Thursday 7 June 2012

TV: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1988)

They don't make kids' TV like they used to. Fact.

The Lion...
As a child, I watched very little television indeed, but perhaps that made the programmes and dramas I did watch all the more special. In particular, I have a soft spot for the old Sunday night dramas the BBC used to show in the run-up to Christmas: six-part adaptations of classic children's literature. The Phoenix and the Carpet was one, and The Borrowers ran to two series, which remained buried deep enough in my subconscious that on my first viewing of Lord of the Rings, many years later, I saw Ian Holm's Bilbo Baggins and my brain screamed "IT'S POD!" But no drama can live up to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I would have been just about three, and almost certainly this would have been my first encounter with the story, but I have no memories of seeing it for the first time. I've just always known that story.

In later years, we had a taped-off-the-TV video of an animated adaptation, which now I think is... not very good. Back then, I viewed it as fair, but not "the real thing." My grandmother was the custodian of the (mostly) live-action mini-series, and to watch this was a rare treat. As far as I was concerned, this was the book come to life off the page.

The music of the opening titles is the closest thing I've found in the real world to magic, and it brings tears to my eyes. It evokes the reality of magic, and the knowledge that if I went into my wardrobe, maybe I would find my way into Narnia. Or, alternatively, I could stick pictures to the back of the wardrobe, imagine myself there, and it would be just as real, just as good. There was none of the wistfulness of knowing that the real world just isn't as exciting as the world of the imagination, because as far as my younger self was concerned, they were the same thing.

...The Witch...
Of course, in 2005, Walt Disney Pictures brought out their Hollywood film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I have no complaint with their treatment of my beloved story. (The sequels left a fair bit to be desired, but I can count even teeny, minor criticisms of L, W & W on my thumbs.)

The BBC mini-series is very much a product of its time, with theatrical over-acting and a quaint combination of costumes and animation for special effects. We've got a dwarf with a broad Yorkshire accent, beavers who resemble lisping potatoes, and an Aslan who, if he opens his mouth wide enough, reveals a man inside a lion suit. And yet, all this fades away, leaving the storytelling to do the work. Watching it now, I was pleasantly surprised how well it stood the test of time in an age of 3D, CGI and Blu-ray, proving that above everything else, what is needed is a good story. The casting is wonderful - I love the hammy White Witch, plummy-voiced, blinky older brother Peter, the freckled and resentful Edmund, Susanish Susan and round, toothy Lucy.

...and the Wardrobe
The BBC also adapted three other Narnia books: Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which were put together as a six-parter, and The Silver Chair. I saw The Silver Chair, which features Doctor Who's Tom Baker as a marvellous Puddleglum, while still a child, and once again I found it was close to perfect, but I was older and more critical of the Prince Caspian/Dawn Treader adaptation - it was a bit rushed and I thought Caspian really ought not to have such childish curls - but even so, with its limited budget and dated special effects, I feel that it captured the essence of the original stories better than its more cinematic Hollywood remakes.

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