For over 30 years, the Children’s Film Foundation produced short films to keep younger audiences entertained in a time before television and computers. The second volume of the BFI’s collection of CFF titles, The Race is On, features one of the organisation’s favourites – Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1980), directed by Jeremy Summers – as well as Soapbox Derby (1957), an early production directed by Darcy Conyers, and Ealing director Charles Frend’s bizarre entry, The Sky Bike (1967). First up is Soapbox Derby, which sees Peter (a young Michael Crawford), leader of ‘The Battersea Bats’, building a state-of-the-art go-kart to enter a local contest.
In The Sky Bike, Tom (Spencer Shires) spends his school holidays dreaming of becoming a pilot. One day, whilst out on his bike, he comes across Mr. Lovejoy (Liam Redmond), an eccentric inventor who is determined to build a flying machine in order to win a competition, with the prize money intended to buy his own vintage airplane. Of course, there is another group out to win the prize, and a series of comic misadventures ensues before the climax where everyone gets what they deserve.
Arguably one of the Children’s Film Foundation most well-regarded endeavours, Sammy’s Super T-Shirt follows Reggie Winch’s titular protagonist as he trains to achieve his goal of winning the Junior Superstar Challenge Cup track race. However, our plucky hero gets far more than he bargained for when his lucky tiger t-shirt inadvertently becomes part of a top secret experiment (naturally), giving the wearer superhuman strength – with predictably chaotic results for all involved. These nostalgia-inducing films seem wildly unsophisticated compared with modern high-tech wizardry and special effects. However, that’s not the real raison d’etre of these wonderfully magical snapshots when viewed today.
As much a wonderfully pertinent snapshot of a lost era – whether geographically (the smoking chimneys of Battersea Power Station seen during the opening of Soapbox Derby may appear incongruous to those used to its present empty shell) or socially (the good manners and respect the children have for their elders are, sadly, somewhat quaint when viewed now) – they remind us of a time, not that long ago, when everything was much simpler, and frequently all the better for it.
This new DVD The Race is On compilation features brand new high definition transfers of all three films, along with a fully illustrated booklet containing essays by journalist Andrew Roberts, words from Vic Pratt and Sonia Genaitay of the BFI, and a note from Soapbox Derby star Michael Crawford himself.