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review by Fiona Haggart
Each episode begins with a simple but
interesting credit sequence showing the Goon looming menacingly at
Howards 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 doesnt its
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
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
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 Jamesons
Catriona Sykes and Angela Forrys 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 Britains 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
Forrys 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 doesnt 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 Courceys
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.
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 Catrionas
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 Torquils
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.
visiting Dillian to retrieve the original 2000 words there are
pleasing visual cues, such as a passing police car as Dillians
name is mentioned that are again simple but very successful. The
scenes at Dillians 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.
Dillians 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 Archers 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.
Finally Howard appears to have been given a
change of clothes. Normally I wouldnt 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.
Torquils 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 Torquils power. Andrew Normingtons
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 Sykes 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 episodes entire
budget seems to have gone instead on the hugely impressive road crew
and diggers, and an amusingly persistent ice cream van that then
Amidst the visual chaos there is a peculiar
scene which involves Hathaways (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.
Again the budget lets them down and it is
obvious that the money allocated is simply not sufficient for what is
required. It isnt 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. Archers 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 characters concerns which works well, and the Goons
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 Shines seedier side of town look too
recent, similar and tacked on, Shines boudoir with its wall of
viewscreens displaying the towns crimes enables a neat visual
explanation of the control that the family members exert on the town.
Shine herself is well depicted, the somewhat
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
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 Merrissons 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.
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 parents
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 Goons mournful demolition of the TV as he loses Fifi
The trip to find the elusive Erskine is well
handled, again demonstrating how a limited SFX budget neednt
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
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 Courceys
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 Torquils 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 Hathaways house
where it is clearly stated that she is Catriona and Quentins
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 McDades
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
Goon was the final childrens 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.