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review by Fiona Haggart

Episode 1

Each episode begins with a simple but interesting credit sequence showing the Goon looming menacingly at Howard’s shoulder as a series of exaggerated masks stream off behind Howard into infinity. This may possible allude to the layers of deception and disguised identity, if even if it doesn’t it’s still an intriguing, slightly cartoonish image that lends itself well to the visual absurdity to follow. This is accompanied by an effective but economical, thumping brassy-noted title theme that suggests approaching menace and then trails off into an almost whimsical background tune.

The plot closely mirrors that of the book with only slight deviations, usually for pacing the episodes or due to the limited budget for special effects, aided by the concise and intelligent script, and by the vast majority of the performances. One exception however is an - in my opinion - unforgivable and drastic addition to the dialogue in the final episode which I will cover later.

Mrs Sykes, Awful, The Goon, Howard, Mr Sykes - (c) BBCThe early scenes in the Sykes household are particularly well realised, capturing the slightly bohemian rules of the house and the eccentric characters that both inhabit and squat there. Of the characters introduced in Episode One, Morgan Jones’ Goon, Susan Jameson’s Catriona Sykes and Angela Forry’s Awful are particularly effective, Jones quickly establishing himself as scene-stealer extraordinaire (as is right). With simple but effective help from the costume department, Jones is given with the addition of a suitably battered leather jacket, enormous boots and a comical cowlick a la Tin Tin, the embodiment of the ‘tiny head on a huge body’ so specific to the novel. He then adds his own loping lumbering walk and an amusing vocal delivery that helps to firmly establish his character in only a few sentences.

Susan Jameson is one of Britain’s most underrated character actresses in my opinion and brings her usual superb, professional and understated performance to this production. Her Catriona Sykes is absolutely perfect, from her ‘agonised music teacher with headache’ blindly stumbling around the kitchen before salvation-by-tea, practically lifted from the printed page, to her tolerant befuddlement when unexpectedly faced with catering for a Goon demanding an unprecedented 2000 words. Where on occasion some of the actors mistake shouting for emphasis, Jameson remains calmly understated and extremely effective.

A special mention should be made of Angela Forry’s able performance as Awful. She manages to navigate a role that potentially hovers bare inches from brattishness with surprising skill for her age and consequently much credit. She instils Awful with the right amount of slyness and manipulative guile and has a marvellous vocal stridency that oddly doesn’t grate.

The only immediately apparent casting misstep appears to be the role of Howard (Venturus), as portrayed by newcomer Jamie De Courcey (for British TV viewers of a certain age, the son of ‘Nookie Bear’ operator Roger!). Although the Howard of the novel is meant to be teetering on the brink of puberty, De Courcey’s agonisingly wavering voice and subsequent lack of conviction means that he consistently fails to capture centre stage when it is vital he do so. Although able enough as an actor, his tendency to blush constantly is also highly distracting and leads to his character coming across either as ineffectual and weak or disturbingly hyper-hormonal, depending on whom he shares the scene with. In the scene where he and the Goon visit Mountjoy and the first mysteries of the plot unfold, De Courcey fails miserably to inject drama and is unable to dominate the scene. Consequently the revelation of the family farming the town is weakly handled and lacks impact.

Overall, episode one is very pleasing, apart from the aforesaid tendency for characters to shout to one another as a substitute for characterisation and a lack of drama in the revelation at the end of the episode from Mountjoy that the town is under the control of others. There are occasional problems which momentarily jar - the knife that the Goon throws at Howard and Awful is quite obviously an old-style can-opener poorly covered with prism foil and the zooming knife effect is a staggeringly bad effect, but these are easily mitigated by the confident scene setting.

Episode 2

The performances are again the driving force, as the complex plot is skilfully unravelled so as not to overtax the audience. The Goon is beginning to develop delightful nuances and Morgan Jones just keeps cementing his place as star of the piece, with his jaw-splitting grins and puppyish fluster in the face of Catriona’s rod of iron. His confident and skilful delivery of eccentric-sounding but critical lines of dialogue helps adds weight to them and enables scene setting effects like the sounding drums that signify Torquil’s observation and influence to appear dramatic rather than silly. He and Roger Lloyd Pack as Quentin are also obviously enjoying their double act as they verbally start to butt heads. Both have extremely mobile features and they use them to good effect. Fifi has thankfully regressed to become the ineffectual flutterer of the novel, having been far too together and forthright in episode one for my liking.

Howard and Dillian - (c) BBCWhen visiting Dillian to retrieve the original 2000 words there are pleasing visual cues, such as a passing police car as Dillian’s name is mentioned that are again simple but very successful. The scenes at Dillian’s mansion meet with varying degrees of success. Michelle Newell is well cast as Dillian, playing the role as an ageing, fading drama queen, with improbably bleached blonde hair and over the top gown, coupled with convincing brittle and aloof bearing and disdain. The mansion setting however is something of a letdown - the décor is simply not sumptuous enough (surely they could have filmed the interiors in a suitable stately home?) and it appears that they partake of their bewitched tea and cakes in the lobby. Dillian’s dress is frightful and undermines the previous good work of the costume department; The fabric looks cheap and the addition of what appear to be poorly stuffed cherub Beanie-Babies on each shoulder makes the outfit look like the aftermath of a bloodbath at the TY Beanie factory.

