Home > Reviews > THE RAILWAY CHILDREN RETURN – Edward Farmer and Martin Phipps

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN RETURN – Edward Farmer and Martin Phipps

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For British children of a certain generation – specifically mine, those born in the mid-1970s – The Railway Children was a seminal film. Based on the Edwardian-era book by Edith Nesbit, it was one of those typically genteel, wholesome, overwhelmingly English adventures, in the same vein as Swallows & Amazons, or Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. It evokes a nostalgic, perhaps rose-tinted, view of a time gone by, where children enjoyed warm summer days exploring the gently rolling green and pleasant countryside, and became involved in grand adventures that they solved with a combination of ingenuity and pluck, helped by an inherent sense of right and wrong and fair play. The film – which was, essentially, a story about a group of children helping to clear the name of their father, who had been accused of espionage – has since become an iconic piece of British cinematic heritage. It has taken almost 50 years for there to be a sequel, but it has now arrived in the shape of The Railway Children Return.

This new film again stars the lovely Jenny Agutter – 18 years old when the original film was released, now an almost 70-year-old grandmother – playing Bobbie Waterbury, the grown-up version of her original character. Bobbie, her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), and her grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes), still live in the Yorkshire village where the first film took place, but it is now 1944, World War II is raging, and German bombs are falling on Britain’s major cities. Three siblings – teenager Lily Watts, her sister Pattie, and her little brother Ted – are evacuated from Manchester to Yorkshire to escape the conflict, and are taken in by Bobbie and her family. Before long, however, Thomas and the Watts children become involved in a new mystery of their own when they meet an injured African-American soldier, stationed nearby at a US Army base but who is hiding in a farm outhouse, and claims to be on a secret mission. The film is directed by Morgan Matthews, co-stars John Bradley and Tom Courtenay, and is of a similar style and tone to the original film, juxtaposing innocent childhood play and adventure with the very real and very dramatic issues faced by the adults around them, all against a backdrop of an idyllic and bucolic English countryside.

The original 1970 Railway Children featured a seminal score by the legendary Johnny Douglas, whose flute-based theme is embedded into the psyche of my generation, but who will be best known to Americans through the music he wrote for dozens of Saturday morning cartoon shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s – Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Dungeons & Dragons, G. I. Joe, and others. Douglas died in 2003, and so for the sequel the producers turned to a pair of younger English composers; Martin Phipps, and Edward Farmer. Phipps is a well-known and well-respected musician, having received seven Emmy nominations for his work on acclaimed TV series like The Crown and Victoria, and having also composed for popular shows like Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror. Farmer, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer; he orchestrated for Daniel Pemberton on projects like The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Birds of Prey, Enola Holmes, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, and orchestrated for Phipps on The Crown, but The Railway Children Return is essentially his mainstream composing debut – and if the music here is anything to go by, we are witnessing the beginnings of what will hopefully be an excellent career.

The score is just gorgeous; it’s overflowing with that beautiful, warm, wholesome sound that so many films of this nature, set in this locale and this time period, evoke. In my review of Ilan Eshkeri’s score for Swallows & Amazons in 2016, I wrote that “the score has that indefinable, but immediately identifiable sense of ‘Englishness’ to it, a classical sound that feels like a Turner or Constable painting given voice through music, like Elgar or Vaughan-Williams or Holst filtered through the modern cinematic sensibility … I don’t know quite how to describe it, in musical terms – it could be something in the key, the chord progressions, the harmonies, the voice leading of certain instruments – but, more than anything, it’s something I feel, a personal connection that comes from deep within my DNA.” I feel that way about The Railway Children Return too.

In talking about the score, Farmer says: “The first pieces of music I wrote for the film were the cues titled “God’s Country” and “Dreams of Home”. It was early in the edit, so I was composing just to script and a couple of short sequences, but the film already had a wonderful spirit. The characters are engaging, the cinematography beautiful, and the storytelling offers a compelling mix of childhood adventure, against a backdrop of war and oppression. We worked hard to find the right balance between darkness and light, and these two cues perhaps best reflect that. Melodies have space to play out and develop, and several sequences were edited to these early cues, giving them a strong connection to the film. I grew up about 20 miles from where the film is set, so I also had a great sense of the people and places that surround the story. Yorkshire often gets attention for its filming locations, but to me, it’s a place rich in culture, music, art, and generosity. It’s this spirit, combined with a sense of adventure, that I tried to capture, and this melody develops throughout the score, featuring in the film’s great train-stopping climax.”

This is a score filled with highlights. The opening “God’s Country” is indeed a beautiful, sweeping, nostalgic tribute to the county of Yorkshire, the county of my birth, and is filled with lyrical string passages, elegant woodwinds, and a light percussive undercurrent that mimics the familiar chug of a steam locomotive. This main theme and its lush textures come back later in the friendly and welcoming “Dry Stone Walls,” in the inquisitive “Hide and Seek” with its playful pizzicato and elaborate string runs, and in the elegant but slightly understated “Choosing,” among many others.

