You can always tell when someone has read Cider with Rosie.
You mention it and they get that soft stare in their eyes and start talking in ways that mimic Laurie Lee’s lyrical style, as they recall summers as runny and green as elderflower cordial, and days spent young and easy under the apple boughs. Oh look I’m at it now too. Actually I think I nicked some of that from Dylan Thomas…
But that’s how good Laurie ‘Lol’ Lee’s prose it. Rich and golden and inspirational. It’s nectar for the brain every time you read or remember it.
‘Remembering is to relive, to be in the same moment all over again,’ groans Timothy Spall in his narration as the elderly Lee, and in doing so sums up several generations of readership’s relationship to the book.
It’s certainly a beautiful adaptation of the novel, just as all of BBC One’s recent Sunday night 20th Century literary adaptations have been. It’s gorgeously shot, and also knowingly shot; frost on windowpanes and blossom on the old apple tree marking the passing of time as well as reinforcing that this is a story dictated as much by the natural world as the people in it.
Yet as terrifically unspoiled as the Slad Valley looks, it doesn’t pull you in and make you pine for something you think you remember but which you never had.
Sadly that’s partly (but far from entirely) because of the inexperience of the young actors, newcomers plucked straight from school and placed in front of the camera. It means they’re mercifully free of any inherited stage school ticks, but in a drama this length it also highlights their weaknesses.
There’s a charming naivety in little Georgie Smith’s performance, but once Lol grows older neither he nor any of the others playing the adolescents feel quite at ease. They lack the energy and lust and cheek and fear of being a teenager in a coming of age tale. Their emotions are explained by Timothy Spall’s guttural narration rather than glued like sweat to their hormonal faces.
But they are newcomers, and it feels unfair to criticise them. Performances from the grown-ups are good; Samantha Morton puts in careful work as the loving and vaguely strangled Annie Lee, Lol’s mother, and Jessica Hynes leaves a mark as boo-hiss school mistress ‘Crabby B’.
Giving us the broad basics of these characters, Ben Vanstone’s script is studious and economical in pressing a novel’s worth of memories into 90 minutes. And like the book it captures the strange chronology of memory well; flitting between the naivety of Lol’s childhood and the hormonal awkwardness of puberty and back again.
Like Lee was, it isn’t afraid to remind you that, amid the rolling fields and bees like cake crumbs, death was a regular poacher in the valley. I’d forgotten just how dark and morbid Cider with Rosie is, and how high the body count is.
If you’ve not read the novel in a while, this is a pleasant reminder to pick up the book. If it’s all new then it might wash over you like water on a duck’s back.
This is a competent adaptation of a classic, but against other adaptations this year, it’s little more than a summer fling beneath a hay cart.
Aired at 8.30pm on Sunday 27 September on BBC One.
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