The Battersea Bats are a gang of four kids who have their den in an abandoned building near the Thames, and they have a plan of action in mind because in about a week there is a soapbox derby being held, a contest they mean to win. Their secret weapon is the keen mind of Foureyes (Roy Townsend) who the leader Peter (Michael Crawford) presses into service as the designer of their pedal-driven go-kart, but first they need to gather the material to build it. Then there's the problem of their rivals the Victorias who are intent on sabotaging their scheme...
Soapbox Derby was of course a Children's Film Foundation effort, and as with the tradition of giving a helping hand to many a young actor, the performer who went on to greater things here was Michael Crawford, a versatile star who could do comedy, drama, sing and all sorts which according to a BBC poll of the British public made him a greater Briton than Margaret Thatcher - it was a fact, it was scientifically proven. Back in 1957 he was filming this, and although young like many of the kids in the cast was acting younger than his years, yet he was still fresh-faced enough to be able to pass as the sort of boy who would be interested in karting.
Whereas later C.F.F. productions tended to concentrate on the comedy angle as well as the adventure, there may have been intentional laughs here (even if they were not exactly hilarious) but things took a very dramatic turn early on and never quite recovered. Unlike the usual work from this studio, it didn't end with the baddies falling in the water (well, not really) but it began with someone doing so as the villainous leader of the Victorias, formerly of the Battersea Bats, Lew (Alan Coleshill) fights dirty when the Bats discover them spying and he falls into the river. Peter fishes him out (you don't envy the actors getting mouthfuls of that murk) but what thanks does he get?
Lew turns out to be a ruddy dastard for the next hour, causing massive upheaval within the ranks of the Bats and even leading Foureyes' young sister Betty (Carla Challoner) to be run over when she panics over his threat to smash up her doll if she reveals Lew has stolen the plans for the kart. This was far stronger than the business C.F.F. kids would usually be involved with, perhaps the child audience back then was made of sterner stuff, but by depicting such a conniving evildoer as the nemesis to the decent kids it certainly upped the stakes. Lew even ropes in his father (familiar heavy Denis Shaw) to assist, leading to scenes where the grown man beats up a couple of children.
OK, they were pretty obviously teenagers in short trousers to make them seem younger, but the concept of such Machiavellian manoeuvres was still capable of provoking outrage. Yes, it was possible to take this too seriously, but when Lew looks like a prime candidate for borstal then it was clear the filmmakers were deliberately setting out to fire up the audience's sense of injustice - you can imagine them throwing popcorn at the cinema screen every time the antagonists appeared. You could also regard Soapbox Derby as a C.F.F. action movie, including as it did many fistfights, those go-kart sequences filmed as if they were a Grand Prix, and even a car smashing through a fruit barrow. Sure, it was a bubble car driven by Peter's clumsy grandfather (Mark Daly, who sadly would be deceased by the time this was released), but it was good to see some of the customs of the genre were being adhered to. Music by John Wooldridge.
[Soapbox Derby is included on the C.F.F. DVD collection The Race is On from The B.F.I. along with The Sky Bike and Sammy's Super T-Shirt. You get an informative booklet with it, too, which includes a warm reminiscence from Crawford himself.]