Lionel Jeffries was so busy as a character actor that his career as a director didn’t take off as it should have. He was probably among the first actors I learned to recognise, because he was a staple of films children like me loved in the 1960s, playing comic foils to Peter Sellers in Two-Way Stretch and The Wrong Arm of the Law and indulging in proto-steampunk crackpottery like First Men in the Moon and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He eased into directing in the same vein with the breakout hit The Railway Children … and all his other films as director, from The Amazing Mr Blunden to Wombling Free, were aimed at kids (even the realistic drama Baxter!). Surprisingly, this is the first film version of Charles Kingsley’s Victorian children’s classic since 1907 – or perhaps not so, since the premise of the sentimental novel – that the abused young chimney sweep hero has to die before he can get into the underwater Wonderland-Narnia-Oz where he has adventures – has been a hard sell since the sort of sentimental necrophilia of the Victorian times went out of fashion. These days, a faithful adaptation would doubtless be blamed by the Daily Mail for a rash of pre-teen suicides by drowning.
Scripted by Michael Robson – who was busy around then with the varied diet of Hardcore, Let’s Get Laid, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Holocaust 2000 – with additional bits by Jeffries and Denis Norden, this tidies Kingsley’s plot so young cockney Tom (Tommy Pender) comes out of the water with tall tales to tell at the end and is adopted into the idyllic Harthover Hall by the guardians of the posh blonde (Samantha Gates, one of the children in Full Circle/The Haunting of Julia) he likes. An opening sequence set in a vile street circa 1850 is pretty mucky, with a breastfeeding woman and ordure thrown out of a window, establishing that orphan Tom is exploited and battered by mean sweep Mr Grimes (James Mason, splendidly nasty and Northern during a run of outstanding 1970s character performances which remain underrated), who has a toadying suckup sidekick (Bernard Cribbins, cast against type as a villain and very good at it). There’s a tiny slip as we meet Tom while he’s shoplifting sweets – to escape, he humorously kicks the tray over and ruins a small businessman’s earnings for the day. That cliché which struck me as morally dubious when I first encountered it as a priggish kid, but it also sits ill with a plot which depends on Tom refusing to steal later on. Grimes drags the kid out on the Yorkshire moors to the Hall, which has a proliferation of dirty chimneys and plenty of filchable silver lying about. When the plan goes wrong, Grimes frames Tom for burglary and joins the ‘stop thief!’ posse who give chase – vowing to see the little blighter hanged.
Tom falls in a river and wakes up in an animated underwater world, supervised in Poland by Tony Cuthbert (Yellow Submarine), where he pals around with a Scots lobster (voiced by Jon Pertwee), a fey sea horse who does I’m-so-gay jokes (Lance Percival), Cyril the Walrus (David Jason), Claude the swashbuckling French swordfish (Paul Luty) and others. They mostly sing a grating song (‘High High High Cockalorum’ by Phil Coulter and Bill Martin) over and over. In this fantasy world, the analogues to Tom’s persecutors are a shark and an eel voiced by Mason and Cribbins and the boss of all is the Kraken (Pertwee doing another voice). The kindly guardians in the real world are David Tomlinson, who also plays a polar bear, and Joan Greenwood, who is peculiarly not asked to play a cartoon sea creature despite having one of the movies’ great voices. There was criticism that the cartoon sequences look crude next to the equivalents in Mary Poppins – which is mostly because it adopts a different, non-Disney aesthetic. The work of the Polish background artists is lovely, for instance – and a few of the characters (the shark gang) are nicely-realised. More damaging is the fact that the underwater business, including the slightly paedo-fantasy water babies themselves, is less engaging than the live-action topside material Jeffries is better at.
Billie Whitelaw plays a series of roles – from a living severed sideshow head through Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby (subtle character names weren’t a Kingsley strong point) to a water sprite – who may all be the same person; she’s always a welcome presence, but the shadow of The Omen makes her smile seem a bit more sinister than it should be. But this is always a story that has as much upsetting material as magic, so maybe that’s appropriate.