With a recession biting harder than a cat’s jaws closing over a dangling piece of tinsel, those who have never heard of a 1952 book by Mary Norman or a BBC series of the early 1990s might be forgiven for thinking that The Borrowers is a drama based around the financial misery that has engulfed Planet Earth. It isn’t, of course – it’s a Christmas fantasy about tiny people existing in peaceful secrecy alongside their normal-sized human neighbours – and yet, it is.
Unlike the Sunday teatime serial of twenty years ago, which remained faithful to the original period setting, this new co-production by the BBC and Working Title has moved the fiction forward from the fifties and set it in the modern age: webcams, laptops, remote control planes and – most pertinently – house repossession, credit crisis and the scarcity of jobs all abound in Ben Vanstone’s witty script.
Like a quality Disney Pixar movie, there are plenty of references that will shoot over the heads of the children and make parents nudge each other and alternately smile, raise their eyebrows or look concerned at an uncomfortable truth. But if this makes it all sound a bit po-faced and horribly adult, fear not; the cultural resonances of 2011 are just one strand of a story that retains all the enchantment and excitement of the original source material.
‘It’s a coming of age story,’ says director Tom Harper, speaking at a preview screening in London earlier this week. ‘It’s a story about what it’s like to be brave; it’s sort of timeless … a wonderful, magical idea.’ The tale concentrates on a specific family of little people, the Clocks: father Pod (Christopher Eccleston), mother Homily (Sharon Horgan) and rebellious teenage daughter Arrietty (Aisling Loftus).
Bored with her comfortable but dull existence, Arrietty longs for adventure and the company of people her own age – and soon she finds both in spades. ‘It was The Borrowers,’ Loftus explains, ‘but it felt like we were making a bloody action movie!’
Arrietty inadvertently betrays the existence of the Borrowers to James (Charlie Hiscock), a little boy who lives with his grandmother (Victoria Wood) and father (Shaun Dooley). Unhappy since the death of his mother, and lonely because his dad is out all the time, looking for work, James is enthralled by the discovery of the tiny folk under the floor – but so is scientist Professor Mildeye (Stephen Fry), who is obsessed with homo sapiens reductus and intends to capture some living specimens, making himself a legend in scientific circles in the process.
Mildeye’s pursuit of the Clock family through both the subterranean tunnels they inhabit and the frighteningly huge normal-sized human world provides the basis of Arrietty’s perilous exploits, and Loftus handles what is essentially a starring role with aplomb. Fry is equally superb in a role with a delightfully Roald Dahl-esque combination of nastiness and charm.
‘I thought Stephen Fry would be awesome,’ Ben Vanstone says. ‘I wrote it with him in mind and he did it.’ The scenes between Mildeye and Mrs Driver, Victoria Wood’s character, are a particular highlight, with Fry paradoxically camping it up in a straight role as he flirts with ‘the platinum blonde bombshell’.
Happily – for younger viewers – this isn’t the only romantic element. When the Clocks are forced out of their reclusive existence, they return to an abandoned London Underground station containing a whole city of Borrowers. Here, Arrietty meets Spiller (Robert Sheehan) – a redeemable cross between Twilight‘s Edward Cullen and Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause who rides a toy motorbike and wears a red leather jacket. Arrietty, in a classic teenage love story twist, fancies and hates the too-cool-for-miniature-school Borrower who has ‘Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff’ tattooed onto his throat in equal measure.
‘It’s quite roguish to have a tat on your neck,’ Sheehan says. ‘We thought it gave Spiller a more rebellious streak.’ The former Misfits star gives an irresistibly impish performance and Tom Harper – who has worked on the E4 series in the past – knew who he wanted for the role immediately. ‘As soon as I read the script, I wanted Robbie to play Spiller. He exudes Spiller.’
The overriding theme of The Borrowers – both for the Clocks and for James, his dad and his gran – is the importance of kith and kin. ‘Your natural trajectory through life is to escape your family,’ Ben Vanstone says, ‘but you’re always drawn back.’ It’s a perfect summation of a story which, with its wondrous fantasy elements, teenage romance, action-adventure and subtle, knowing sense of humour, really is ideal festive viewing for the whole family.
Airs at 7.30pm on Boxing Day 2011 on BBC One.
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