Part 1/BBC 1 - 13th October 2008 - 4.35pm
Part 2/CBBC - 13th October 2008 - 5.15pm
S P O I L E R S for Part 2 if you haven't yet seen it!
In general, sports and I did not get on well with each other at school. When I had occasion to stand in goal looking miserable I would have secretly been delighted if an alien clown had turned up and snatched away fellow team members. That was back in 1972, mind. These days, any man seen scuttling around in the undergrowth whilst dressed as a clown in the vicinity of vulnerable young people would be arrested, jailed and put on the Sex Offenders list. Perhaps, in its own quirky way, that fear of strangers, instilled in children and parents alike over generations, originally through myth, fairytale and now alas through the present day, all too real traumas unveiled in saturation media coverage, is what Phil Ford is driving at here.
...harking back to the kind of off-kilter kids dramas that we took for granted back in the 1970sNot only is the story a paean to the loss of a friend, with Luke pining after Maria, but it's also about how the wonders of the universe throw things at our heroes that disrupt the nature of innocence, heighten fears of the unknown and reactivate long buried childhood traumas. By the time school has beckoned for our erstwhile chaps Luke and Clyde, we've already had a voice-over all the way from Washington from Maria, a new family move in to Bannerman Road and new girl Rani seeing clowns. Michael Kerrigan, last touching base with the Doctor Who universe as director of Battlefield in 1989, gets that sinister, yet comically surreal, nature of clowns down to a tee here. Those delicious flashes of colour and quick pans, brief glimpses of clown figures and their matter of fact juxtapositions in school corridors, domestic settings and urban landscapes assist Ford in harking back to the kind of off-kilter kids dramas that we took for granted back in the 1970s...Ace Of Wands, Catweazle and The Tomorrow People immediately sprung to mind as I watched this.
And the introduction of the Chandra family is handled very well - each family member is dovetailed into the narrative neatly with Rani Chandra, played with great naturalism by Anjii Mohindra, literally colliding with Clyde and Luke and immediately intrigued by the disappearing kids and visions of clowns; Sarah snooping under the guise of being neighbourly to mum Gita and finally dad Haresh amusingly revealed as the rather stern headmaster. 'And it looks like standards around here vanished with him (the last headmaster)' he remarks pointedly whilst glaring at the appallingly dressed teacher stood at the front of the class. Quite right too. A light grey jacket, red button down shirt and blue jeans...just what is he thinking!
...we get that witty little line about Johnny Depp's fear of clowns sourced from Heat and the Chandra family dynamic successfully established.There's some very understated playing from Lis Sladen in this, in the pricelessly amusing banter over coffee with Gita where she balks at Gita's opening remarks on the doorstep about saving the universe and in the emphasis on her name being 'Sarah... Jane'. Likewise the conversation between Luke and Rani in the playground about being different and not strange and her confession about being into 'weird'. It's nicely played by Tommy Knight and Anjii. Once we've got the introductions out of the way, Kerrigan picks the story up and drives ahead with boys going missing in stationery cupboards to the accompaniment of psychotic giggling and flashes of clowns that show off how good Daniel Anthony is as Clyde, tickets to circus museums (very Dahl-like) and the first confrontation with Bradley Walsh as Odd Bob, or the Pied Piper or Spellman...and along the way we get that witty little line about Johnny Depp's fear of clowns sourced from Heat and the Chandra family dynamic successfully established in the chaos of their house move.
'Nuzzink in de vorld can schtop me now!'
Considering this is done on a small budget, the production just about gets away with the interior of the museum. It does seem a bit poky and the interactive features are, shall we say, not entirely visitor friendly. Bradley Walsh is highly amusing and creepy as Spellman with his clipped Mittel-European accent and I was daring him to go the whole hog with 'Nuzzink in de vorld can schtop me now!' but alas he briefly looked silly in a Pied Piper outfit before making a full transformation into the thoroughly nasty looking Odd Bob. Bravo, Mr. Walsh. But the allusion to the Pied Piper myth is the key here after all, tapping as it does into those parental fears about child stealers, cradle snatchers and night raiders. It all builds very well with an attack from animated puppet clowns, shot with lots of dutch angles and beefed up with an urgent bit of scoring, and then that heart stopping whispered threat from Odd Bob with slow zooms in on each of the cast intercut in rapid succession. Wonderful stuff to conclude a great first part.
