Based on a true story, this obscure independent 1973 feature from actor/director David Hemmings (opens in new tab) is a revelation and is now available in a brand-new transfer from Network Distributing (opens in new tab)'s The British Film (opens in new tab) collection.
Set against the backdrop of a rundown terraced street in London’s East End that’s been earmarked for redevelopment, Hemmings’ gritty urban drama follows 17-year-old Reg (Jack Wild (opens in new tab)), the eldest of 14 children, as he struggles to keep his family together following the sudden death of their mother (June Brown (opens in new tab)).
When a team social workers take the youngest children into custody, Reg and his siblings go on the run, with one of their lot taking the family’s story to the newspapers. After a stint at a Catholic reform school, Reg reunites with his girlfriend, single mother Reena (Cheryl Hall (opens in new tab)), before rounding up the children at returning to their mother's boarded up home to spend what could be their last Christmas together as a family…
Former 1960s child star Jack Wild is best known for appearing in TV’s HR Pufnstuf and playing the Artful Dodger in Olivier!, but in Hemmings’ second film as director he shows what an accomplished and serious actor he could be. It’s such a shame that Wild was plagued by addiction throughout his life (he was smoking and drinking from the age of 12 and died of oral cancer in 2006), but watching him puffing away with a cigarette in each hand while downing bottles of beer on screen here (he was 21 at the time) only makes his tragic real-life story all the more sadder.
Apart from Wild, most of the performers playing his young siblings were non-actors, and this only adds to the film’s docu-drama feel. There’s also a very early turn from the late Alun Armstrong (opens in new tab), who plays June Brown’s layabout boyfriend, who abandons her children after her funeral. And speaking of Brown (better known as EastEnders’ Dot Cotton), she may not have much screen time, but when she’s on, you can’t help but watch her every nuanced move.
Hemmings film, which was based on actual events involving a group of Birmingham orphans who were eventually relocated as a family to a farm in Cornwall, won the Silver Bear at the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival, and though it depicts a family on the very edge of society, living in poor, squalid conditions with no future ahead of them except reform school and foster homes, the film’s central theme of ‘keeping the family together’, is superbly handled, avoids melodrama at all costs, and surprisingly ends on an upbeat note.
There’s also an anarchic sensibility running through the film as the youngsters stick two fingers at authority at every turn. And this is best expressed in the quite hilarious scenes in which the children see off a horrible woman hired to take care of them, reduce an inexperienced nun to tears and expertly give the police and social services the runaround. In this respect, Hemmings seems to have created a film with a true punk spirit, but with a neo-realist bent. This is gripping cinema with real soul. Do check it out…
THE RELEASE The Network Distributing DVD release (opens in new tab) http://youtube.com/v/VwNhB3Wgx0A
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