When it puts its mind to it, the BBC can make some marvellous television for older children. While it appears to have let its Archive Children's Television DVD releases dry up in recent years, though not before it issued The Box Of Delights, The Chronicles Of Narnia (soon to be re-issued), The Borrowers, Five Children And It and The Secret Garden, there's still so very much in its archives that one wishes they were a lot more consistent, just to prove to anyone who might still doubt how capable they are of producing children's drama. The pity of the CBBC/CBeebies channels is that while there's plenty of comedy/sci-fi shows, including MI High and The Sarah Jane Adventures, dramatisations of children's books, or those for young adults, are rather thinner on the ground.
Clay, then, is quite the rarity. Shown this past Easter on BBC1 and adapted from the book by David Almond, which was first published in 2005, Clay is the story of Davie Egan (Harry McEntire), a Catholic altar boy in the north-east of England in 1965. His best friend is Geordie (Niek Versteeg) and in between kicking football down the alleyways and filching communion wine from the sacristy, they plot ways of staying out of the way of Martin 'Mouldy' Mould (Darren Howie), the town bully. Davie is pursued by Maria (Sacha Parkinson), who makes eyes at him during communion while all the talk in school is of church, of football and of The Beatles going to the palace to pick up their MBEs.
Into this town arrives Stephen Rose (Ben Davies), a young man not much older than Davie and Geordie but who has recently left theological college, apparently under something of a dark cloud. Stephen has moved in with his Aunt Mary (Imelda Staunton), a woman less-than-affectionately known as Crazy Mary, and Davie and Geordie are told by Davie's mother to go around and welcome the new boy. Stephen, though, is a charismatic lad and welcomes the two Catholic altar boys into his shed, in which he claims he is doing God's work. At first, this is the crafting of figurines of the apostles in clay, which are proven in the oven and presented to Father O'Mahoney (Ian McElhinney). But having seen the wickedness in the town, Stephen has more ambitious plans for his figures, a life size man, made of clay, who he can control and who he will use to help Davie take his revenge on Mouldy.
That Stephen Rose creates a monster out of clay to do his bidding and what with the religious overtones, albeit Catholicism instead of Judaism, David Almond's book is a retelling of the tale of the Golem created by Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, first crafted out of clay to protect Josefov from anti-semitic attacks. In Clay, the creature is made to defend Davie and his friends from attacks from Martin Mould. Instead of the writings from the Torah that were used to bring Rabbi Loew's creature to life, Stephen and Davie use communion wafers and wine, being, as Stephen says, the body and blood of Christ after the miracle of transubstantiation in that morning's mass. They dress in a mockery of priest's robes to try to make their creation alive and mimic the mass by lighting candles around their clay man. Clay, as Davie calls what it is they have made, does come alive, or at least it is suggested that it does, but Davie isn't sure that a monster to take revenge on Mouldy is what he wanted.
No matter that its original scheduling suggested that Clay was suitable for children, it is not. Not that there's very much in it that would frighten younger viewers, except maybe for the sight of Clay late in the film, more that it's the tone of the material that would leave them confused. This is a film that features characters some way through puberty and with that comes feelings of sexual attraction, of young adults expressing themselves as individuals and about making their own decisions, all the while being still tied to the silly rituals and games that children play at. Davie and Geordie might kick about and meet Mouldy in a graveyard at midnight for a truce but Davie is taken with Maria and the two of them form the kind of relationship that sees them holding hands and walking through the market together. With Clay being set in 1965, these children are still very innocent but Stephen acts as something of a corrupting influence to that. He steals things from his aunt Mary, including a set of rosary beads and their silver case that belonged to her mother, but uses suggestion and hypnosis to make her believe otherwise. Stephen also encourages Davie to do the same. In full sight of both Maria and Mouldy, he kisses Davie on the cheek, not out of any sexual attraction, but to drive more of a wedge between Davie and the town and to bring him closer in spirit to Stephen. For a time it has the desired effect with Mouldy telling Davie that he's seen him, "lovey-dovey stuff" while Maria breaks off their brief boyfriend/girlfriend thing.
Where most of the confusion may come, though, is in realising what it is that Stephen is doing. It is only Davie who sees him bring his clay creatures to life, not only Clay the Golem but also a clay worm and a lump of misshapen mud that appears to move. But with Stephen being gifted at having others act on his word, shown most clearly when he has his aunt dance the hokey-cokey in her kitchen and continually bless herself, it's never really explained if Clay has actually become alive or that Davie has succumbed to the power of suggestion. Either way, when strange things begin to happen in the town, Davie becomes frightened and lashes out violently. Neither are the events in Clay neatly summed up with a happy ending. The motives behind Stephen's actions are never explained and the reason why he was forced to theological college is never spoken of. Even the parish priest simply describes him as a troubled boy.
In the end, there are no answers, simply that something terrible has happened and while Davie returns to normal life, kicking a football about with Geordie and meeting Maria in the market, he's been changed by the experience. A revenge-driven horror story, a coming-of-age drama with all of the emotional conflicts that that implies or a religious tale about tampering with the actions of God. Clay is probably all of those things and proof that somebody is prepared to take a risk on making drama for older children that's neither patronising nor overly concerned with the need to look and feel modern. I wouldn't expect them to like it, probably thinking it far too much like work, but it's a fine drama and the very thing that the BBC should be using its CBBC channel for.
This looks the best of the recent 2 Entertain releases that I've been watching. What makes this all the better is that given how dark Clay is and how often it takes place in a cave lit only by candlelight, which the DVD handles without any note of concern. With much regard to this setting, the DVD does well by the story's atmosphere. There is a brown tone to the picture throughout, or sepia if one is being particularly kind, with the dull sights of a northern town giving way to dark caves, a quarry that is barely lit by the moon and streets that are almost deserted. Throughout it all, the quality of the encoding is very detail. The sharpness in the picture is notable, particularly so in the detail that accompanies Stephen and Davie giving life to Clay.
That scene is also a good demonstration of the quality of the DD2.0 audio track. Through a Pro-Logic decoder, there is some clear use of the rear channels but what's more impressive is the warmth of the track, be it in the stillness in the church, the stomp of boots in the playground or the deep confusion in Clay's voice as Stephen and Davie give him conflicting orders. Everything sounds authentic, as real, I suppose, as a Golem would sound. Finally and unlike most 2 Entertain releases, there are no subtitles on this disc.
The only bonus material on this disc is a Photo Gallery.