It was his emotional investment that brought generations to no doubt sympathize with the film’s privileged family going through hard times – a standby of middle-class children’s literature revived as recently as Mary Poppins Returns.
This belated sequel proved you could better a beloved, emotion-spilled original over time. The Return of the Railway Children isn’t that ambitious and doesn’t tempt Jeffries’ ineffable wonder, so it can’t match its inspiration on its own terms. Screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst is instead schooled in harder contemporary work (Shameless, Clock off), and director Morgan Matthews is primarily a documentarian.
This sequel – set by producer Jemma Rodgers – updates the story of displaced children with three siblings evacuated from wartime Salford, who are met in the familiar Yorkshire haven of Oakworth by Bobbie (Jenny Agutter, who played Bobbie in the 1968 and 1970 BBC series, and her mother for ITV in 2000). “Do you remember coming in, mum?” his daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith, photo above left with Agutter) asks. “Like it was yesterday,” Bobbie breathes.
Beau Gadson is excellent as older sister Lily Watts’ Bobbie, long, rambling, intelligent, and bravely protective of her siblings and anyone else under her wing. During ongoing battles with local bullies in the rail yard, the Watts run into Abe (KJ Aikens, photo below right, gently charismatic), a teenage black GI on the run from the US military police, after the latter’s assault on black soldiers fraternizing with white women in a local pub. Seeing the behavior of the deputies for herself, Lily decides to help her railroad getaway.
Barring a belated, mirror-image attempt to stop a train, this sequel is more invested in its own story than it is to strike nostalgic nerves. Agutter is really just a welcome, authenticating cameo, there to reassure adults, like Tom Courtenay’s Uncle Walter, the 85-year-old former Billy Liar looking a little boyish again.
A BBC radio suite in 2021, Saving Albert Perkswelcomed the aging station master of Bernard Cribbins Kindertransport refugees, and Brocklehurst also finds contemporary relevance in the forties. It doesn’t evoke the time of how Jeffries appeared for 1905, Smith’s sentence ending “yeah?” the most glaring contemporary tic. But The Return of the Railway Children is for present-day children, not fussy adults, and makes up for those flaws by helpfully complicating our wartime reverence.
Abe’s fate was based on real incidents such as the Battle of Bamber Bridge in Lancashire in 1943, and the contradiction of the racist segregation of the United States while leading the West’s fight against Nazism – as the empires of the European Allies and Stalin’s addiction to evil – is worth questioning. Anyone with anti-wake allergies can also rest easy. The kids in this sequel reflect its modern audience in a completely unforced way, as black and white, working-class and middle-class, rural and urban kids come together in realistic ways to enrich a decade whose it is usually remembered in a more narrow way.
The Return of the Railway Children combines its resounding new story with an innocent adventure in the spirit of the Children’s Film Foundation. The painful power of the 1970s does not repeat itself. But this thoughtful sequel should inspire new movie memories this summer.