MUCH-TRUMPETED “prestige” adaptation of the venerable Blytonian underage derring-do saga, adapted by RICHARD ‘FLYING KIWI’ SPARKS from the musty-smelling Hodder and Stoughton paperbacks that everyone read whether they wanted to or not, and lavishly filmed in various privately owned chunks of the New Forest for that idyllic “eternal summer of youth” vibe.
It was, of course, all updated for the go-ahead seventies. Starched collars and Pathfinder shoes were ditched to make way for zip-up cagoules, ten-speed Grifters and those lovely polyester polo shirts with an off-centre brown zig-zag up the front. Blyton’s busting out! But only by about so much, as the Enid Blyton Foundation, jealously guarding their intellectual property as well they might, weren’t too keen on that many liberties being taken with those timeless storylines. So despite the Tartrazine-coloured Year of Three Popes costumery, our intrepid heroes still found themselves going after gorblimey smugglers and swarthy gypsies, and the local bobbies still turned up on a rickety old bicycle in the nick of time. (“Constable! Thank goodness you’re here!”) We were still firmly in “lashings of ginger beer” territory, which to your average ’70s child was as exotic as Servalan’s homeworld. And what were the odds, in 1978, of happening across an Aunt Fanny still able to get about under her own steam? Yet here she is, baking scones in a sparkly top. Something doesn’t quite fit.
On top of the period elephant in the room, there was the small matter of the production values not being quite up to scratch. Lots of lovely countryside and stately old piles, yes, but, with all due respect to GARY ‘Dick’ RUSSELL and pals, the acting, direction and pacing were Children’s Film Foundation level at best. Every other shot ended in a pause so long you could practically hear the key grip lighting up a post-take fag. Line delivery was firmly of the posh-gosh declamatory style. The odd medium-big name guest star provided a bit of variation, but much of the action was as flat as the browned-out ’70s film stock that captured it. All kids telly is prone to this to some degree of course, but here it was acute and chronic. Luckily the crims were as stiff as everyone else, otherwise nationwide anarchy would have ruled by the end of the first season.
And yet… everyone watched it. Slothful story progress, niggling period worries and the suspicion that Julian was a bit of a git weren’t nearly enough to offset the fact that here were some kids getting to muck about outdoors on the telly. Which, as it turned out, was all anyone wanted entertainment-wise during those heady Callaghanian summers. Look-In strips and spin-off books (OK, the original books but with cagoules on the cover) abounded. The oddly tuneless school choir theme tune (“Julie and Dick Annan, Georgian TIM-my the do-O-og…”) was, as was seemingly compulsory for all Southern kids TV themes, released as a single for nobody to buy. Hay was well and truly made.
Ironically enough, none of the Five ever went on to become truly famous by themselves, although Dr Who conventions are occasionally set on a roar when some wag claims that old Who is best because at least Tom Baker could operate a punt without falling in the water. The best part of twenty years on, ITV went back to Blyton, this time keeping the thing firmly in the time of grey flannel shorts and postal orders for six shillings. They’d learnt their lesson. Don’t decimalise Dick!