Worthy of an Oscar

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
A revamped socialist tale of wealth redistribution leaves Arnold Evans reaching for the Kleenex. THE MIX THE HAPPY PRINCE Channel 4 Monday November 18 25 11.15 -11.30am

Rpt Wednesdays 11.15 -11.30am Age range: 7-11

It will be a great shame if The Happy Prince is only ever shown in the schools broadcasting slot. Like the cartoon version of Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, this delightful marriage of music and animation is ideal family viewing - providing there is plenty of Kleenex handy. There won't be a dry eye in the house.

It's billed as an opera and that genuinely is what it is: not a story interspersed with songs, but a coherent musical whole. It will reveal to children just how effectively music can delineate character, create atmosphere and trigger a range of emotions. It's music that 7 to 11-year-olds will find accessible. Indeed, a simplified score and truncated script included in the teacher's notes will enable them to perform their own version of the work.

What they won't be able to do is re-create the visual impact of Alan Platt's animation. The story is told against a constantly changing backdrop. There are sweeping panoramic views of a Victorian city, and telling details that evoke its splendour and squalor. It's a pastiche of the London that would have been all too familiar to Oscar Wilde who wrote the original story.

The cast are puppets - the kind that are filmed one frame at a time. They are are ideally suited to a tale, not about psychological subtleties, but the unequal struggle between selflessness and greed. They also contribute to the dream-like quality of the piece.

For instance, in the artificiality of the palace, the automata in the music box seem more real than the people; when the action switches to the banks of the Nile, the puppets suddenly resemble the two-dimensional figures of Ancient Egyptian art. And, in this never-never land, it comes as no surprise that a burst of ragtime should have the cakes in the bakers' window breaking into dance.

But it is, perhaps, the story itself that will most captivate a young audience. This is dear Oscar in socialist rather than socialite mode, exposing the appalling inequalities of Victorian society. His observations seem as pertinent today as they ever were.

The hedonist swallow is about to fly off to the warmer climes of Egypt when he strikes up a conversation with the statue of The Happy Prince that dominates the city skyline.

Despite his smile, the Prince reveals that he is grief-stricken. Doomed to watch over the town, he has been forced to witness countless examples of man's inhumanity to man. He begs the swallow to help him carry out an exercise in wealth redistribution. The swallow obligingly plucks precious stones from the Prince's sword hilt and eyes and delivers them to the deserving poor. But he has to then face an awesome choice: in order to complete his good works, he will have to abandon his plan to migrate and thus face certain death when winter arrives. In a touching scene, free of heroics or grand gestures, he decides that he must stay.

He dies, of course, but not before he has removed everything of value from the statue and reduced it to an unsightly piece of junk. Unthanked, unloved and unrecognised, the statue and the swallow are consigned to the city incinerator. It's true that their elevation to heaven does offer some sort of happy ending, but the story doesn't flinch from the unpalatable lesson that in this earthly life, virtue has to be its own reward. Any audience - not only children - will be left with a burning sense of outrage. This is what makes The Happy Prince so much more than a pleasant entertainment: it's a timely contribution to any syllabus that aims to embrace issues of moral and social responsibility.

ITV schedulers should note that the show is already divided into two parts which makes it easy for them to pop in a commercial break when they give it a prime time slot - preferably on Christmas Eve when we are most likely to be receptive to that unlikeliest of propositions: "It is more blessed to give than to receive".

* Teacher's pack Pounds 3.95, illustrated hardback story book Pounds 9. 99. Both available from Channel 4 Learning. Tel: 01926 433333

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