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.
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!)
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).