Looking Back At THE BORROWERS (1992) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE BORROWERS (1992)

Tony fears being seen.
The Borrowers, the book by Mary Norton published in 1952, is a staggering work of beautiful genius. There need be no quibbling about this – it won the Carnegie Medal the year it was published, and in 2007, for the 70th anniversary celebration of the medal, it was judged one of the top 10 recipients.

It took the simple, universal human experience of losing things, seemingly forever, within a domestic environment (“I swear I only put it down just now!”), and not only explained it, but used it as the source of a whole world unseen by humans. In any house, as well as spiders in the eaves and mice in the wainscoting, there might be Borrowers – tiny people who make their lives and their civilisation by picking up things that are left unguarded, and using them for their own, much smaller purposes – a pocket watch becoming a Borrower’s kitchen clock, a doll’s house teacup serving the Borrowers of a household to a… well, to a tea, naturally.
But underneath this genius idea, Norton also wove in elements of a society in decline. In the book, all the Borrowers that used to live in various parts of the same house have emigrated, one family or tribe after another, making for ‘the other side of the world’ – even if in human terms, that’s just a few fields away. One thing or another has made their continued lives in the house untenable, from The Thing That Happened To Cousin Eggletina – a tragedy that cannot be spoken of, but a tragedy with claws – to the ultimate existential threat: Being Seen by one of the Big People.

When a Borrower is Seen, the world of all the Borrowers in a house is thrown into turmoil and terror – floorboards are prized up, traps are set for anything that might be small and uninvited, and usually, fewer Borrowers are left than before when the panic dies down. That kind of pressure has driven most of the surviving Borrowers to leave The House.

Only the Clock family is left – Pod, the father, Homily, the mother, and endlessly curious but unfortunately sheltered Arriety, their ‘teenage’ daughter.

The first book (The Borrowers became a series of 5 novels and a posthumous prequel adventure story, as told by Homily to Arriety before the main action of The Borrowers begins) shows us the interlayered worlds of the Big People and the Borrowers, and at the risk of bringing down a great children’s fantasy that can be read entirely in and of itself with enormous pleasure, if you read it as an adult, you can also read it as an allegory of oppressed people in a totalitarian regime (the world of the Big People), who can make a living only so long as they stay under the radar of the State, and where Being Seen can bring deadly consequences.

It’s also a story of teenage curiosity and innocent trust, and how well-meaning gestures can bring chaos and havoc into those under-the-radar lives, but sometimes can also act as a wake-up call. Arriety, protected from the world ‘Upstairs,’ meets a Big People Boy, and the world of the Clock family…is never the same again.

So much for the book. Staggering work of beautiful genius. Go read.

Here’s the thing. The Borrowers has been brought to both large and small screens several times. Each time, it’s had an absolutely diamond quality cast. There’s a version with John Goodman, Jim Broadbent, Celia Imrie and Hugh Laurie in. There’s a version with Christopher Eccleston, Stephen Fry, and Victoria Wood, on which trinity of staggering British talent it would be difficult to improve.

The 1992 TV version surpasses them all.

Sorry. It just does.
On the one hand, it’s no slouch in its own right when it comes to casting actors of sheer heart-bursting British talent. Ian Holm stars as Pod, Penelope Wilton as Homily, and a young Rebecca Callard as Arriety. The cast also includes the formidable Sian Philips, and the eternal script-helper, David Ryall among its number. So, purely on the basis of top-quality British acting, the 1992 TV Borrowers is already batting hard and high.

But that’s not really what makes it the best version of The Borrowers ever committed to screen.

No, what does that is the screenwriting.

You see, you can do almost anything with The Borrowers – as has been shown, sometimes to advantage, other times distinctly not – by some of the adaptations that have been made of it.

But the 1992 TV Borrowers had not just one great writer behind it – the impeccable Mary Norton having written the original novel. Every production has had that. The 1992 TV Borrowers had two great writers behind it. The Mary Norton original is all there in the set-up, the story, the charm, the genius idea. And then it’s overlayed with the screenwriting of Richard Carpenter.

Richard Carpenter, for those who think they know the name but can’t quite place him, invented Catweazle for TV. He wrote The Ghosts of Motley Hall for TV between 1976-78. He wrote the classic Dick Turpin series for Richard O’Sullivan. He wrote 17 full episodes of The Adventures of Black Beauty for ITV. He wrote the frankly childhood-shaping The Boy From Space for the BBC’s Look And Read series. Oh, and then there was Robin of Sherwood. To, y’know, stop him getting bored during the Eighties.

Richard Carpenter was one of those largely unsung geniuses of television writing that, when you tot up his successes, makes you yearn for a career like theirs.

And then, in 1992, he wrote the definitive screen version of The Borrowers.

What did he bring to it that wasn’t already in the Mary Norton version? Relatable relationships through dialogue, that’s what. Half an hour into his Borrowers, the relationships between the three members of the Clock family are as believable as anything on any soap opera anywhere - or any prime-time drama, come to that.
The indulgent father, doing whatever he can do to keep his family safe and together against a backdrop of societal change, with fewer and fewer people of their kind to talk to. The fretful mother and wife, her nerves twanging at the slightest thing, but always most fearful when her husband goes out into the wild. And Arietty, sensitive to the vibrations of things not said, pressing on no-go areas and asking the questions that must not be asked.

When Arietty meets the Boy in the Richard Carpenter version of the story, it’s a study in pure innocence and the questions that come with it, Rebecca Callard almost breaking your heart with her hope of contacting her relatives on ‘the other site of the world,’ without every feeling like it was written or played to push your heartbreak-buttons.
Are we…gonna talk about the effects, at all?

Sure we are. There’s a lot of great work involved in constructing the world in which the Borrowers and the Big People interact in the 1992 TV version. So much so, it won the 1992 Royal Television Society Award for design, and subsequently the 1993 BAFTA for design, too. There’s a dedication to detail that for the most part makes you forget the construction of what you’re looking at, and totally buy into the world of the Borrowers.

Bolstered by the writing of Morton and Carpenter, the top-level performances, and some joyous direction by John Henderson, what you get is an immersive, believable experience of being small enough to live underneath a clock in a country house.

And yes, fine, absolutely, we’ll cop to it – sometimes the CSO flickers a little – bear in mind you’re looking at a program from what is already 30 years ago, and don’t judge those flickers by your modern visual standards. The flickers are fairly rare, considering what you’re watching, and they are overwhelmed on every level – design, scriptwriting, performance, everything.

The Borrowers have been enchanting, warning, and welcoming Big People into their world for almost 70 years. The 1992 TV version is probably the pinnacle of their storytelling power on screen. Almost 30 years on, it hasn’t been bettered.

70 years from now, it probably still won’t have been.

Watch The Borrowers today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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