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20 July 2022

Jason Solomons finds out why it took more than 50 years for a sequel to one of Britain’s best-loved films to gather steam.

Train passengers are used to delays on our railways – but 50 years is pretty long by anyone’s standards. It’s hard to believe that The Railway Children, the cherished film about the Waterbury youngsters who stopped a steam train by waving petticoats, was made more than half a century ago. Yet it’s one of those iconic British screen moments that feels like it’s always been around; so etched in our collective consciousness that it belongs to both past and present.

Made in 1970 by comic actor Lionel Jeffries, The Railway Children, based on the 1906 book by Edith Nesbit, was an instant classic. The locations in the film have become tourist attractions, particularly Oakworth station on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in Yorkshire, which thousands of fans have flocked to.

What most of them have wanted to know these past 50 years is: when will there be a sequel to The Railway Children?

TV producer Jemma Rodgers was thinking much the same thing one wet weekend afternoon while watching the film to help her daughter with her primary school history homework on WWII evacuees.

‘I hadn’t seen it for years,’ she says, ‘but dimly remembered it was about children sent away from home and that we might enjoy it together, which we did. It was very powerfully about these children who’d been separated from their home and father and moved from the city to the countryside. I was struck by how relevant that was to the wartime evacuees. I got to the end and thought: why haven’t they ever done a sequel?’

Jemma – a former resident of Haworth in Yorkshire, where The Railway Children and the new sequel was filmed – immediately sat down at her computer and began to work out how the characters in the original film might be worked into a story set in wartime Britain. ‘And to my surprise,’ she says, ‘the dots just seemed to join up…’ The script for The Railway Children Return had begun chugging out of the station. ‘I knew it wouldn’t be anything unless I could work the character of Bobbie in,’ concedes Jemma. ‘You just couldn’t have any kind of sequel without Jenny Agutter.’

Jenny, now 69, played the spirited Roberta Waterbury, known as ‘Bobbie’, in the original film, set in 1905, when she was just 17.

‘We all move on with our lives. I’m not the same person I was nor should Bobbie be’

‘I have never been anything but proud of The Railway Children and I love the character of Roberta,’ Jenny tells me on a break in filming on the set of her hit TV show Call The Midwife. ‘I loved her in E Nesbit’s original book and she has obviously struck such a chord with so many people over the years, but I never thought I would get to play her again – I just could never see how. So, when this idea arrived of moving into a different era, I was intrigued and very keen to make sure there was strong bind with the original piece.’

The locations, the trains and Jenny herself thus provide a connection with the past, both on and off screen. ‘When I was 17, I didn’t do any backstory for Bobbie or make any notes on character,’ she laughs. ‘I wasn’t really a trained actor. I was more interested in what was happening with The Beatles and wearing my miniskirt. But looking back, I always thought that Bobbie would have become a suffragette and would have been involved politically and that has been worked into the script here.’

After years of speculation, fans will also be comforted to know that Bobbie did indeed get closer to Jim, the boy whom she helped nurse in the 1970 film. In fact, she married him.

‘It was always heading that way, wasn’t it?’ remarks Jenny with a giggle. Although you do have to be quite eagle-eyed to spot what has happened to Bobbie along the way. This follow-up really can stand alone without any previous knowledge of the Nesbit book or the film.

‘We all move on with our lives,’ says Jenny. ‘I’m not the same person I was, nor should Bobbie be. I’ve been identified with her over the years very closely, although she’s not me at all, but it’s interesting and quite rare as an actor to get to pick up the same role again, but 40 years later in terms of the story. E Nesbit would have loved this idea. She was keen on the concept of time travel. It was a bit of an obsession for writers of her era and this film is like a leap into another time, with a whole new set of children off on a new kind of adventure with a new way of looking at the world.’

Art reflects life, too, in that, like Bobbie in the new movie, Jenny herself is now a grandmother.

There are some scenes of mischievous fun with her on-screen grandchild in the new movie, whose mother is played by Sheridan Smith. Jenny’s first grandchild, Oliver, arrived to her son Jonathan during lockdown. ‘He’s adorable,’ she gushes. She says her new status as a real-life grandma did feed into the role. ‘We can do and say things that an actual parent can’t,’ she says. ‘And it is less responsibility, so we don’t get quite as exhausted by it all. I think there’s some of that in the film that I was able to bring to Bobbie.’

The new film – which also stars veteran actor Tom Courtenay as Bobbie’s brother-in-law – is a completely different story, concerning evacuated children arriving from Manchester to pretty Oakworth (filmed in Haworth) and being taken in by the local families and attending the village school (where Sheridan Smith’s Annie, the daughter of Bobbie, is headmistress). There is a surprising storyline, too, about an escaped, black, underage American GI called Abe (played by KJ Aikens), who is fleeing racism and discrimination, something the film’s producer Jemma Rodgers was able to work in, having researched the subject. It’s hard to believe now, but US regiments stationed in the UK were often segregated, something often violently patrolled by their Military Police.

Inserting black experience as well as themes of evacuation gives The Railway Children Return a contemporary edge, even if it is set in 1944. The larger issues are not shied away from, despite it still being very much a family film. War and train journeys for refugees are sadly with us again in Europe, while the Covid pandemic (not that you can tell by looking at it, but this film was shot during lockdown and the cast and crew were strictly bubbled and masked) also lent the production some intangible sense of separation, both emotional and physical.

However, you can’t shake a sense of the past, historical and cinematic, with Jenny Agutter in the picture. I suggest to her that there must have been moments of recognition that brought memories flooding back, something that must have been emotional, even a little uncanny?

‘Standing on Oakworth station, seeing those trains and carriages did get me,’ admits Jenny. ‘The smell of the place, the look of it, it was as if time had stood still. There’s a line in the new script where someone asks Bobbie if she remembers when she first arrived here. My reaction on screen is very real because, yes, I do remember what it was like at exactly that moment: standing on the platform, how Lionel Jeffries did the steam and the mist and my character’s father arriving. So yes, they were very strong memories, quite overwhelming for a moment.’

The Railway Children Return is on general release now

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