The Georgian House Review
It’s funny the tricks the memory plays. I would have sworn blind I had never seen this particular serial when it was first transmitted in 1976 and, sure enough, the first 20 minutes were completely new to me – or so I thought. The basic premise is simple enough – a newly-restored Georgian townhouse in Bristol is about to reopen as a museum. The grizzled old custodian played by grizzled old veteran actor Jack Watson is joined by two eager young school-leavers who will act as live-in tour guides. They are Dan (Timeslip’s very own Spencer Banks) and Abbie (Adrienne Byrne). While arranging the display items the youngsters discover an old African drum which possesses mystical powers and which, without warning, takes them back in time to the house as it was in the 1770s. Fortunately for them they just happen to arrive in period costume and with a suitable cover story already in place. Abbie is a newly-arrived country cousin of the nouveau-riche Leadbetter family who live in the house and Dan is her manservant/kitchen boy.
It’s at this point that the potent memory jag kicked in – when the drum does its stuff it rotates slowly and a mysterious male voice whispers the words ‘Boy…boy’ repeatedly. Which sent shivers down my spine as I do remember this one detail very clearly. The main thrust of the plot concerns Dan and Abbie’s attempts to assist the family’s young teenage slave Ngo (Brinsley Forde) to escape his servitude and return to his native Sierra Leone as a free man. The drum is his possession and he facilitates their travels through time (they oscillate between the two time periods).
The story itself is intriguing and the serial is very fondly remembered judging by the web postings I have read. Unfortunately only three of the seven episodes are known to survive but the demand to see them again is so strong that Network have decided to release these three episodes anyway. Which will keep the serial’s many fans happy but is a bit of a problem for the casual viewer. One saving grace is that we have the first and last episodes to watch with episode three helping to fill in a little. Which makes it all the more frustrating as the story did grab my attention but as my memory of the show is so poor I was left to go by what was presented in the three episodes. On their own they are entertaining enough but it’s difficult to assess the plot developments without the intervening episodes.
Anyway from what I saw the serial had a good strong premise and a fairly good script (the work of Jill Laurimore and Harry Moore). The three teenage principals were all experienced television actors but the talent levels vary noticeably. Spencer Banks is easily the best of the three but those familiar with the specky wee boy he was in Timeslip six years earlier will now find him a lanky intense presence sporting a now-ridiculous luxuriant wig in the 1770s scenes. His first scenes with a prickly Jack Watson work well and augur much for the serial. However, things go downhill somewhat when Adrienne Byrne’s Abbie first arrives on the scene. She’s really not very good and sticks to a clichéd acting style used by many young actresses in the 1970s – wide-eyed girly enthusiasm augmented by a push-up bra. No doubt also favoured by many directors of the time… However things improve in the 1770s as the big frocks and big hair help her pull off the spoilt-young-rich-girl act very nicely. The third young principal, Brinsley Forde (a former Double-Decker) as Ngo, has an attractive physical presence but his acting belongs in an end-of-term school play.
And as is often the case with these serials, the youngsters are surrounded by a fabulous array of character actors who run circles around them. These include the aforementioned Jack Watson as the crusty old custodian and army veteran who resents Dan and Abbie’s presence. His face is instantly recognisable as he appeared in what seems like every TV show from the 60s to the 80s and featured prominently in cult favourite Sky the year before. Of the 1770s family, the mother is played by Constance Chapman (another familiar face) in an extravagant array of frocks, wigs and millinery. Her daughter (Abbie’s supposed cousin and Ngo’s mistress) is brought dazzlingly to life by a young Janine Duvitski in the most towering beehive wig imaginable, just a year before her breakthrough performance in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party.
This makes what is presented on this disc all the more frustrating. The story is intriguing and engaging and the performances of the secondary cast are captivating. Many of the plot developments are unexpected – for instance in the present day it is established that Dan is a posh private school boy and Abbie lives on a council estate (although only the dialogue gives that away as the actors’ accents are stage-school RP with a Bristolian twang). But when they arrive in the past, Abbie becomes the posh girl and Dan the servant. In the final episode, while attempting to assist Ngo, Dan makes it clear that despite the nobility of their cause (emancipation of a slave) Ngo is stretching their goodwill to the limit through his actions. What these actions are though are unclear as they all happened in the missing episodes.
There is a single disc containing all three episodes, each approx 25 minutes long. They are split into chapters which are not menu-accessible.
Transfer and Sound
Of the three episodes transferred, two (episodes one and seven) are from studio archive tapes and the third (episode three) is from an off-air recording. These three episodes are shot entirely in studio interiors on videotape. The picture and sound quality are as you would expect from a mid-70s recording. Both of the archive transfers are very stable with very occasional signs of tape damage but nothing too intrusive. However episode seven has some very awkward edits which look rather strange but must be on the master. It has to be said the plot gallops along by this point and perhaps some severe editing had to be done to squeeze it into the running time available. Episode three is taken from an off-air recording and picture and sound are noticeably inferior to the other two episodes but the eye and ear quickly adjust. Anyone used to watching old VHS tapes will have no problem as the quality is commensurate with that format
As usual for Network, there are no subtitles.
The release notes say that several pdf files with notes and scripts for the missing episodes are also on the disc but none were on my preview copy.
On the whole, based on the three episodes presented here, I would say this is a fairly sophisticated piece of fantasy drama with a solid heart. The shortcomings in the performances of the leads are more than compensated for by the captivating story, strong supporting cast and high production values. But the incompleteness of the set makes this a must-have only for devotees of the original - or Network completists. Or Janine Duvitski fans
The Georgian House is a web-exclusive and only available to buy direct from Network DVD.