1990 was an odd year. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were everywhere. The internet was a thing you used if you were hacking into the Defence Programme. Vanilla Ice was inexplicably popular. I finally stood up to Steven McKenzie (not his real name) and broke his glasses round the back of the school courtyard. Those were dark months, and it was family that held me together. And when we sat and watched The Chronicles of Narnia, on those cold evenings in November of that year, we did it as a family.
Everyone knew the books already, of course. If you grow up in a Christian household you can’t exactly avoid them. You start with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then you move to Prince Caspian and then you work through the chronicles from the beginning. I’ll allow you to skip The Horse and his Boy: I’ve always liked it, particularly the Shasta Among The Tombs sequence, but if Narnia were The X-Files it would be ‘Post-Modern Prometheus’ – divisive, and to be honest it lifts right out.
We don’t have time to go through the entire Narnia TV series today: I will save that later analysis for another time, after we’ve watched The Silver Chair (for reasons which, if you know the cast, ought to be obvious). But Lion / Witch – the first and most successful of the lot – was one I had on home-recorded VHS, all three hours of it (minus the couple of minutes from the children’s conversation with the professor in episode two, missing when the TV signal went down). These were the days when my brother and I favoured familiarity over choice, and the same films and television shows were watched and rewatched until we knew them by heart and the tape had worn as thin as my mother’s patience. If I’d been the Doctor Who fan then that I am now, I’d doubtless have done the same with the McCoy era. As it was we memorised Back to the Future more or less in its entirety, which is practically the same thing.
Looking back, the decision to broadcast the first series of Narnia at Christmas spoke volumes about the BBC’s reluctance to endorse its religious themes. Christmas, after all, is done and dusted in a single scene and then we’re straight on to the great thaw. It’s like that bit in The Holy Grail where winter gave spring and summer a miss and went straight onto autumn. The book is about the end of winter, not its zenith. It’s about the coming of spring and the return of life to Narnia: an Easter / Eostre story in more than one sense of the word. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is not a Christmas tale, although that does not render a Christmas broadcast inappropriate, merely a missed opportunity. It sits sandwiched rather awkwardly between the two, the Nightmare Before Christmas of its day.
Certainly for a dramatization that’s now a quarter of a century old, it’s weathered the storms rather well. There is a heady mixture of location work and studio, all shot on videotape – as was the practice in those days – so as to appear seamless. The cast (with some exceptions, but more on that later) are generally very good. The beavers are inexplicably huge – humans in beaver costumes that somehow resemble super evolved beavers, like the Cat in Red Dwarf, rather than mere talking beasts – but the alternative is presumably a robotic beaver in the same fashion as K-9, and I can’t process this image without simultaneously imagining Barbara Kellerman drop-kicking them across Hawkstone.
Some of it hasn’t improved over time. The flight sequences are dreadful: the children gaze in wonder at imaginary landscapes while being blasted with a wind machine, perched on the back of an animatronic lion that is making some thoroughly odd noises. The fight with the wolf is, for some reason, shot in front of a painting. Most disappointing of all is the final battle, which is going rather well until the resurrected Aslan shows up. In the book (and the 2005 film, which handles things rather better despite its obvious nods to Pelennor Fields) his confrontation with the witch is begins when “with a roar that shook all Narnia from the western lamp-post to the shores of the eastern sea the great beast flung himself upon the White Witch”. The BBC’s version shows the extent of their limited budget, consisting as it does of an unconvincing mew from the lion, just before they shake the cameras and the witch does a stage dive into a chalk pit.
We also need to talk about Sophie Wilcox, who (I’m sorry) is a victim of the worst kind of stage school: as Lucy she emits a kind of radial earnestness that is irritating to the point of nausea. “You know I don’t lie,” she pleads with Susan in an early scene. “I never lie! It would be the easiest thing in the world to say that I made it all up, but I didn’t!” She’s like the girl in your year five class who knew every skipping rhyme in existence and who used to cry if she didn’t get a merit on her work. It’s a shame, because Lucy is a pivotal character in the book: the innocent who is first to discover Narnia and its secrets, and through whose eyes we largely see the action unfold. She contrasts quite starkly with Georgie Henley, who is a little sweetheart.
The other children aren’t bad at all, particularly Jonathan R. Scott, who is clearly having a blast as Edmund – most effective in his ‘nasty’ scenes, in which he’s obnoxious with just about everyone, only to experience pangs of regret once it becomes apparent that he backed the wrong horse, and come the final battle he’s the hero of the hour, at least until Aslan shows up. Aslan himself is a curiosity, often mentioned but seen only in the closing two episodes, saying little (presumably it was a job getting that mouth to work) and seeming in many ways more like a distracted headmaster than the saviour of Narnia. It’s left to the beavers (Lesley Nichol, better known these days as The Scarf Lady, and Kerry Shale, who turned up in ‘Day of the Moon’) to fill the gaps. Jeffrey Perry is a superb Mr Tumnus, and Michael Aldridge is a far more convincing Professor Kirk than Jim Broadbent.
A word about the professor. It’s obvious, come the final scenes, that he has been to Narnia – the knowing glance in the direction of the receding children suggests as much, even if you’re not familiar with the plot of The Magician’s Nephew. But it’s never clear whether Lewis had always intended this (the way that Rowling or Lucas always insisted they knew how Star Wars or Harry Potter would conclude), or whether he simply felt the need to tell an origin story and saw a youthful version of the professor as an obvious protagonist. Assuming the latter, the professor’s logical deduction that Narnia is real (mirroring Lewis’s own deductions about Christ’s divinity quite closely) is based purely on reasoning, rather than past experience, and the subsequent revelation that he’s clearly been to Narnia rather undermines the point.
But it was enough for the kids to work their way through the Christ allegory-that-isn’t-really-allegory. I judge the success of these things by how my children react, and it’s a testament to the programme that the three elder ones were riveted – even more than they had been during Day of the Triffids. (That one made Daniel very uneasy about going to bed. So I waved a plastic flower in his face, and we all had a good laugh about it, once the screaming had stopped.) They chuckled at the beavers and they absolutely loved Barbara Kellerman, who brings an uproarious slice of theatrical ham to the picnic. It’s a deep contrast with Tilda Swinton, who is how I imagine the White Witch to be if Galadriel had kept the ring (I’m assuming this is deliberate).
In fact, so over-the-top is Kellerman’s performance that it gave me an idea – but we’ll deal with that next time…