Childhood Trauma Revisited: Robbie, a Tragedy in Three Parts
by, 2nd August 2011 at 10:12 AM (1448 Views)
TRAUMA Rating: **
CHARLEY Rating: ***1/2
You’ll probably laugh at me for this, but there was a loooong stretch throughout my childhood when I was deathly afraid of trains. Not just the trains themselves but anything and everything to do with them. I hated having to travel by rail, having to be at a railway station, having to walk over bridges which went above railway tracks. Basically I didn’t want to go anywhere near them, which wasn’t always an option with my itchy-footed family.
It started when I was about 9 or 10 and went on long into my adolescence. In fact, I can remember still feeling the effects at as old as 19. I was in Sydney and doing the world-famous bridge climb, and I recall getting this incredible rush of nervous tension at the point where we could feel the trains passing under us. It seems to have cleared up now, though there are still times when I’ll be standing at the station and I’ll have a little internal freak-out whenever I see some careless idiot wandering over the platform’s yellow line.
It’s easy enough to trace the origins of this childhood phobia. I never had a traumatic experience involving railways, certainly not first-hand. That very negative image of trains was instilled in me by the railway folks themselves, who visited my school a couple of times to talk about railways and why they were never on any account to be confused with playgrounds. Whenever we were marched into assembly hall and saw a couple of official-looking gentlemen waiting for us with a TV set and video all ready to go, we knew that we were in for a real treat.
The very first film I remember them showing us was Robbie, the story of a boy who loved football and learned the hard way that trespassing upon the railway tracks maybe isn’t such a smart thing to do. If you grew up in the UK in the 80s/early 90s, then odds are that they came round your school at some point and made you watch this too.
Robbie was made by British Transport Films in 1979. It was initially narrated by actor/television presenter Peter Purves (famous for his role as one of the early incarnations of Dr. Who, and his stint as a Blue Peter presenter), but in 1986 the film was revised to feature the narration of Keith Chegwin (a presenter deemed more relevant to the youth of the mid-1980s). Presumably, this was the version I was shown, though the Purves version appears to be the more “fondly remembered” of the two, being the one included on the BTF DVD compilation, “The Age of the Train” (yes, that’s right. If you missed this one or want to relive a few old memories, then you can go out and buy an official copy on DVD).
And that’s the tragic story of Robbie (actually, that’s only one third of it, but we’ll get to that in a minute).
I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t terribly shaken by Robbie when I saw it back in primary school in the early 90s. The emotional undercurrent is undeniably powerful, but it isn’t especially graphic and besides that, Robbie lives in the end. It helped of course that my brother had been shown it a few years previously and had told me all about it, so I knew exactly what to expect.
What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t discover until many, many years later, was that what I’d seen at the time had barely scratched the surface.
Flash forward to late 2006. I’m 21 years old, in university studying for my undergraduate degree, and I have an evening to spare in front of the computer. Somehow or other, I happen upon an online list of public information films. Morbid curiosity takes a hold and I start reading (this is quite an eye-opening experience for me – I’ve spent my entire life being traumatised by PIFs, and never before realised that they had such a rampant cult following). I see a reference to Robbie, which I still remember so vividly after all those years, and decide to dig to a little deeper into the subject.
In the process, I learn two things of great interest:
1) Robbie was actually the successor to a much more horrifying educational film called The Finishing Line (1977) which had been similarly exhibited in schools but was quickly pulled for being too graphic.
2) There were no less than THREE different versions of Robbie’s story, each illustrating a different pitfall of trespassing on the railway. They are:
Non-Electrified Version: In this one, Robbie makes it down to the tracks, having been goaded by Bert and Sally with a bit of name-calling. Here the character Jake also has slightly more purpose – in the version I just described he’s really just sort of there, but in this one he manages to slip and fall while crossing the tracks, and Robbie goes back to help him. Though he successfully helps Jake to his feet, his boots become trapped in the rails, and while he struggles to free himself, a train comes along and physically severs his feet from his body (the impact of the train, we are later told during the police officer scene, also manages to break half the bones in his body). This one isn’t any more graphic than the overhead wiring version – when the train comes we again cut to the shot of Sally screaming, and the rest is left to our imaginations. This, I believe, is also the version available on the British Transport Films DVD release.
Overhead Electrified Version: Robbie is electrocuted by the overhead power lines, as described.
Third Rail Electrified Version: Robbie is electrocuted by the third rail. This is the only variation I’ve never actually seen, so I don’t know if his attachment to his football boots played any hand in his downfall here.
According to descriptions I’ve found on both Wikipedia and TV Tropes, in the two electrified versions, the accidents are fatal. Well, bullocks to that. I know that Robbie survives the overhead power lines version because I’ve seen it (although it should be noted that, in real life, the chances of surviving an electric shock of that magnitude would be pretty low). The third rail version is the only one I’m unable to verify, but the film’s entry on the British Transport Films site, which I consider a much more reliable source, seems to suggest that the outcome is always the same.
Robbie may look rather dated now, but it still packs quite a punch more than thirty years after it was made, not just for its cautionary message about the dangers of trespassing on railways, but for the emphasis it puts upon personal responsibility, and the profound ways in which our actions can impact others. The emotional consequences of Robbie’s accident for his family, including the two siblings who inadvertently pushed him into it, are all laid hauntingly clear. The film’s most powerful statement is levelled not at the children who might be inclined to treat the railway as a playground, but at the people who make it possible in the first place by sabotaging railway fences. “Whether boy, girl or grown-up, five, fifteen or fifty, makes no odds, they’re stupid,” the film warns us, “Because it’s holes like these that hurt and kill.”
Robbie did have quite a strong impact on me, in that I never forgot it. The real responsibility for my childhood siderodromophobia, however, lies with quite a different educational film, one which they came back and showed us a couple of years later, and which I’ve had a monstrously difficult time finding any trace of ever since. Well, I’ll do my best to describe it to you in due course. And don’t think that I’m planning to stop with railways either. As I mentioned, I spent my entire life – not just my childhood - being traumatised by public information films and their ilk, being the deeply sensitive soul that I am, and we have an awful lot to get through.
I probably should take the time to explain my rating system too. Each film I review will be accessed upon two factors, TRAUMA RATING and CHARLEY RATING, with a maximum of four stars awarded for each. “Trauma” should be pretty self-explanatory, and refers to how terrifying/upsetting/psychologically scarring the film is. “Charley” is a more general rating regarding how well I think the film functions as a whole, and is, of course, named for the animated cat who starred in the popular series of “Charley Says” PIFs throughout the 70s (most of which were very genial, though there is at least one which really pushes for a four star trauma rating.)
Next time...it's Killing Time.
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