The background to the play
The Railway Children is a children’s book by Edith Nesbit, originally serialised in The London Magazine during 1905 and first published in book form in 1906. It has been adapted for the screen several times, of which the 1970 film version is the best known. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography credits Oswald Barron, who had a deep affection for Nesbit, with having provided the plot. The setting is thought to be inspired by Edith’s walks to Chelsfield railway station close to where she lived, and her observing the construction of the railway cutting and tunnel between Chelsfield and Knockholt.
The story has been adapted as a television series four times by the BBC. The first of these, in 1951, was in 8 episodes of 30 minutes each. A second adaptation was then produced, which re-used some of the film from the original series but also contained new material with slight cast changes. This had 4 episodes of 60 minutes each. The supporting/background orchestral music used in these early programs was the memorable and very lyrical second Dance from the Symphonic Dances by Edvard Grieg which you can hear below:
The BBC again revisited the story with an 8-episode series in 1957 and a 7-episode series in 1968. The 1968 adaptation was placed 96th in the BFI’s 100 Greatest British Television Programmes poll of 2000. It starred Jenny Agutter as Roberta and Gillian Bailey as Phyllis.
After the successful BBC dramatisation of 1968, the film rights were bought by the actor Lionel Jeffries, who wrote and directed the film, released in 1970. Jenny Agutter and Dinah Sheridan starred in the film. In October 1999, ITV made a new adaptation, as a made-for-television film. This time Jenny Agutter played the role of the mother.