The visit to Archer works more consistently. There is good use of simple matt effects to create Archer’s vast hi-tech domain and Thomas Lockyer is both handsome and cold-eyed enough to breathe despotic life into Archer, with constant, lightning fast mood shifts. Both Lockyer and Newell are also able to convey an otherworldly lack of concern for mere mortals in their scenes that is critical in avoiding the story descending into farce. Again, De Courcey radiates embarrassment, blushing furiously throughout his scenes for no readily apparent reason, although the effect is mitigated somewhat by the blinding pomposity of Quentin versus the smiling psychopath of Archer. Lloyd Pack is known primarily as a comedic actor but here he is an opinionated and bossy hothead and he more than sells the scene.

Episode 3

Finally Howard appears to have been given a change of clothes. Normally I wouldn’t concern myself with this, but it makes it appear as if all the preceding events happen in a single day and I was always of the opinion that there was a slower build up in the novel.

The orchestra practice lacks the chaotic discordance of the book and there is no visual equivalent of Diana Wynne Jones’ wonderfully evocative descriptions, although Susan Jameson again captures centre stage with a faultless performance seemingly lifted word for word from the book. She is the embodiment of every gamely coping teacher ever encountered and her scenes are never allowed to stray into the risible.

Torquil’s on-paper grand entrance is sadly curtailed by the limited budget - he has the necessary choirboys and dancers but the crowd is far too thin and there is consequently no real sense of the reality of Torquil’s power. Andrew Normington’s performance is simply delightful however, with clipped, precise diction and a convincing regal bearing he carries the scene practically single-handedly. Although (again) his costume is a poorly executed realisation of a good idea which could easily have undermined his performance, he pulls off his lines with aplomb and during the scene in the car is able to suggest his power through dialogue, something the budget failed at.

The Syke’s household with its constant noise requires no additional expenditure on visual effects so is therefore executed far more successfully. The disquiet of the neighbours as the family (plus Goon) ‘dig in for the duration’ is amusing and the scenes where the forlorn and lovestruck Goon starts playing hard to get with Fifi amid the interring of ghetto blasters and midwinter barbecues are delightful.

The sight of a single float with an on-board steel band is not reassuring. Someone perhaps needed to have indicated to the production staff that one float does not a parade make, and that therefore the idea fails. Thankfully the episode’s entire budget seems to have gone instead on the hugely impressive road crew and diggers, and an amusingly persistent ice cream van that then materialises.

Amidst the visual chaos there is a peculiar scene which involves Hathaway’s (I assume) Elizabethan messenger. He is mystifyingly depicted as having an odd lisp, which the other characters find hysterically amusing and which I found to be extremely distasteful. Even if the intent was to evoke the Elizabethan writing style it is misguided, inaccurate and silly, and more importantly succeeds only in appearing insensitive and offensive to those with speech impediments, something that never would have arisen in Diana Wynne Jones’ novels. A disappointing jarring scene.

Episode 4

Again the budget lets them down and it is obvious that the money allocated is simply not sufficient for what is required. It isn’t even a case of money being thrown at a production, merely that what they are given is inadequate to produce any relatively ambitious multi-part drama. Archer’s car is simply not impressive enough - instead of a huge powerful car he has a frankly nondescript mid-range Mercedes saloon car that looks like it has been hired from a taxi company.

Gripes aside, the characterisation and direction again triumph over budget limitations. Small things delight - the workmen cheerfully and gallantly lifting Fifi over the trenches for her date with destiny is a particular gem. Archer and Fifi are perfectly perfect, schmoopily oblivious and simultaneously callous of the other character’s concerns which works well, and the Goon’s despair is made tangible by Jones’ mobile features and mournful howls. Lloyd Pack is a little too direct in his scenes with Archer, needing more pomposity and obstinacy rather than aggression as their scenes degenerate a little towards violent conflict but all the necessary information is imparted without mystifying the audience or bogging it down with exposition.

The visit to Shine Town opens out the plot again, something that needed doing. Although the neon signs that signify their entry into Shine’s seedier side of town look too recent, similar and tacked on, Shine’s boudoir with its wall of viewscreens displaying the town’s crimes enables a neat visual explanation of the control that the family members exert on the town. Shine herself is well depicted, the somewhat…rotund…Annette Badland gamely cramming herself into a stunning studded leather dress and toting a machine gun with genuine menace. It is a shame that the escape scene is so poorly realised as it slightly mars the heroics of the Goon coming to their rescue - and Jamie De Courcey is so wet and whiney during the ‘fight’ that you could shoot snipe off his back…

At the Sykes household the disruptions continue, although this has the effect of triggering even more shouting between characters which becomes rapidly tedious. The subsequent visit to Hathaway a blessed relief as it involves no shouting and allows the viewer time to once more process the preceding information. Jamie De Courcey lacks subtlety in this scene and is struggling against Clive Merrisson’s gentle and sympathetic Hathaway but a real disaster is the dreadful ‘cliff-hanger’ break, so poorly placed and executed that it ruins any drama and indeed becomes risible when immediately followed by the next episode.

