The Phoenix And The Carpet (BBC, 1976/77) – Simply Media DVD Review

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When four children persuade their parents to buy them a rather shabby second hand carpet they have no idea what lies ahead for them.  For the carpet is a magic one, containing an egg which – when accidentally tossed into the fire – hatches a Phoenix who has been asleep for some considerable time.  With the wise Phoenix as their guide, the children embark on a series of amazing adventures ….

Published in 1904, The Phoenix and the Carpet was the second book in Edith Nesbit’s trilogy (beginning with Five Children and It and concluding with The Story of the Amulet). This 1976/77 adaptation by John Tully was retooled as a stand-alone tale, meaning that no knowledge of the previous story is required (the Psammead, from Five Children and It, appears briefly in the novel of The Phoenix And The Carpet but is omitted from this adaptation).

Given the technical limitations of the era, this was an incredibly ambitious production.  It’s not going to be to everybody’s tastes (there’s lashings of CSO and various other special effects which require considerable suspension of belief) but if you’re prepared to go with the flow then an utterly charming tale lies ahead.

Director Clive Doig had cut his teeth as a vision mixer on numerous 1960’s episodes of Doctor Who. Given this (as well as his work on Vision On and later Jigsaw) no doubt he wouldn’t have been phased by the taxing requirements of this eight-part serial.

I have to confess that within the first five minutes I was won over. Yes, the Phoenix may be a rather immobile puppet – but he’s brought to life by Robert Warner’s wonderful voice work.  Thanks to Warner, the Phoenix quickly becomes a character in his own right – knowledgeable and sage-like, but also possessed of an overweening sense of his own importance.

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And although the children – Cyril (Gary Russell), Anthea (Tamzin Neville), Robert (Max Harris) and Jane (Jane Forster) – all have the slightly mannered stage-school delivery familiar from countless other period dramas of this era, there’s plenty of good one-liners and sly gags for them scattered throughout the script.

During the serial there are also some fine comic performances from the elder players. Robert Dorning as the carpet seller in the first episode for example, whilst Susan Field (as the children’s bad-tempered Cook) is a joy in episode two. Immediately after the Cook stumbles across the smooth-talking Phoenix she’s whisked away with the others to a desert island …

Clearly the serial had a decent budget as the island (whilst resolutely studio-bound) is shot on film rather than videotape. It doesn’t convince as a real location, but since the whole production has a heightened, theatrical feel this isn’t really a problem.

The island natives (browned up British actors with curly wigs and plenty of “ooga booga” mumblings) are slightly eyebrow raising, but these scenes only reflect the original novel, which sees the Cook carried off by the natives (who are so taken with her that they decide to make her their Queen).

The children’s colourful trips continue when they head out to India – we go back on film for a sumptuous palace based sequence which introduces us to The Ranee (Surya Kumai), someone who has every material benefit but still feels desperately unhappy. Luckily for her, the four plucky English children are able to cheer her up. Cyril launches into a lengthy explanation about how they acquired the carpet (delightfully causing the others to roll their eyes!)

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Back in London, the imperious Mrs Biddle (Hilary Mason) is helping to organise a church bazaar with an Indian theme. She’s proud of her contribution, but is trumped by the knick-knacks acquired by the children during their recent jaunt.  This contrast between the exotic adventuring of the children and their return to a more mundane life in London gives the serial a very appealing feel (even though the adventures are high on charm but low on jeopardy).

There are several other highlights scattered throughout the remainder of the serial. I was particularly taken with the Phoenix’s tour of London. It’s a lovely opportunity to ramp up the comedy as the Phoenix demands to be taken to one of the many temples established in the capital to worship him (he has a little trouble in understanding that the Phoenix Insurance Company is a different sort of beast altogether …)

Monica Sims, head of BBC children’s programmes, told The Stage and Television Today that “the production has all the difficulties of children, animals, magic and the technical tricks required for a magic carpet. Not to mention a haughty bird as the leading artist” (30th September 1976).

All these hurdles were successfully overcome and by the time the eighth and final episode concludes there’s a definite sense of poignancy in the air.  The Phoenix And The Carpet certainly seems to have left an indelible impression on those who saw it at the time and it’s pleasing to report that the decades haven’t diminished its magic.  Other bigger-budgeted adaptations are also available, but this one is very special indeed. It’s well worth checking out.

The Phoenix And The Carpet is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

 

Grange Hill. Series One – Episode One

I’ve slightly redrafted and expanded my thoughts on this opening episode. I’m also gearing up to tackle Series Nine – posts should start appearing at the end of next week.

Archive Television Musings

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 8th February 1978

Benny Green (Terry Sue Patt) has the honour of being the first pupil we see entering the grounds of Grange Hill. Quite why he’s so early isn’t explained here – but it’s obvious from his opening scene that he lives for football. He’s also black and poor – which were both considerable disadvantages in late seventies Britain, but he’s always a positive character and never spends his time complaining about what he doesn’t have.

