Feather Boy

Tuesday, March 23, 2004 by

After a wave of negative experiences with regards to poor writing of late, it is only fair that I doff my cap in the direction of this wonderful piece of drama that, once again, underlines the BBC’s strength of commitment to, and complete respect for, children’s television.

Adapted from the Blue Peter 2002 Book of the Year by Nicky Singer, this is already proving to be a well scripted, wonderfully acted show that promises to be an absolute gem. Considering that Grange Hill is experiencing a renaissance of late, the consistent excellence of Dick and Dom and the wonderful conversion of Tracey Beaker from book to small screen, the BBC is serving the children of the nation well in general and, with the first-rate Serious Desert at the start of the year, in 2004 in particular. Bearing in mind that, as well as the Book of the Year Award, Feather Boy also triumphed in The Book I Couldn’t Put Down category, this is a serious and delicate undertaking by the BBC given that this book is wildly popular amongst its core audience.

Feather Boy is the story of a Robert, a confused young lad dealing with the divorce of his parents and being subjected to bullying at school. Haunted by strange dreams of the future as well as the past, Robert meets Edith Sorrel who guides him in the unfolding adventure he finds himself entangled in. Fairly standard stuff you may say, but it is handled with robust sensitivity and compassion and has stamped its presence on the minds of primary schoolchildren already as must-watch television. And, after catching today’s excellent episode, I must throw my not inconsiderable weight in with the kids. I thoroughly enjoyed this drama and found myself being utterly absorbed by it, from start to finish.

Thomas Sangster and Aaron Johnston play the two main characters of Robert and his bullying nemesis Niker to perfection. After being subjected to some truly atrocious performances by young actors recently (and I’m thinking especially of EastEnders here) it’s an utter joy to watch young children deliver performances that belie their tender years. The dynamic between the two is laden with a sense of angst and friction and they convincingly render the plot onto our screens. Backed by Lindsay Coulson (as Robert’s mum – another fine performance from the ever reliable Coulson, surely one of the small screen’s most under-rated actors) and Sheila Hancock as the mysterious Sorrel, this programme has cast its parts with knowing precision and is all the better for it. Coulson emits a world-weariness with every breath and Hancock fills the screen magnificently with her presence. This is a delightful core cast and is proof positive of the vital and magical art of casting in drama.

Having read the book I had some reservations on hearing of its adaptation for television but these have been assuaged by the competent and confident manner in which the story has been tailored around those involved. Sangster manages to give the character of Robert Noble (or Norbert No-Bottle as he’s known) a depth of humanity that is, perhaps, missing a little in the book. He has fleshed out his role and given Robert a sense of frustration and alienation that improves upon the written work. Johnston’s turn as the bully Niker deserves praise for the manner in which he managed to give Niker an air of confidence that, whilst arrogant, never borders on the nasty. This is bullying and bullies as it happens in real life and the writers involved deserve praise for conveying this scenario with consistent, convincing realism. The balance between the characters and their roles in the story is almost perfect and it really is a joy to watch them go about their business.

The direction also deserves praise, as does the lighting. Both combine to give it a fantastic visual look and hook you in, almost imperceptibly. The subtle touches on show were unerringly accurate – Robert’s future step-sister passing a well-shaken can of pop to her step-dad, Robert’s dad, was spot on as was the manner in which Niker dropped the role of bully and gained pleasure from painting the lead soldiers. It’s the wee observations that differentiate between good and very good, and in Feather Boy the small things are very well observed indeed. I also particularly liked the scenes in the classroom with the out-of-earshot quips, juvenile sniggers and implied threats. It certainly brought back a few memories for me.

It’s nice to sit down and watch a show with no preconceptions because sometimes you are genuinely surprised and rewardingly entertained. Feather Boy is another fine example of the BBC’s children’s television and yet another benchmark of excellence. Miles better than some of the adult drama currently around, this programme is a welcome reminder that successful drama is about the story and its treatment. Here, the story is treated with care and respect and, for the viewer, it shows. Well done to all involved.


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