The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (BBC 1988)

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Last year in the run-up to Christmas I watched the 2005 feature film adaptation of CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and long-time readers of this blog may recall that I concluded that the film was ‘okay’, but that I felt the basic story was ill-served by being used as the foundation for a big-budget event blockbuster so clearly hoping to slip into the fantasy franchise gap formerly filled by The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series.

In short, the original CS Lewis tale is simply too light and insubstantial to support a multi-million dollar endeavour – a problem that I suspect Peter Jackson is also finding trying to upscale the similarly feather-weight The Hobbit into a new fantasy epic series. The source texts in both cases simply aren’t meant to be used like that and lack the depth and meatiness required, although at least Jackson has the established mise-en-scène of his earlier LOTR trilogy to add sinew to the Hobbit project and has also been able to call in extra material from Tolkien’s various lengthy appendices as well as The Silmarillion anthology to help him out.

The 2005 film version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe tried to fly on just Lewis’s book alone, only to find that this foundation was just not sturdy enough to sustain its epic-scale vision. So I thought I’d see whether going in the other direction made any difference – and you can’t find a more different take on The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe than the BBC’s 1988 children’s serial.

This production had a budget that probably wouldn’t have been sufficient to provide the cast and crew of the 2005 movie with their sandwiches on location filming. BBC drama budgets are horrendously tight as a matter of course, and still more so for childrens productions: to even think that you can get away with creating an entire fantasy world with that sort of money is just daft to the point of virtual insanity, frankly.

Let’s be brutally frank: just about every aspect of the 2005 movie is superior to the 1988 TV version, as you’d expect given the cash available and the advances in filmmaking technology over the course of the last two decades. Where the movie has state-of-the-art CGI fantasy creatures, the TV version has crudely drawn and painted cartoon animations that wouldn’t have passed muster even in 1937 when Walt Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Only the smallest and most undemanding child could possibly take seriously their appearances when matted into live action footage.

Some of the fantasy creatures are done ‘practically’ but in almost every case it’s clear that all possible expense has been spared. The fawns are actors in fluffy trousers, while the poor actors playing the Beavers are encased in full-body costumes the likes of which you haven’t seen since the last town hall am-dram production. The one case where it seems that some (if not all) of the plugs have been pulled out is in the depiction of Aslan, who is a large-scale muppet-type creation that is actually genuinely gorgeous to behold. While not for a minute remotely realistic to adults, the way the puppet is artfully manipulated is enough to sell it convincingly to the younger demographic.

As a result of the limited budget, it’s no surprise that any events that would be costly to stage are excised from the TV serial. The biggest moment of high drama in the first four of the six 30 minute episodes is watching Mrs Beaver trying to decide whether to take along her sewing machine when they have to flee their home pursued by wolves (just the two wolves, though – no money for a pack!) Aslan himself only shows up in the penultimate episode, pootles around before heading off to nobly sacrifice himself at the end of the half hour. In the final part, Susan and Lucy’s trouble-free flight to the White Witch’s castle (rendered straightforwardly using CSO, the green screen technology of its day) is given almost as much air time as the final climactic battle between the forces of good and evil. That’s staged by a couple of dozen game cast members, extras and stunt performers vaguely waving their fake swords in the air at spaces they hope the post-production team will matte in the unconvincing creature animations.

The TV serial’s shortcomings also extend to the acting. One thing that the 2005 film did have was an impressive juvenile cast, but the best thing that we can say about their admittedly younger counterparts in the 1988 version are that they can walk and talk and read their lines in a reasonably earnest fashion, and at least two of them can look worried or upset when prompted. They’re quite evidently upper-middle class kids who have been picked out of drama school for the summer and it’s not surprising that only one of them (Richard Dempsey, playing eldest sibling Peter) went on to become an full-fledged actor as an adult.

Still, the four children are a model of perfection compared with Barbara Kellerman who plays the White Witch: she doesn’t so much as go over the top, as come around for two or three more attempts at launching off the summit in the process. Even in a Christmas panto, this performance would have you taking a step back and asking: “Whoa, take it down a notch or seven.” At least she’s putting in a performance though, as opposed to the jaw-droppingly dreadful Ken Kitson as Giant Rumblebuffin who seemingly can’t move or say a single word convincingly. Thank goodness there’s Michael Aldridge (as Professor Digory Kirke) putting in a lovely performance to redeem the human adults, although in truth by far the best performances come from the ever-wonderful Kerry Shale as Mr Beaver and also Lesley Nicol as his spouse – their committed portrayals are enough to make you forget the absurdity of their costumes and make-up, and provide sparkling good-natured life to the two best-realised characters in the serial.

So, having spent the last six paragraphs slating almost every aspect of this production, what’s the final verdict? Why, that it’s an absolute delight and an almost complete success, of course. And the reason is that it’s so charmingly simple, basic and primitive that it almost perfectly captures the sense of sweet enchantment of CS Lewis’ book in exactly the way that no serious, ambitious blockbuster ever could.

To watch this serial forces you feel like a kid again. The slow leisurely pace and lack of any real action sequences until the very end means that the serial treats Narnia as an actual world to be explored rather than as a breathless adventure roller coaster, and as a result the whole thing seems more real despite its budgetary limitations. While the hand-painted animations are frankly an embarrassing disaster, I’ll still take the physical reality of the actors in the daft animal suits to the CGI versions in the film. Even though the film Aslan is one of the better instances of CGI in recent years, the muppet version from 1988 can still stand proudly shoulder-to-shoulder.

Even the stilted acting of the kids feels somehow more in keeping with the author’s intentions than the more naturalistic, deeper and nuanced movie portrayals. The stiffness and formality of the child actors here feels more in keeping with actual school children around the World War 2 period and has a more accurate “Cor! Gosh!” feel of the Enid Blyton era than the too-modern 2005 film presented us with. However, I’d still take Tilda Swinton’s superbly malevolent, glacial White Witch of the movie over Barbara Kellerman, and there’s no question that Liam Neeson is the definitive choice for the voice of Aslan compared with the frankly bored-sounding Roland Pickup.

But those quibbles aside, the TV production wins on every level despite the movie clearly being far and away technically better in every department. It’s a question of which one has the right spirit for the source material, and here it’s the BBC adaptation that nails it and makes this feel like the perfect pre-Christmas fare for children and parents alike instead of just another over-reaching Hollywood effort.

2 thoughts on “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (BBC 1988)

    ken willis said:
    December 19, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    I totally agree with you on every point, except that I think the children are better actors than you credit them with being – epecially Sophie Wilcox as Lucy.

      Andrew Lewin responded:
      December 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment!

      I’m happy to agree to differ on the matter of the child stars, and glad that you liked them more than I did. I think it’s more just a reflection of the different expectation of performances between 1988 and 2005, and between children’s television and big screen adaptations. The fact that the BBC version still comes out on top speaks volumes, I hope.

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