This opener is quite effective in demonstrating how intimidating a secondary school could be on your first day and the key part of the episode is the way that the various pupils react. Tucker (Todd Carty) and Alan (George Armstrong) take it in their stride whilst Judy (Abigail Brown) and Justin (Robert Morgan) view the place with barely disguised horror. Both are isolated, since all of their old friends have gone to…

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Grange Hill. Series Six – Episode Eight

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Written by David Angus. Tx 28th January 1983

Although this is a studio-bound episode, a generous application of water still manages to give the strong impression that it’s pouring with rain outside, as we see the likes of Fay, Annette, Julie, Jonah and Zammo all arrive looking decidely damp.

Neither Mrs McClusky or Mr McGuffy have been used a great deal this year, so it’s nice to see them both and even better that they share a short scene together. It once again demonstrates the gulf between their approaches to discipline – Mrs McClusky is pondering exactly what measures she should take to punish those who truant on a regular basis, whilst Mr McGuffy gently suggests that if they do nothing then the situation mght resolve itself. Quite how this would work is never made clear, so for once it seems that Mrs McClusky is in the right.

I love N2’s English lesson with Mr McGuffy. He announces that they’re going to study one of the greatest poems in the English language (to barely surpressed groans) and the stifled yawns we later see are a good indication that they’re not enjoying themselves. Mr McGuffy may be an inspirational teacher, but this isn’t one of his finest hours.

There’s another example of the chain effect of bullying. Annette taunts Roland, so he in turn taunts Diane. Fay tells him to leave her alone and he responds that he will if Annette does likewise. But Annette doesn’t let up, which makes Roland decide to take the afternoon off. Janet, who always seems to be lurking about, has some words of wisdom which go unheeded. “Running away won’t do any good, whatever it was will still be here when you come back.”

This scene also demonstrates just how scruffy and run-down the corridors look. Possibly the sets have been gradually dirtied down, if so it’s a clever visual way of signifying that money at Grange Hill continues to be tight and the budget for decorating must be minimal.

Mrs McClusky, together with Miss Mooney, Mr Browning, Roland and Annette, manages to get to the bottom of N2’s bullying triangle. Quite why she’s not taken any action against Gripper’s much more insidious racial bullying is harder to understand though.

June Page makes a couple of brief appearances as Miss Hunt. One of Page’s earliest television appearances was as Chrissie in the rather fine Dixon of Dock Green episode Seven for a Secret, Never to be Told and she’d later pop up in numerous other series, such as Doctor Who.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection. Simply Media DVD Review.

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Roobarb, which first aired in 1974, was one of a number of children’s series (The Magic Roundabout was another) which aired on BBC1 just before the six o’clock news, thus ensuring that it attracted a large adult viewership in addition to its intended target audience.  This is probably the one of the reasons why it’s maintained a certain cult status ever since, although there are several others.

Firstly, Grange Calveley’s scripts are funny.  Although they lack the layered humour that Eric Thompson brought to the Magic Roundabout, there’s still plenty of decent puns and weird flights of fancy to enjoy.  For example, in When Roobarb Found Sauce, Roobarb is concerned to find that the pond has dried up and sets out to find its source.  This leads him to the centre of the Earth where a strange creature provides him with the pond’s sauce, which turned out to be chocolate (his favourite!)

Richard Briers’ narration is a major plus point as well.  Briers was a master storyteller, and each five minute episode benefits enormously from his spot on comic timing.  As good as the scripts are, Briers makes them just that little bit better.

And lastly, Bob Godfrey’s unmistakable animation gave the series a look and feel unlike any other on television at that time.  Although Godfrey wasn’t the only animator to work on the original (he tended to lead a core group of around four or five animators) every episode has the same hand-drawn feel which makes it seem as if it was the work of an individual.  The animation style chosen, known as “boiling”, gave Roobarb a deliberately rough feel – as colour was crudely added with marker pens and varied from frame to frame.

The minimalist style (despite the fact that most of the action took place in the garden, there was little attempt made to colour in the backgrounds – instead they remained a plain white) also helped to create a certain atmosphere.  Of course this was no doubt borne out of necessity – the cruder the animation, the quicker it could be done – but thanks to the quality of Calveley’s scripting and Briers’ narration you can forgive the rough-and-ready nature of the visuals.

As for the main character, Roobarb is terribly appealing.  He’s an eternal optimist, always ready with an invention or a plan to make everyone’s life a little better.  Things don’t always work out quite the way he intends though, and when disaster strikes he finds Custard the cat and the birds forming up to mock his efforts.  But no matter, Roobarb always bounces back to hatch another scheme next time.

Roobarb ran for thirty episodes which were repeated on numerous occasions.  As with several other classic children’s shows it received a twenty-first century makeover and returned for another series, this time entitled Roobarb and Custard Too.

