Tales of Beatrix Potter Review

Peter Rabbit and ballet come together in this release of The Royal Ballet’s 1971 feature…

As a parent, I’m all too aware of those instances in which I’m doing something with my children not because they’ll necessarily enjoy it but because it’s good for them. This Boxing Day past, there we were standing on the beach in the fading light as 50mph winds battered us. My youngest, aged two, had long given up attempting to walk against the winds and was being carried whilst my eldest two were looking miserable after being caught by the wind and the incoming tide and had fallen into the freezing cold Irish sea. They were wet, cold and very, very sad. Still, as I told myself, we’re working off that big Boxing Day dinner and getting some fresh, though briny, air. This experience is one that will do us some good.

There is something similar about reading the Beatrix Potter short stories. If you can manage to tear your children away from the likes of Lauren Child, Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler and Ian Whybrow/Adrian Reynolds, there’s the feeling of doing some good, as though the reading of The Tales of Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and the Flopsy Bunnies were not only instructive – one senses that children need to see beyond a limited world view of Bratz Forever Diamondz, Power Rangers: SPD and Pirates Of The Caribbean – but that, in doing so, we are somehow preserving part of not only the English national heritage but a literary heritage. As a parent, one feels a certainly responsibility to keep these works alive.

In coming to The Tales Of Beatrix Potter, one gets that feeling once again, that it’s not only right and proper to introduce one’s children to the works of Potter but that ballet might offer them a glimpse of high art, one that they might actually appreciate. Unfortunately, such good intentions are not always met with a child entirely sympathetic with them. The actual feature in question was produced in 1971, during which year the Royal Ballet filmed their performance from the year before of a ballet based around the books of Beatrix Potter. Choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, who casts himself as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, and with music composed by John Lanchbery, this takes a rather inventive view of Potter’s tale by having her creations coax her away from her writing desk to marvel at the fun to be had dancing about her Lakeland home. Given that she eventually gave up writing altogether for a life raising Herdwick sheep, one suspects that Beatrix Potter didn’t find it very difficult to leave her writing behind but here the author (Erin Geraghty) is almost dragged out of her home by Peter Rabbit (Alexander Grant), Pigling Bland (Alexander Grant, again), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Ann Howard), Squirrel Nutkin (Wayne Sleep) and Jeremy Fisher (Michael Coleman) for a pirouette through her tales.

The stories are all those that you might expect, being those of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Pigling Bland, Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin with the ballet sticking closely to each story. Hence, Peter Rabbit busies himself with stealing vegetables from a garden, Pigling Bland tries to find his way to market and Jemima Puddle-Duck has a meeting with a very cunning fox. Attempting to add character to the creations, the ballerinas and danseurs are costumed by designer Rostislav Douboujinsky to look like the animals they are portraying. So Alexander Grant doesn’t only move in the manner of what the Royal Ballet thinks a rabbit might do but is wearing Peter Rabbit’s little blue jacket, pointe shoes and a mask. It does look very cumbersome but given that the average ballet dancer is, by several orders, more nimble than you or I, they cope surprisingly well, particularly Alexander Grant and Michael Coleman. That said, it’s still a peculiar moment on first seeing the figure of a dancer approach the screen tip-toeing through the countryside of the Lake District.

However, it does become even more peculiar on seeing Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, being the first Potter character on the screen, close-up for expressive though these dancers are, the lack of movement in the masks does become a problem. A perfect example is the cunning fox’s locking Jemima Puddle-Duck in her shed. The wringing of his hands suggest that he will eventually eat her, the music also, but his mask is exactly the same as it was when he had been happily dancing with her earlier. Similarly, Jemima Puddle-Duck reveals very fear even as the fox wars up a pot of water and plucks feathers from her back. I would rather that they had used make-up rather than masks for fine though this dancing is, one misses the expression in the faces of the dancers. Unfortunately, there’s no sign of caricature or of character in the masks, with it being a very odd sight when a dancer with a reasonably accurate mask of a pig dances en pointe across a kitchen floor.

I can’t help but feel that a release like this one will appeal to a particular type of parent, one who wants to instill in their children a love of the arts, of classic literature and, in those rare moments, instances where the two come together. I can’t imagine said child being very happy as a result of that upbringing, trotting along with their parents to watch this whilst secretly hoping for a showing of Cars instead. Much as I do actually love ballet, I didn’t enjoy this very much, finding it lacking the passion that one sees in a performance of, for example, La Sylphide, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle or even The Nutcracker, being another children’s favourite. And, try as I might, I couldn’t really get my children, not even my six-year-old girl who does ballet, to enjoy it very much either.

With an aspect ratio of 1.6 within a 1.78:1 frame, this isn’t bad but does look very soft throughout, particularly when presented on a reasonably big screen. Even watching a small part of it on a window on a PC monitor, it didn’t look that strong an image and although some of it was shot of fairly drab sets, there are some quite impressive images in it that could have done with an improved transfer. The bitrate, though reasonable, does lead to some noise in the picture but colours are good and rich throughout. The music, which should be a strong point of this release, isn’t particularly good, lacking warmth and sounding brittle at times. Generally, one wishes it to soar throughout but it doesn’t, hamstrung by a poor mix rather than any fault of composer John Lanchbery.

There are no extras on this release.

Ballet has not been fairly represented on DVD. Actually, it’s not fairly represented at all in the popular arts, with the BBC, for example, only permitting it a couple of hours over Christmas for a showing of the latest efforts of the Royal Ballet. Unfortunately, what with the political views of dancer Simone Clarke getting written about much more than the ballet she was performing in the London Coliseum these past few days (Giselle), that position looks likely to stay. So, I welcome this on DVD to have some ballet but am disappointed that it’s not a more choice production.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jan 17, 2007

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