Just in case any fans of The Railway Children are groaning in horror at the very thought of a “sequel” to the much-loved tale set in rural Yorkshire, fear not. This is in no way a continuation of the story of the origical children Roberta (“Bobbie”), Peter and Phyllis. They remain firmly fixed in their early Edwardian world.
Author E Nesbit first published her yarn as a serial in a 1905 magazine, and it was brought together in book form in the following year. It has never since been out of print, and has been adapted for radio, and TV and the cinema – most notably in 1970, when the actor Lionel Jeffries wrote and directed his version, which starred Jenny Agutter, Bernard Cribbins, Dinah Sheridan and Sally Thomsett. It quickly established itself as one of Britain’s most popular and enduring films.
Edith Nesbit was also a political activist and had married bank clerk Hubert Bland. She was seven months pregnant at the time. Friends described the relationship as “tumultuous”, and Hubert was serially unfaithful.
The eldest son of their unconventional relationship was Paul, and Edith dedicated The Railway Children to him.
Today’s link between The Railway Children Return and two earlier versions (the TV account of 1968, and the film of 1970) is the actor Jenny Agutter, who played Bobbie Waterbury in both productions. And she plays Bobbie yet again in the latest release
But The Return is set several decades after the first glimpse of the family, in 1944 and the middle of World War II. Bobbie is now a grandmother, and like so many other friends and village folk of the Oakworth community, is awaiting the arrival of evacuees. The other familiar strands are the verdant Yorkshire landscape, and the iconic Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, which provides the nostalgic whiff of steam.
The added frisson is the discovery of an injured American soldier, hiding out in the station yard. Why and how he got there is part of an unravelling mystery that the youngsters manage to solve.
The new children are Lily, Pattie and Ted, all sent away from the dangers of the blitz on Salford and Manchester to the safety of the countryside. They are met on that familiar platform by Bobbie, her own daughter Annie (played by Doncaster’s own Sheridan Smith) and Bobbie’s 13-year-old grandson Thomas (played by 13-year-old Leeds-based actor Austin Haynes) . Another delightful tweak is that the stationmaster of the forties is the grandson of the original porter, Albert Perks.
The producer of the new film is Jemma Rodgers, whose inspiration came from her own adopted daughter, who had herself made the journey to her new family home by train. Looking for something to show her daughter that would reflect on her own transition and experience, she found the 1970 film. It was all too familiar, since Jemma is also a former resident of Howarth.
She reveals: “I got to the end of the film, and I thought to myself ‘Why hasn’t anyone ever done a sequel’? All the locations are exactly the same.
“I finished watching the movie, I went to my office, and I started looking at the numbers. If Bobbie is 16 in the original, to set it in WWII she would have been in her fifties. And I started concocting a plan. If Bobbie was a grandma, then she’d have to have a daughter. And then the evacuee kids would have to come from the city, so that there was a huge change when they moved to the countryside.”
When Jemma pitched the idea to movie company Studiocanal, (they still hold the release rights to the 1970 film) they all agreed that the whole thing pivoted on one key cast member – Jenny Agutter. Jenny – still a major star and one of the stalwarts of the Call the Midwife series on BBC TV – confesses that she found the whole new twist “really interesting”. She adds: “I think that it would have delighted Nesbit, because she always believed that, through her stories and through her imagination, she existed in different times. It’s about seeing change happen, and that is what The Railway Children Return is all about.”
She says she was delighted when Sheridan was cast as her daughter. “I have a huge respect for her as an actress, and I think that she is absolutely terrific. We quickly found that familial relationship, the one that allows mother and daughter to be close, but also to recognise how different they are from each other.”
Award-winning writer Danny Brocklehurst (Clocking Off, Shameless, Brassic) was brought on board as the writer, and he says that “a great part of the appeal for me was that I could write kids who were recognisable, and real and quite cheeky. What we have tried to do is a follow-up in the spirit of the original, but we’ve tried to do something different with it.
“There are, however, certain things that we were more than keen to keep, and to reference back to the 1970 film, certain moments, ideas and characters, little treasures that – if you know the original well – will mean something”
After many discussions, Jenny gave her blessing for the project to proceed, and the film crew came to Yorkshire again.
The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, Oxenhope Station and Oakworth were all key locations in the original film and the Jemma was keen for them to be integral to the sequel.
She made contact with KWVR’s business and operations manager Noel Hartley who became something of a key advisor to the production team.
“I had an initial meeting with Jemma back in 2018 as they were keen to work with us on the railway, the stations and also the trains,but obviously it was put on hold when the pandemic hit,” explains Noel, who is also one of the train drivers. In the end it was filmed on location in Yorkshire for three months in 2021. They also used one of the sheds to build additional sets.
“Jemma wanted it to be filmed at the locations in the original Railway Children. I was able to advise them on the different locomotives and carriages. Oakworth station was always going to be a big part of the film, but the sequel definitely has a very different feel to the original. ” Noel also came up with the idea of using an old brake van as a den for the children.
Neil hopes that The Railway Children Return will give a boost to the area, not just the railway but to Howarth and the surrounding area.
“We do still get people visiting Oakworth because of the original film because they want to see where it was filmed. We are hoping this new film will reignite more interest in the railway and the area,” adds Neil who has had a sneak preview.
The world premiere is being held, not on the red carpet in London, but at Keighley Picture House Cinema on July 3 followed by the London premier on July 10 before it opens to the public on July 15.
The stars including Jenny Agutter and Sheridan Smith are expected to congregate at Oakworth station before going by train, of course, to Keighley.
The Railway Children Return, in cinemas across Yorkshire and the UK, from July 15.
For information on the Keighley and Hope Valley Railway visit kwvr.co.uk