Jackanory: Muddle Earth And The Magician Of Samarkand Review
There can be few children's television shows more Reithian in concept than Jackanory. Well, perhaps Johnny Ball's Think Of A Number but none more than that. For years, between December 1965 and March 1996, Jackanory educated, informed and entertained children with the reading of popular stories, brought to the screen by all manner of television presenters, not only those to which children were used - Floella Benjamin, Tony Robinson and Willie Rushton - but such grand figures of the screen and stage as Alan Bennett, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Miranda Richardson. And, of course, Bernard Cribbins and Brian Cant but there was - the memories! - a time when you couldn't move in the BBC's children's schedules without bumping into one or the other. Prince Charles, in the absence of ever getting a stint on the 3pm Christmas Day slot, even turned to Jackanory, reading his own story of The Old Man Of Lochnagar. It even, no matter any blessing from the Oxford English Dictionary, entered the language. Cry "Jackanory!" at someone during their telling of a story and watch as they defend the factual content of their tale.
One of the biggest successes of CBeebies was in its final few minutes, during which time, an actor from elsewhere in the BBC's empire would pop along to the CBeebies studio to read a short bedtime story for the pre-schoolers. Nathaniel Parker ("Hi...I'm Nat!"), Kris Marshall ("Hi...I'm Kris!") and the otherwise very stern Amanda Mealing ("Hi...I'm Mandy, er...Amanda!") all sat on the CBeebies chair to read from the CBeebies book and it was praised everywhere but for Parliament. Children loved not only the Bedtime Hour and the Lullaby Song that signaled the end of their day but these last few minutes. It was the next best thing to actually being read a bedtime story before lights out but which, for whatever reasons, wasn't always practical. All that was needed was for the Corporation to create some clear blue water between themselves and their contemporaries by bringing back the grand old man of the Reithian model of the BBC, Jackanory.
In November of 2006, they did just that, unashamedly bringing Jackanory back to BBC One in two well-staged readings of the children's books Muddle Earth and The Magician of Samarkand. Instead of the familiar Quentin Blake illustrations, there was full CG into which the actors were plonked along with narrators John Sessions and Ben Kingsley. The stories were funny, ever-so-slightly epic and fitted neatly into two twenty-minute episodes each. As a parent who can well remember the anticipation that came with having Bernard Cribbins pause the story just as he was about to reveal what it was that was behind that door, it all sounded as sweet as a syrup-and-Twix sandwich but how would it fare when looked at in the schedules alongside the likes of MI High, Raven and Tracey Beaker? Would children more used to XBox, skate parks and Girls Aloud be, well, bored?
Muddle Earth tells the story of Joe (Charlie Rowe), a young boy who, by his falling into some shrubs in a park, is transported to the magical land of Muddle Earth by the wizard Randalf. As the Narrator (John Sessions) explains, Joe (and his dog) have been brought to Muddle Earth as a great warrior-hero, one who must serve the Horned Baron in defeated a giant ogre that has been terrifying the land. First, they must go to Goblintown to get Joe kitted out - all of the more fitting armaments are much too expensive for Randalf, leaving Joe only the Wellies of Power, the Woolly Gloves of Determination and the Helmet of Sarcasm - and then onto a battle against the ogre. But the Horned Baron has further trouble in store and this one lies a little closer to home...
Meanwhile, in The Magician Of Samarkand, Anahita (Elif Yesil) is the daughter of shoemaker Kashgar (Minis Yousry). Her beauty catches not only the eye of Prince Sohrab (Gregg Chillin) but the wicked magician Zohak Ali (George Antoni). Everyone who has spurned the magician has felt his wrath, being transformed into various scruffy and mistreated creatures and Anahita is no different, being driven out of Samarkand when Zohak Ali changes her into an old woman and spreads lies about her. Running off into the mountains, Anahita hides from Zohak Ali, Prince Sohrab and her family but as the years pass, Samarkand becomes a very different place. It being time to face the evil Zohak Ali once more, Anahita leaves the mountains and returns home...
There's always the risk of sounding very precious when dealing with a series, like Jackanory, that has such a rich heritage. I do wonder if today's children might not appreciate the Jackanories of old. Perhaps they might well have been a little on the dull side. To counter that and to add to the criticism of this new series, Jackanory now does away entirely with the narrator sat in a chair and limited to the odd prop or two. The Magician Of Samarkand boasts actors, special effects and Ben Kingsley popping up behind a vast palace being built by a thousand men. The effect is actually quite impressive with both stories being brought to life thanks to an inspired design, admittedly better in The Magician Of Samarkand than in Muddle Earth but good nonetheless.
And all the while, there is a decent story with the narrator appearing on the screen, each and every turn in their reading of it adding something to it, a moment of tension, of magic, of humour or of horror. At this, John Sessions is better than Ben Kingsley, not only for the expressiveness in his reading of Muddle Earth but for the enthusiasm with which he approaches the part and his not making it look as though he were reading a story. Not that very young children will be looking but it's clear that Sessions is either very much better than Kingsley at learning the material or has simply learned to not move his eyes while reading an autocue. Sessions, in a manner that might annoy some, is obviously a good deal more excited to have been asked than Kingsley and though it's a misfortune that his story isn't a better one, it's a fine footing on which to begin Jackanory once again. These two productions brought Jackanory back in fine style with it appearing as though the BBC do not intend on resting the name of Jackanory just yet. Just this very Monday, the BBC had Kris Marshall sitting down to read the story of King Arthur, the knights of the round table and their search for the Holy Grail in Jackanory Junior. "Hi", he began, "I'm Kris!"
Like so many of these BBC DVD releases, which are handled by the Corporation, the actual presentation is very good indeed, with a DD2.0 Stereo soundtrack and a reasonably sharp picture. With a mix of basic CG, live action and hand-drawn illustrations, Jackanory is a mix of styles, none of which ever really pushes the format. Of course, the budget of the original productions lets it down a little with the CG being a good decade or so behind the Hollywood equivalent but the intention was, I suspect, to capture the imagination of the audience and it does that very well. Indeed, the whole thing, particularly The Magician Of Samarkand, looks very good, not least the production design that has Ben Kingsley peering out of darkened arches and over the parapets of Zohak Ali's palace. Like all BBC releases, this is subtitled in English, the finishing touch to a release that's a step above the average children's DVD.
As well as a Gallery for each of the two stories, which contains stills from the episodes, this disc offers a short Making Of Muddle Earth (3m36s). Given the nature of the production, this concerns itself with the CG effects more than anything else but it is, if nothing more, a nice little behind-the-scenes taster for the show.
The BBC have confirmed that Jackanory, at least when produced to this standard, will not be the kind of every-week occurrence that it was thirty years ago. Jackanory Junior is more of a bedfellow to that era of the show whereas Muddle Earth and The Magician Of Samarkand are much grander productions that will, I'm sure, only come along when a name, a story and the budget to realise it all arrive at the same time. However, the standard set by these two shows is very high and it might be a very special story that demands this treatment. Time to do The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain perhaps?