and village, town and country, bearing cargoes of loss and hope and reconciliation, and delivering one of film’s most satisfying endings.