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Tom Brown's tale as fresh as ever

The expression of fear is familiar from every classroom anti-bullying video. Whether on the face of the victim of a text-message bully or in the eyes of a boy being forcibly roasted over an open fire.

Tom Brown's Schooldays, a new ITV adaptation of the 1857 Thomas Hughes novel set at Rugby school, tells a very contemporary story: one of victims who overcome their tormentors.

"I'm going to make your time here a complete and utter misery," fifth-form bully Flashman spits at Tom Brown, the plucky new kid. He may not add a scathing "lo-serrr!", but the effect is the same. Into this fray enters Thomas Arnold, the new headmaster. The viewer immediately knows what kind of man he is by the fact that he is holding a copy of the Greek philosopher Theucidides works. He is also played by Stephen Fry, the only actor who might plausibly own a copy of Theucidides.

He makes for a convincingly human Arnold, banning gambling and drinking among pupils, yet mistakenly caning a doe-eyed boy for telling the truth.

But against a backdrop of cynical old beaks ("boys should discipline themselves. It readies them for the responsibilities of the empire"), he epitomises the moral courage of the archetypal Christmas hero. Equally Tom, impressively played by Alex Pettyfer, is the archetypal Christmas boy-hero.

Green-eyed and tousle-haired, he resists the temptations of evil, to find his inner goodness.

Flashman, played by Joseph Beattie, is pure ueber-cool villain. He beats small boys. He ravishes wenches. And he cheats in fights, because (guess what?) like all bullies, he is a coward.

Nonetheless, the film is remarkably well-shot, and there is genuine suspense. When a boy almost drowns, the viewer sees what he sees, and feels his fear. And when Tom and Flashman fight, there is real tension.

Inevitably, Tom Brown is Christmas twee. There is a warm, fuzzy moral, followed by an ending that works the tear-ducts. It is what the season demands. You smile, weep, and turn over to watch Morecambe and Wise.

Tom Brown's Schooldays will be shown on ITV1 on New Year's day.www.thearnoldfoundation.net

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