Episode 5

Following the poorly handed adoption revelation, Angela Forry again excels, bringing genuine wistfulness to her scenes and managing to convey a real sense of a parent’s exasperated outburst when faced with a wilful child. Quite simply she acts De Courcey off the screen and she also interacts well with Merrisson - another accomplished character actor of note - as De Courcey again fails to grasp his moment. The following scenes with a drunken Awful descend into cringingly bad with rapidity but are redeemed by Goon’s mournful demolition of the TV as he loses Fifi to Archer.

The trip to find the elusive Erskine is well handled, again demonstrating how a limited SFX budget needn’t hamstring a production. Judicious use of matt effects creates a believable sewer and the action is then capably integrated with footage shot at a standard recycling plant. The dramatic peaks are maintained this time as the Goon is revealed to be Erskine, and all the cast members manage to hold their own. Jones again shines as he shifts from affable accomplice to shifty guide to out and out threat as he makes his play for control, becoming extremely menacing as he refuses to go through the same paces yet again.

The escape and chase scene both work well, De Courcey seeming more comfortable when working alone, and his awesomely cracking vocalisation for once counting in his favour as it suggests real panic in the main chase sequence. The director is able to show how each family member sends aid when their name is invoked, although a minor gripe is that this is afforded very little dramatic impact and narrative clarity when it is central to the plot.

The scenes where Howard finally enters Venturus’ building and transforms are extremely good. De Courcey looks taller and his voice is stronger and deeper, suggesting that these scenes were deliberately scheduled after his voice had broken. His ponytail and futuristic costume also stand up to close scrutiny. Unfortunately the effect so carefully nurtured is once more - with feeling - destroyed by the dreadful delivery of ‘This is the second time’.

Episode 6

There is some pleasing model work at the start of the final episode - Venturus’ spaceship is shown in some detail, although the director sensibly keeps the camera moving to avoid cheapening the effect. One sour note is the computer voice, which is just bizarre - although recognisably female it is neither sultry to suggest some kind of adolescent fantasy nor clinical, which left me puzzled as to the intent.

Again it is obvious that De Courcey’s delivery has improved and he has greater confidence. It may have been that an attempt to cast as Howard an actor genuinely going through puberty, although this was largely unsuccessful.

The scene where Awful enters the building and is shown in all her future stages is particularly effective, the depiction of each growth and character stage remarkably faithful to those in Jones’ original. The actress playing the adult Angela has barely a line to speak but her voice resonates with horror at her transformation and is consequently a delight to behold/hear.

There is another sensible change of pace as Torquil comes onboard the conspiracy, which allows the audience to process the enormous amount of plot information and to piece together the ramifications of events on the respective families. Normington beautifully captures Torquil’s air of contemplative whimsy then near-furious delight as he finally recognises ‘Limpet boy’. His bullying of Howard in the following scene, as Torquil and Erskine force Howard into correctly utilising his powers is simultaneously deliciously and maliciously spiteful.

As the story culminates with the spaceship being dragged into the present and the remaining members of Venturus’ family are summoned and coerced into boarding, the action is gleeful without becoming malicious, capturing the tone of the book. There is sufficient time for each character to be briefly given centre-stage and the action is brought to a satisfying close. The only quibble is the line of dialogue unnecessarily given to Awful at the very end, where it is suggested that she will shortly come into her own powers. This makes no sense given her previous scene at Hathaway’s house where it is clearly stated that she is Catriona and Quentin’s natural child and should never have been included - boos to a unnecessary and transparent opening for sequalisation.

Overall the production is a largely satisfying and brave stab at a complex and difficult to film novel. Jenny McDade’s adaptation is insightful and knowledgeable and manages to retain much of the essential sly humour and visual absurdity so characteristic of Diana Wynne Jones’ popular novel in the face of a limiting budget. There are very few unnecessary alterations to scenes, the direction is capable without being routine and the casting is intelligent.

The Goon and Howard Sykes - (c) BBCArcher’s Goon was the final children’s drama to be produced in-house by the BBC. Following the expensive excesses of the sumptuous but patchy and finally incomplete Narnia adaptations, a modest overspend of the budget was unfortunately enough to signal the end of the unit.


Howard Sykes: Jamie De Courcey
Quentin Sykes: Roger Lloyd Pack
Catriona Sykes: Susan Jameson
Dillian: Michelle Newell
Torquil: Andrew Normington
Shine: Annette Badland
Maisie Potter: Irene Richard
Awful: Angela Forry
Goon: Morgan Jones
Fifi: Victoria Worsley
Archer: Thomas Lockyer
Hathaway: Clive Merrison
Mountjoy: Nicholas Blane

Designer: Chris Robilliard
Producer: Richard Callanan
Director: Marilyn Fox


Photos copyright BBC TV.


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