It's all set for flights of fancy

14th November 1997 at 00:00
THE PHOENIX AND THE CARPET. BBC1. Sundays. 5.00-5.30pm. From November 16.

Elaine Saunders boards her magic carpet for a new adaptation of achildren's classic

It's Guy Fawkes' Day in turn-of-the-century London. Four children, bored and in disgrace for letting off fireworks in the nursery, take delivery of a second-hand carpet. Out of the carpet rolls a peculiar egg . . . and so begins a strange and mysterious set of events.

Soon the egg gets accidentally knocked into the fireplace while the children are enacting mystical rites to make an adventure happen; and lo, the egg hatches and out of it flies an exotic golden bird - the Phoenix. (Well, not so very exotic, actually, but more of that later.) Not only can the Phoenix talk, but it explains that the carpet is of the magical kind that will transport its owners anywhere they choose - and they plunge into a series of exciting adventures, not all of which (of course) turn out how they expect.

E Nesbit's classic fantasy sequel to Five Children and It is perfect fare for Sunday tea-time viewing. Part costume drama and part adventure story, it combines live action and special effects in a convincing and effective way. The children inhabit a cosy world of middle-class comfort; a large house with complaining servants, a stern but fair father and indulgent mother preoccupied with the baby's cough and making visits.

Amid all this conventionality the arrival of the Phoenix causes havoc - David Suchet as the voice of the Phoenix conveys perfectly that bird's vanity, short-temper and eloquence. The physical appearance of the bird is more that of beaked kangaroo than a legendary beauty; it rolls its head and eyes in a superior manner, however, and graciously allows the boy Robert to tuck it into his jacket when they go out. Its flight is more elegant, due to the animation techniques, and generally the child actors interact realistically with its terrestrial puppet self.

Miriam Margolyes plays the "Oirish" cook, whom the children dislike and soon manage to transport to a desert island inhabited by savages, but the adults are mainly, as in all the best stories, kept in the background. The children make convincing Edwardians; the girls play with tea-sets and get teased by the boys, sensible Anthea makes everyone wrap up warmly for their carpet rides and mischevious Robert nearly gets stuck in the top of a ruined tower when he goes bird-nesting.

Moral values are firmly instilled into these children; they know that, before they can keep the egg, they must first offer it back to the man who sold them the carpet (fortunately, he sends them away with a flea in their ears, otherwise there would be no story). The Phoenix has asked them not to reveal his presence to their parents, but we know that Anthea at least is going to have a problem with that instruction; her conscience will one day get the better of her. The younger girl Jane is slightly irritating - but then perhaps she is supposed to be. Her role is to cry while the others try to keep her spirits up. But it is certainly the Phoenix who steals the show; his personality dominates even if his plumage is less than splendid.

The series doesn't rely on flashy special effects for its impact, but the scene where the carpet takes the children on their first journey over the roof-tops of London, under bridges and across rivers, is genuinely magical; we feel the bumpiness of the ride, the exhilaration of skimming just above ground level, the sensation of wind whipping through hair. The Psammead, the star of Five Children and It, also makes a guest appearance. He rescues the children from near-disaster - because of course there is no magic that doesn't have conditions attached, and this carpet's drawback is that it can only grant three wishes a day. The children, naturally, weren't listening when the Phoenix told them this essential fact and their wishes run out at the bottom of a spooky tower. This is the first indication that their experiences with the carpet - and with the Phoenix - may not be quite an unmixed delight; and the cliff-hanging end to the first episode, where the irascible cook is left on the desert island with savages peering out from the bushes, suggests that the children may have cause to regret their impulsiveness.

This serial has got off to a tremendous start, and I'm looking forward to enjoying the rest of the carpet's travels.

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