Over to CBBC for Part 2 then and, alas and alack, it doesn't deliver on the promise of Part 1. The phone signal interference schtick isn’t the greatest of get outs but Phil Ford does get to develop the Sarah Jane backstory itself through flashbacks to her childhood fears of puppets coming to life in a thunderstorm lashed bedroom. It’s that primal anxiety again that most of us have experienced and is part of that catalogue of irrational scares such as discarded clothes assuming unfamiliar shapes, creatures under the bed waiting to grab your legs, tree branches taking on a life of their own as they clatter against the window pane.
This is pure Bruno Bettleheim via The Uses Of Enchantment in that Ford is using the series, particularly here in this story, as fairy tale to inform the youngest of viewers about how to negotiate through life’s toughest times and personal fears. It’s here in how Luke must deal with the absence of Maria and get along with Rani, in how Sarah must conquer those troubling childhood skeletons in the closet, in how Clyde uses his humour to overcome the fear creating, and devouring, Odd Bob. Whilst this second part isn’t as successful in maintaining the threat from the fantastical situation, and I put that down to the way the story is trying to scientifically rationalise the myth of the Pied Piper via the meteorite at the Pharos Institute, it still asks the child and the parent to consider fairy tales as "...suggestions in symbolic form about how he/she may deal with these issues and grow safely into maturity."
Sarah Jane's offer to Rani, either go back to her normal life or go with her, actually makes her sound more like the Doctor than Metropolitan's greatest roving reporter.
As well as this symbolic playing out we also get Rani’s induction into Team SJA. This is definitely one of the best scenes in the episode and again Anjii Mohindra plays it beautifully and all the signs are that she’s going to work well with Daniel Anthony and Tommy Knight. Via the character’s interest in journalism, a new dynamic is also forming with Sarah Jane and I hope they develop this part of their relationship. Sarah Jane's offer to Rani, either go back to her normal life or go with her, actually makes her sound more like the Doctor than Metropolitan's greatest roving reporter. And as the kids climb to the attic, Luke stares wistfully at a photo of the original gang, including Maria, and Ford's script acknowledges that life goes on for Luke and he must accept change.
Love Sarah laying down the ground rules including not keeping score of how many times they've saved the world and, later, the moonlit conversation between her and Rani which is played so beautifully by Anjii and Lis. And for us continuity whores out there - did you spot the picture of Clara the clown from The Celestial Toymaker on Sarah's laptop gallery as well as the name-check for Aunt Lavinia as Sarah explains her fear of clowns in the flashback? I did wonder at that point whether the kids of today can actually relate to this same fear or if, watching this, they've laughed their heads off and lost all respect for that wuss Sarah Jane Smith. Still, that scary encounter between Odd Bob and Sarah in the Pharos Institute would surely cause mass incontinence amongst young and old.
...the solution was screamingly telegraphed ten minutes before it occurred.Which is lovely, but then Ford's script starts to disintegrate. The nice continuity link to the Pharos Institute, with Floella Benjamin popping in again, is just starters orders for a series of plot devices that actually encumber the story. Yep, meteorite containing said force will be used ultimately to imprison it again; yep, mass mobile phone thing just reeks of leftovers from the parent show and is a bit of a ho-hum solution to what was the promising spectacle of balloon obsessed kids biting the dust. But the icing on the cake is the groan inducing moment where Clyde's 'laughter is the best medicine' approach is used to deal with the fear munching Odd Bob. Never mind the onslaught of obviously daft jokes, appropriate for a kids show I admit, it's just the fact that the solution was screamingly telegraphed ten minutes before it occurred. It all fizzles out a bit and that's a pity because the central idea's very sound. Clyde's stand up career is well and truly over based on that routine but this episode can't make its mind up when to stop and does tend to untidily pile up one conclusion after another in order to tie up narrative lose ends.
I can forgive them. A good little story with solid performances from the ensemble cast, Bradley Walsh as Spellman/Odd Bob is deliciously entertaining and the far more successful hall of mirrors sequence is such a deliriously surreal homage by director Kerrigan to The Lady From Shanghai, Enter The Dragon and The Man With The Golden Gun that it makes the unsatisfactory conclusion that much more palatable. Next week they seem to have a repeat of Russ Abbot's Madhouse on.
Cathode Ray Tube Sarah Jane Adventures Series 2