Roobarb and Custard Too ran for thirty nine episodes, which were broadcast on C5 during 2005.  As with the original, Grange Calveley provided the scripts and Richard Briers the narration, although this time the visuals were generated via computer animation (the “boiling” look of the original was kept).  The opening episode, When There Was a Surprise, provides us with a clear example that this is a 21st Century Roobarb as it concerns Roobarb’s efforts to build his own computer (out of wood and other scraps) and how he’s able to get it working, courtesy of Mouse.

Although the increased cast of characters in Roobarb and Custard Too slightly diluted the enclosed charm of the original, it was still a witty and entertaining series and whilst it’ll probably never surpass the original in many peoples affections it certainly has its moments.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection contains, as its title implies, all thirty episodes of Roobarb  (on the first DVD) and all thirty nine episodes of Roobarb and Custard Too (on DVDs two and three).  Given that Roobarb and Custard Too was made in 2005, it’s slightly surprising that the picture format for all these episodes is 4:3.  I don’t have a copy of the original broadcasts to hand, but I strongly suspect they would have been made in widescreen.  It’s also a little disappointing that none of the discs are subtitled.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 16th of May 2016.  RRP £34.99.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Eighteen

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 2nd March 1979

The end of the school year is approaching and Grange Hill chooses to mark it with an open day and a series of projects. The first years project is “The History of Grange Hill” – a subject which doesn’t fill Cathy with a great deal of enthusiasm. She wonders which crawler thought that one up (possibly it’s not a surprise that it was Penny Lewis – embarrassingly she happened to be sitting opposite Cathy at the time she made the comment!)

For many of the first years, it’s the last time we’ll see them in school uniform as when series three opens, uniform has been made optional. Cathy and Trisha are given the job of designing a project about school uniform through the ages, which gives them an early chance to wear something a little more casual.

There’s a nice bit of continuity as Judy Preston makes a reappearance. Along with a few of her classmates at Brookdale, she’s come to propose a quiz between Brookdale and Grange Hill. Mr Llewellyn agrees and this brings the series to its conclusion.

It’s also the last time we’ll see Sean Arnold as Mr Llewellyn. Although Llewellyn remains headmaster for series three, he’s only ever referred to and never actually seen (after a while this becomes obvious – he’s always away at conferences or otherwise unavailable). And it won’t be the last time that Grange Hill will have a head teacher who’s conspicuous by their absence.

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle at the quiz after Doyle and his friends lock Hughes (who’s dreading taking part anyway) in a cupboard. With the clock ticking down to the start, there’s a mild crisis when he can’t be found. It’s very mild, to be honest, as it’s hardly the most gripping of plots, but it fills a few minutes.

The news that Mr Mitchell is leaving comes as a surprise, although Doyle (thanks to his family connections) already knew. But whilst teachers and pupils come and go, life at Grange Hill goes on.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Seventeen

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Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 27th February 1979

The end of year exams are fast approaching and Susi’s feeling the strain.  Miss Summers later tells her that the first year exams aren’t terribly important, but Susi’s mother is putting considerable pressure on her.

Next year she’ll be in the top set in French and English, but in a lower set in Maths.  This comes as a disappointment to her (although it’s clear that it’ll be more of a disappointment to her mother).  Miss Summers is able to explain that it’s no disgrace to be in a lower set in some subjects, it simply means that she’s not quite as good at Maths as she is in other subjects.  Therefore it’s better that she’s placed in a set with others of a similar ability, rather than struggle along in a higher set.

There’s a clear divide made between Mrs McMahon and Penny’s mother, Mrs Lewis.  Mrs McMahon never seems to give her daughter any encouragement at all and also tells her that she’ll be voting to keep school uniform in the upcoming referendum.  Mrs Lewis is a much more relaxed character (for example, she’s quite happy to vote for the abolition of uniform).  The juxtaposition between the two mothers makes a telling point – if Susi didn’t feel her mother’s constant disapproval thenno doubt she’d be a much happier person.

Mr McMahon (Bill Treacher) is more supportive, telling Susi she can only do her best, although he’s rather distant, which seems to make it clear that Mrs McMahon is the driving force of the family.  This is Mr McMahon’s only appearance and it does come as a slight shock to see a rather well-spoken turn from Treacher (later to become very familiar thanks to his decade or so as Arthur Fowler in Eastenders).

Elsewhere, Tucker finds an exam paper which he’s convinced is the one they’re about to sit.  We’ll revisit this plot-line in later years when Pogo tries to make a profit by selling questions from a paper he found. Here, Tucker doesn’t attempt any such free enterprise – he’s happy to share for free – but it doesn’t take a mind-reader to work out that it’s clearly not going to end well.  Mr Mitchell’s reluctance to act, although he knows that something’s going on, makes it plain that whatever Tucker’s found, it’s not that year’s paper.

This is made quite obvious when none of the questions come up in the paper they take – resulting in poor Tucker suffering attacks from all of his angry classmates!

The referendum to make school uniform optional votes in favour of the proposal by a narrow majority, to the delight of many.