The young pretender comes to town

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
Anna Home, head of BBC Children's Television, gave a hefty kick start to the festive season at the beginning of this month in launching a Pounds 22 million package of winter programmes which is rich, varied and distinctive.

Even the real pleasure of the series of Just William, which ended last week, pales beside what is to come in the form of another classic lad of literature, Francis Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy, dramatised afresh in six parts for Sunday tea-time on BBC1 from New Year's Day.

Hodgson Burnett's story of the humble, amiable New York boy transported to England to be groomed for an earldom, only to find a pretender to the coronet entering the frame, is a classic in its own right. Week in, week out, this is a production to be savoured. Every detail of mood, period and character has been precisely captured and the narrative carries you irresistibly forward.

"People tend to think of the book as a soppy story," said Anna Home, "but it really is not" and she is absolutely right. Part of the success of this dramatisation is its lack of excess sentimentality.

Both Julian Fellowes, who adapted the story, and Andrew Morgan, who directed it, must take credit for this but the main credit lies in the leading performances. George Baker tosses to one side any hint of Inspector Wexford to become immediately the wonderfully-encrusted Lord Dorincourt, at once both gruff and tender.

At 12 years old, Michael Benz creates a Cedric Errol (or Lord Fauntleroy) who is neither cloying nor simpering, but bright and likeable. Known to children already as Mike in ITV's Mike and Angelo comedy series (which returns in the New Year), there is no reminder in his Fauntleroy of any other role.

This boy is, in this context, a most polished performer, a masterful actor. English-born and brought up, but with an American accent, he shows in this production that he can outpace "Home Alone" hero Macauley Culkin.

There is a particular chemistry between him and George Baker and Betsy Brantley, who plays his mother, which is both powerful and convincing and is perhaps a key element in the production.

John Castle's dry performance as Haversham, the Earl's solicitor, is measured and Betsy Brantley's Mrs Errol carries with easy grace the tasteful good looks and fond strength of the book's Mrs Errol.

Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, in a fine English summer, provides magnificent exteriors for much of the drama, which are finely matched by the designed interior and glorious costumes. What a flying start to 1995 this gives.

Such is the quality of this serial that it inevitably stole the show at the Children's BBC winter season launch. But there is more, much more than that to come at the tail end of this year and the start of next year and the range is impressive.

What distinguishes Children's BBC from its rivals is its range and its commitment to "real" television for children, rather than blatant reliance on wall-to-wall animation and imports for ratings benefit. This is true commitment to the public service aspect of the BBC charter. Whether in work of high literary or dramatic standard, whether in newscasting or documentary-making for children, you find in this department a serious commitment to the best interests of children.

The strong literary theme is carried on by the technologically highly-sophisticated dramatisation of Alan Garner's fantasy Elidor, serialised in six parts from Wednesday, January 4. Jackanory returns for its 29th season on Tuesday January 3 a season which includes a fine rendering of Treasure Island by Christopher Guard to mark the Robert Louis Stevenson centenary, The Iron Man specially commissioned from Ted Hughes and Morris Gleitzman's Puppy Fat delivered by Paul Merton.

In matters of fact as well as fiction, CBBC is uniquely strong. Newsround Extra's new season deals with "Children of the New South Africa", elephant culling, rollercoaster, arson in British schools and the use of child soldiers in war.

As Seen On TV shows the world through the eyes of the children themselves and returns on January 8 to BBC2. On the lighter side of life in childhood, Bodger and Badger return on January 9; the frenzied Incredible Game moves to BBC1 on January 10 and Helen Lederer comes for Amusement Only to BBC2 from January 29. There is also a new observation quiz for smaller children, Look Sharp, on Saturday from January 7.

BBC Children's Books is reissuing Little Lord Fauntleroy in paperback in January at Pounds 3.99; BBC Radio Collection is issuing a double story cassette, read by George Baker, at Pounds 7.99

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