Elsewhere, the more moody “I Can’t Sleep” illustrates a child’s perspective of the horrors of the blitz with slow, worried-sounding strings and hazy, mysterious, almost subliminal synths that feel alien and otherworldly in context. “Conkers” underscores what is clearly the most intense game of horse-chestnut-whacking in history, with rambunctious percussion, rolling piano lines, and swooping, florid passages for interlocking strings and flutes. The horrors of war, and the emotional impacts of them on the adults of Three Chimneys Farm, are keenly felt through the searing cello textures of “Telegram,” the undulating classicism and increasing intensity of “In the Night,” and the emotional strength and drama of “Dreams of Home,” the other cue that Farmer says is strongly indicative of this element of the story.

A bittersweet piano motif for Abe, the African-American GI who befriends the children but has an enigmatic secret, is introduced in “Secret Agent,” and then runs all the way through the subsequent “Abe’s Escape” and “Survival”. Abe’s piano motif is accompanied by the undulating string orchestrations that also feature in the ‘adult war music,’ cleverly linking the two concepts together, and subliminally planting the seeds of the revelation to come regarding Abe’s true identity.

Two action sequences, the light and caper-like “Getaway,” and the more sinister “Military Police,” feature statements of the main theme accompanied by fast-paced percussion rhythms and swirling, lithe string. The latter of these two cues actually becomes rather forceful and powerful as it develops, with strident cello figures, throbbing percussion, and the score’s most prominent use of brass, illustrating the danger Abe faces from his own army. This leads into the film’s outstanding main set piece, “The Railway Children,” which intentionally mirrors the first film’s iconic scene where the children put a plan in motion to stop and board a train coming through their village. The arrangement of the main theme here, with its high dancing string lines, initially reminds me of Danny Elfman’s Alice in Wonderland, and the way Farmer and Phipps develop it over the course of more than four minutes is outstanding. The sparkling brass countermelody that emerges to offset the main theme is superb, and the huge statement of the theme in the final two minutes is immensely satisfying.

The final quartet of cues are on the whole more introspective, and have a twinge of melancholy running through them that captures the deep emotions that children feel when their friendships naturally end, but they still contain some moving passages for soft strings, pretty woodwinds, and elegant piano-based versions of the main theme that end the score on an appropriately thoughtful but entirely civilized note. The omnipresent light tapped percussion keeps the concept of trains and railways at the forefront of the sound, and the enormous, glorious statement of the main theme in “Evacuation Kids” is especially wonderful.

Perhaps the only – and I really do mean only – criticism I can offer of the score is the fact that Farmer and Phipps didn’t find an opportunity to somehow work in a statement of Johnny Douglas’s original Railway Children theme into the score somewhere, perhaps when the audience first sees Bobbie all grown up, or as a musical easter egg during the train-stopping scene. This one small issue aside, everything else about The Railway Children Return is outstanding, from the richness of the orchestrations to the strength and memorability of the main theme, the depth of the emotions, and the wonderfully nostalgic evocation of the beauty and sumptuousness of the Yorkshire landscape. God’s own country indeed. The Railway Children Return is a tremendous score, with more outstanding work from Martin Phipps, and an excellent introduction to the music of Edward Farmer – I can’t wait to hear what sort of a career he will have from this point on.

Note: this review is being published just a couple of days after the death of the legendary Bernard Cribbins, one of the adult stars of the original Railway Children, whose character’s son John Bradley is playing in the new film. Cribbins was a kindly, omnipresent face in British children’s film and television for more than half a century, and as such this review can also be seen as a happily coincidental tribute to him.

Buy the Railway Children Return soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • God’s Country (1:49)
  • I Can’t Sleep (1:36)
  • Dry Stone Walls (1:10)
  • Conkers (0:58)
  • Telegram (1:44)
  • Hide and Seek (2:26)
  • In the Night (4:44)
  • Dreams of Home (1:32)
  • Choosing (1:44)
  • Mr Churchill (0:53)
  • Secret Agent (2:22)
  • Abe’s Escape (1:07)
  • Survival (2:27)
  • Getaway (2:50)
  • Military Police (4:54)
  • The Railway Children (4:25)
  • God Rest His Soul (1:52)
  • Evacuation Kids (3:49)
  • Don’t Want to Go (3:36)
  • Release (0:52)

Running Time: 46 minutes 50 seconds

Moviescore Media MMS-22037 (2022)

Music composed by Edward Farmer and Martin Phipps. Conducted by Edward Farmer. Orchestrations by Edward Farmer and Sam Jones. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Edward Farmer, Martin Phipps and Mikael Carlsson.

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