HCF REWIND NO.104. THE AMAZING MR BLUNDEN 
AVAILABLE ON DVD: 11th March
RUNNING TIME: 99 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1918. Mrs. Allen and her three children, Lucy, Jamie and baby Benjamin are living in a tiny, squalid, flat in Camden town, London. The father has just died and things are pretty bad until a mysterious old man called Mr. Frederick Percival Blunden turns up. Introducing himself as a representative of a firm of solicitors, he tells the family that there is an opportunity to become the caretakers of a derelict country mansion in the Home Counties called Langley Park. Mrs. Allen’s brief is to stay there until the heirs of the original owners can be traced. Out of desperation, Mrs. Allen agrees to take up the post. There are rumours that the house is haunted, and as a result few locals venture up to the property, but Blunden tells Lucy and Jamie that there is nothing to fear from ghosts that are children…..
I think that if you’re over 30 you will agree that children’s TV is nowhere near as good as it used to be, in fact you can probably extend this to TV in general. The BBC may endlessly repeat things like Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers, to just mention comedy, but constantly shoot themselves in the foot doing so because these old programmes remain better than the stuff they churn out at these days. And in terms of things aimed at the whole family, did anyone who remembered The Borrowers from 1992 think that the 2011 version came anyway near it in quality, for instance? Of course there are things like Dr Who which manage to miraculously keep up the quality, but at the moment it seems like the term ‘family viewing’ means horrible reality shows than anything else.
The Amazing Mr Blunden is a British television film from 1972 that positively reeks of quality from beginning. It’s not too well known, even though apparently it used to be shown on BBC every Christmas [what on earth started the odd tradition of having ghost stories at Christmas?], writer/director Lionel Jeffries being more famous for The Railway Children and maybe the animated The Water Babies, but a cursory look on the IMDB tells me that it made a great impression on many people who saw it at the right age. It’s a real throwback to a time when young viewers were often credited with more imagination and patience than there are now. I reckon if made today it will be crammed full of scenes that last a few seconds, CGI effects, sops to political correctness and cheap laughs that would give the impression that nobody really cares about the integrity of the tale being told. It’s often been said that most children would be bored by things aimed at them decades ago. I disagree, and in any case I think parents have a duty to let their kids have variety in their viewing and not fill their minds up with hyperactive junk which seem to almost encourage ADD. I reckon it should be every parent’s duty to show their offspring The Amazing Mr Blunden as their very first ghost story and perhaps the first film to depict things like loss and death.
When the very first words you hear properly are a poem sung by children beginning with the words all the little children are born to die, sung as the title character makes his way through immensely detailed streets on his way to the Allen abode, you know this isn’t going to be typical fare. After this it becomes much like The Railway Children for a while, with a death and a re-location to a countryside locale which should be cleansing, but with a really strong brooding atmosphere of mystery and death. Yes, the feeling of death is everywhere, almost tangible, and I was really struck by the morbid atmosphere that wasn’t so much scary but just different, not so much of a world of fear but just a world full of things that have yet to be explored and exists on the edge of ours. After all, Mr Blunden does tell the children not to be scared of what they may see, another character, when asked if she believes in ghosts, replies “that depends on your point of view”, and throughout the film reminds that as they grow older children lose “their power to believe in the unlikely”.
Lucy and Jamie sit in their huge garden, and we are treated to one of the best ghost entrances I have seen in ages, as a fog spreads across the lawn and out of it appear the two spectral children, first of all see-through, then more and more substantial as they get closer. It reminded of similar scenes in films like The Innocents [ a film I consider the greatest cinema ghost story of all time so to mention any film even in the same breath is quite rare], where it’s not about loud noises and jump scares but more a creepy stillness. What The Amazing Mr Blunden does so well in this scene is to slightly and subtly shift the expected feeling of terror to a feeling of wonder and amazement, a feeling that can just as easily spark the imagination. Of course the spirits do turn out to be benevolent like Mr Blunden said, and the story becomes more about an inheritance and time travel, but it does soon introduce a pretty nasty villainess called Mrs. Wickens [whose mentally disturbed husband isn’t much nicer], who devises cruel means to try and kill off the two children living in her house. Diana Dors may play her as a bit ‘over the top’ but she’s still a believably horrid person in a film which doesn’t soft-peddle human evil.
Other great characters abound, like the foppish Uncle Netty and his childlike wife Arabella, Mrs.Wicken’s daughter, who in one scene might very well be indulging in some kind of sex game. There certainly are some laughs, some of them created by some rather deadpan dialogue, and there’s a great bit where a serious-sounding voiceover tells us that a character met his new wife at the ballet, where she was a ballerina, but we actually see the revelries of a chorus line in a back street theatre where he is shown lecherously pursuing one of the dancers. This occasionally jars with the rather general serious feel of the piece, but not too often, and it gathers speed as things turn into a race against time and more than anything else a tale of redemption. Certain things don’t make much sense if you think about them afterwards [apparently Antonio Barber’s book The Ghosts on which this movie was based explained more], with even this fan of complicated time travel stories coming away from the DVD player rather puzzled by at least one complication right at the end, but by that stage the main thing is the genuine emotion provided, and it’s rather nice that you may not only think that Mr Blunden is none-too-amazing after all, but also that he remains an enigma despite the number of close-ups given to him. Perhaps too much effort was made to wrap things up as happily as possible, but the only thing which really didn’t sit well with me is a weird ‘curtain call’ ending, though it was probably meant to act as a kind of assurance to the little ones watching the film that it’s all just ‘pretend’.
The special effects, if relatively simple and few in number, do the job [there’s a pretty convincing ‘double’ effect] and Jeffries shows such skill as a director that it’s such a shame he only made five films. He creates atmosphere, wonder and suspense with disarming economy of style while still finding time for the odd virtuoso shot. The performances are first-rate though 18 year old Lynne Frederick is far too old for her role. Laurence Naismith does wonderfully as the archetypal twinkle-eyed old man. The eagle-eyed may recognise the oft-used Buckinghamshire village and the house which is actually the main house and offices at Pinewood Studios. The score by the great Elmer Bernstein is extremely evocative of the story’s aspects and is touchingly sad at some points. It deserves a CD release. In the meantime, check out this unique and rather magical gem, with or without kids. You won’t regret it though it’ll leave you wondering why they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.