Reviews 2018

British Children's Cinema: From The Thief of Bagdad to Wallace and Gromit

British Children's Cinema: From The Thief of Bagdad to Wallace and Gromit. Noel Brown. London: I.B.Tauris, 2017. 289 pages. £85.00 (hardback).

British Children's Cinema: From The Thief of Bagdad to Wallace and Gromit is, after The Hollywood Family Film: A History, from Shirley Temple to Harry Potter, another book by Noel Brown published in the Cinema and Society series edited by Jeffrey Richards.1 Although the tittle of the monograph suggests a focus on "children’s cinema," most of the films discussed by Brown are in fact "family films" or rather those made for and consumed by a mixed child-adult audience. The author is aware that the title of his work may not express precisely its content and he rightly indicates and explains the difficulty of extracting what can be called "pure" children’s culture and establishing firm boundaries between "children’s films" and "family films," as well as between the imagined, or implied, and the "real" audience of children’s films and culture. This child-adult "doubleness," as Brown calls it (4), is central to his British Children's Cinema.

The author emphasises the specifics of British children’s cinema – there have been significantly more child-oriented films produced in Britain than it is usually supposed and between the 1940s and 1980s the country was "a world leader in the production of specialised, non-commercial children’s films" (2). Yet child-oriented films have never found their firm and proper place within the industry and still hold the lowly status in critical discourses of British film and popular culture. Nevertheless, as Brown points out, children’s and family films have been an important part of popular culture as they "deal with serious meanings and constitute an important and unique form of cultural expression" (3). They have performed a formative role for generations of people, giving insights into socio-political concerns of their time as well as reflecting dominant values, norms and beliefs. Therefore, they should not be neglected by researchers and need to be considered as serious cultural texts discussed in a broad socio-cultural context as "films never exists in a social or cultural vacuum" (3). Thus British Children’s Cinema is not a history of a film genre but a social film history or, in a broader perspective, a British cultural history.

In his methodological approach Brown combines close readings of films with the examination of their role and positon in popular culture. His analysis is complemented with references to various sources, such as reports, statistics, ratings and reviews, providing valuable insights into the critical response to the discussed films at the time of their release. The book includes illustrations which are always welcome additions to a study dealing with one of the visual arts, even if the images are only black and white.

The thematic and chronological structure of the book is well executed. It enables the readers to become acquainted with the history of British children's and family film across the decades, from the silent era to the early 2000s, showing not only the changes in style and conventions (with relatively unchanged ideological and cultural meanings), but also transformations in film production and distribution, censorship, ratings and reception. In the first chapter Brown presents some early productions aimed at children’s and family audience as well as main debates concerning children and cinema in the silent era, including the emergence of film rating (the establishment of the British Board of Film Censors in 1912). In the following chapters he examines "children’s adventure movies" of the 1930-60s (chapter two) and the films by comedians, such as George Formby, Will Hay, Arthur Lucan, or Norman Wisdom (chapter three). In chapter four, Brown focuses on the British tradition of children’s matinee and films produced for its audiences (the productions of J. Arthur Rank’s Children’s Entertainment Films and the Children’s Film Foundation). Then he investigates the 1950s family films with their images of school and family relationships reflecting a society in transition (chapter five). Chapter six discusses fifteen live-action films made in Britain by Disney between the 1950s and 1970s. Brown proposes an interesting account of the nostalgic representations of "Britishness" (i.e. "Englishness"), based on fantasy, folklore and classic period novels in those films. Next, he focuses on the 1960s and 1970s as the period when some of the British children’s and family film classics were made, as well as the time of crisis and waning of Britain’s independent tradition of such productions (chapter seven). In the last two chapters, the author points out to the role of television and Hollywood co-production in upholding British children’s film and offers a closer look at the Aardman animated features and Harry Potter series, once again indicating the differences between British and American tastes and expectations. He also examines the concept of "Englishness" as integral to the appeal and global success of contemporary British children’s and family cinema.

Among the films discussed in the book there are not only such well recognized productions as The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, 1940), the above-mentioned Harry Potter series (2001-2011), family blockbusters like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ken Huges, 1968), or widely acknowledged The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970). Brown also draws attention to less iconic (Innocent Sinners, Philip Leacock, 1958) and less obvious cases (Bugsy Malone, Alan Parker, 1976). Furthermore, he brings back from oblivion many early British children’s and family features, such as Emil and the Detectives (Milton Rosmer, 1935) or the Just William films (1940-48).

In the Conclusion of the book Brown observes that although stylistic principles are fluid and have been changing over time, "[i]n most regards, children’s films and family films continue to uphold socially-prescribed values and modes of conduct" (260). He once again points out to the never-broken links between British and North American film production, the dominance of Hollywood’s films on British screen and Hollywood’s influence on formal and industrial conventions of British cinema. As a consequence, children’s films give way to family films which should hold a cross-demographic appeal and attract broad audiences of children, teens, and adults. Brown also indicates the contemporary tendency toward "adultification" of children’s films, the primacy of pleasure over pedagogy and changing standards with regard to what is suitable for children’s consumption.

British Children's Cinema: From The Thief of Bagdad to Wallace and Gromit examines a largely neglected field of British children’s and family films. This is an interesting and comprehensive monograph and a valuable addition to the Cinema and Society series.

Jadwiga Mostowska
Central Cabinet for Film Education, Poland


1 More than forty-five studies have already been published in the I.B. Tauris Cinema and Society series, including the above-mentioned monographs by Noel Brown and the book he co-edited with Bruce Babington: Family Films in Global Cinema: The World Beyond Disney, 2015.