Christmas telly this year was widely derided by critics, most of whom pointed to the large percentage of repeats and "unoriginal programming" that would be clogging up the major channels during the festive period. While a big amount of Christmas repeats (curse the sprouts!) could well be said to be the norm for most years nowadays, I have to admit I found this year's offerings to be quite good - a decent mixture of old classics and new films plus the odd interesting programme (B.B.C. Four was the place to be for us vintage/jazz aficionados over the holidays, as Mim over at Crinoline Robot foretold). One little gem of a programme in particular caught my eye on Christmas Eve and so, as it might be of particular interest and enjoyment to my readers, I thought I'd give it one of my impromptu short reviews.
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was a one-off hour-long comedy that was broadcast on B.B.C. One on Christmas Eve at 8:30pm. The story and characters are based upon a series of children's books written between 1933 and 1983 by Norman Hunter. Now here I have to admit that, while I knew of the character of Professor Branestawm, I've never read any of Hunter's thirteen books that featured him. (I often think that can be a blessing in disguise, actually, as it meant I approached this programme with no preconceptions.)
Playing the title character was the British comedian Harry Hill. For those readers not familiar with Mr Hill's work he is probably best known for presenting irreverent comedy sketch shows, often featuring slapstick or absurdist humour and usually mocking pop culture (TV programmes, celebrities etc.) in some way. I think it's pretty fair to say that his is a particularly British brand of humour, which you either get or you don't. His best known programmes include The Harry Hill Show and Harry Hill's TV Burp; for the last ten years he has also narrated You've Been Framed, a long-running home movies and funny clips show. This turn as the literary character Professor Branestawm would, in fact, be his first real acting role.
Some kindly critics did point out that the role would not be too much a stretch for Hill, being much like an extension of his comedy persona, but be that as it may I thought he did a very good job bringing the character to life. He imbued the Professor with just the right amount of absentmindedness (a lot, for this character!) and bumbling confusion; when it came to the few moments that required some [serious] acting he was more than up to the task to in my opinion. Hill's experience with physical comedy, allied to his [relatively] younger age than the character he played, also helped add to the well-roundedness of the portrayal - especially during the more action-packed moments!
Anyway, before I get too far ahead of myself, a quick overview of the main characters in the stories and the basic plot of this latest adaptation. As mentioned, Professor Branestawm is the archetypal absentminded professor, forever coming up with crackpot inventions that usually form the basis for each book's storyline. Other recurring characters include his best friend, the eccentric ex-Army officer Colonel Dedshott, and his housekeeper Mrs Flittersnoop. As you can probably tell, being aimed primarily at children the characters are very exaggerated and the stories often fantastic. The first two books of the series were written in the 1930s, so it sounds like there should also be a good period feel to the stories; the remaining eleven were written much later, between 1970 and 1983, but I suspect may contain that same air about them.
Despite this, the various elements of the stories were skillfully woven together by the programme's writer Charlie Higson (who also appears as the town's mayor). Higson - best known in TV-land from the '90s comedy sketch series The Fast Show - has form in this area, having not only helped write the aforementioned programme but also a series of young adult novels featuring a teenage James Bond. Here he transposes the action to an idealised 1950s version of the professor's home village of Pagwell.
It's certainly a beautiful location (actually Shere in Surrey) and one that perfectly complements the storyline. Despite the latter containing many elements of fantasy it was careful never to go too far overboard, retaining a welcome air of almost-believability. The comedy was very much in evidence but very well balanced against the plot, never descending into overwhelming physicality.
The supporting cast were clearly having a ball: Simon Day (another Fast Show alumni) was thoroughly enjoying himself as a splendidly chappist Colonel Dedshott; Ben Miller hammed it up excellently as the evil Mr Bullimore, aided and abetted by David Mitchell as the scheming councillor Harold Haggerstone. It was good to see Miranda Richardson (Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder II) as schoolteacher Miss Blitherington, who featured as part of a sub-plot (slightly laboured, I thought) about the professor's schoolgirl friend Connie (Madeline Holliday) wanting to become a scientist, with the message obviously being "follow your dreams" and the sexist, male-dominated world of the Fifties fair game.
Anyway, I won't give away any more of the main plot beyond saying that the professor and Connie must go up against the council and the devious Messrs. Bullimore and Haggerstone to try and save the prof's "Inventory" workshop - that just about sums up this riotous one-hour programme without leaving any spoilers! Highlights for me in particular, I will just finish by saying, included the "mobile telephone", "Robot Father" and the results of the "wonderful photo liquid". In truth the whole 60 minutes was a joy to watch, with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. While definitely aimed more at the younger viewer (I was surprised at the somewhat late hour it was initially put out at) it's certainly got something for all ages - including some wonderful '50s fashions! - and is thoroughly enjoyable. The only pity was that the B.B.C. didn't promote it a bit more (a few trailers several weeks in advance of the 24th and one the night before were all I saw) and that it was only a one-off. Still, with 13 books in the canon I'm sure there must be a series in there somewhere; let's hope Higson, Hill and most importantly Auntie Beeb can be persuaded to make it. In the meantime the Professor Branestawm books have found another reader, as I'm off to read the stories on Google Books.
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was first broadcast on B.B.C. One at 8:30pm on 24th December. Another showing will be on CBBC tomorrow at 8:30am and it will also be available on iPlayer for the next 4 weeks. Those of you without access to the B.B.C. can view the trailers here and here, while the entire episode is here.