Streetwise circus drama proves an 'ard act to follow

7th March 1997 at 00:00
True Tilda, BBC1 Sundays 5.00-5.30pm, From March 16

Take a circus girl, a mislaid orphan of good birth and a villain in a dog collar, set them in the smoky Midlands of Edwardian England, add numerous colourful characters, and you have the ingredients of True Tilda, BBC1's new six-part serial for children.

True Tilda is based on a novel written in 1908 by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, poet, novelist, academic and inspiration for the character of Ratty in Wind in the Willows. His book is built around a classic child-chase plot. Ten-year-old Tilda, a circus acrobat, rescues Arthur Miles Chandon from an orphanage of Dickensian gloom run by the Reverend Glasson. The clergyman, believing Arthur to be the heir to a fortune, sets off in pursuit.

Tilda, aided by Dolph, who proves that dogs, not diamonds, are a girl's best friend, evades the clergyman with the help of a lovelorn bargee, two travelling actors, a bearded lady and a rich American painter trying to get his brushes round the new-fangled Impressionist style.

On their quest to discover the secret of Arthur's past, the pair live out many childhood dreams. They travel on a barge, visit fairgrounds, ride in an early fast car, act in a circus and generally get to boss the grown-ups about.

As ingredients for a children's drama, these are hard to fault, but the resulting mixture is disappointing. The book was adapted by Richard Carpenter who has Catweazle and The Borrowers on a distinguished CV. Nevertheless, the plot of Tilda is complicated and, certainly at the start, hard to follow. And the story often lacks pace and excitement: you rarely doubt that Tilda will outwit her enemy, particularly as every adult she encounters turns out to have a heart of gold - and somewhere for the children to hide.

Fairground life is fairy-tale stereotype in True Tilda, all sawdust, applause and good folks supporting each other through thick and thin. Richard Carpenter has emphasised this by opting for the predictable fantasy ending. His decision to depart so drastically from Quiller-Couch's original is in interesting contrast to the production company's efforts to make the series look authentic down to the last obsessive detail.

Morgan Bell struggles bravely with the part of Tilda, and, if her portrayal of the chipper circus girl caught between a rock and an 'ard place is stilted, it is not really her fault. Quiller-Couch, whose book is being reprinted by Hodder to coincide with the TV series, created a character wincingly wise beyond her years. He intended her to be plucky but she often appears precocious - a fault accentuated by the serial's determination to portray her as a streetwise kid.

The rest of the cast have an easier time of it. The Rev Glasson is played with sinister panache by John Shrapnel. Isla Blair and Des Barritt are good fun as the hard-up travelling actors, though it is doubtful if children will make much sense of the constant Shakespearian references or the rather bolted-on Tempest theme.

Quiller-Couch's tale of a brave circus girl had cartwheeled gracefully into obscurity before being rediscovered by Hodder. Whether it merits being back in the spotlight, is, as Tilda would say, an 'ard question to put yer mind to.

Audio tape and book published by Hodder, price Pounds 7.99 and Pounds 4.50

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