Top film lists screen out lives of children

15th July 2005 at 01:00
A shocking lack of films about children's lives, featuring real children and produced in this country - those were my thoughts when I saw the top 10 films voted for by TES readers in the current debate about which movies children must see by the time they are 14 (TES, July 1 and 8).

In our readers' choice, only two (Billy Elliot and Kes) are positively British (Mary Poppins and Jungle Book, for all their literary origins, are Hollywood fodder). And, while it is possible to argue that seven feature children, it is also true that eight of them are fantasies that do not in any meaningful way reflect the real-life concerns and interests of children, either now or in the past.

The purpose of the BFI's original list (TES, July 1) was to stimulate debate about the role of film as part of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's English 21 initiative. However, if the driving force behind it was, as the BFI's Amanda Neville said, to "give (parents) permission to demand something different from multiplexes", then it seems to have failed.

The TES's own poll of the films children should see is dominated by exactly the kind of big-budget Hollywood features that are standard multiplex fare.

Now I enjoy fantasies. But while we're talking about films that children must see by the time they are 14, it does seem more than a trifle bizarre that ones about important recent events that have shaped this nation - such as the Second World War, and the changing cultural and racial mix that make up British life - should not feature near the top 10 on either list.

Take two recent, home-grown successes that make some attempt to celebrate the cultural differences in modern Britain - Bend it Like Beckham and East is East. These feature at number 99 and 103 on The TES list respectively.

Hue and Cry, a forgotten Ealing comedy about children growing up in post-war London that made the original BFI top 10, languishes at number 74, while Hope and Glory (John Boorman's reminiscences of his wartime childhood) comes in at 184.

These films deal with things many teachers and children would appreciate.

Hue and Cry, made in 1946, was shot in the real East End, when the residents could recall the sounds of the doodlebugs and V2s falling, and would be a gift for any primary class studying life in modern Britain since 1948. What Star Wars (number 7 in The TES voters' list) tells us about anything, I fail to understand.

The list is also stereotypical. The heroes of Kes and Billy Elliot are poor, white northern lads, while Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Leia in Star Wars both now have sexual overtones that make them ridiculous caricatures. And where in The TES list (or the BFI's for that matter) will you find the hellions of St Trinian's? Ronald Searle's cartoon schoolgirl terrors featured in no fewer than five films from 1954 to 1980, pre-dating girl power, the sexual revolution and modern anxieties about ASBOs, hoodies and bad classroom behaviour by half a century.

Now don't misunderstand me - all the films I've singled out as deserving of more attention are also fantasies (in Hue and Cry the gangs who play in the bomb craters foil a robbery). But they more truly reflect the everyday concerns of real-life children ("Can I score a goal?", "Can I stop a criminal?", "Can I be accepted?") than most of the top 10. They also reflect the periods in which they were made. While some films with bite (Night of the Hunter, one of the most nightmarish films about childhood ever produced) make it further down the list, the top half is disappointingly big-budget extravaganza.

As a father who is passionate about film, however, the question of what 10 (or 50, or 100) films I should introduce my child to is a matter of more than academic interest. Should I start with children's classics? Should I get bogged down by the dreadful Americanisms of Disney? Should I include Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton and Will Hay? Will he even like The Clangers?

I don't know, and neither, yet, does he. But one thing I am certain of - precious few of the films in the top 10 on either the BFI's list or The TES's would be on mine. As to the top 10 films my son would choose, well, I'll aim to give him as broad a film education as he'll accept and let him pick his own.

The author is an assistant editor with TES Teacher. A list of the top 50 films voted for by TES readers can be found at

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