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The Wind In The Willows series one
voice cast: Peter Sallis, David Jason, Michael Horden, and Richard Pearson

narrator: Ian Carmichael
director: Jackie Cockle

343 minutes (U) 1984
Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
One of the most wonderful of children's books, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In The Willows has certainly seen plenty of attempts at putting it on screen. Naturally, Disney has had a go, but the most painful must be those live action thespian ego trips. I'm sorry, but putting some green slap on an overweight actor just doesn't cut it. Part of the problem lies with the original text. Imagination is a magical thing, and it can quite easily deal with animals that appear to be animal sized in one chapter and human sized in the next. Seeing a studio physically grappling with the concept is another thing entirely.

Brian Cosgrove and Marc Hall made a feature-length film in 1983 using stop-motion models that was more successful than most. It was so successful, in fact, that it was followed by a television show that ran to five series and also another film. This two-disc DVD release comprises of all 13 episodes of the first series.

The main characters are Mole (voiced by Richard Pearson), Rat (Peter Sallis), Badger (Sir Michael Horden) and Toad (David Jason doing his finest Terry Scott). Una Stubbs and Beryl Reid lend their voices, amongst others, and Ralph McTell provides music (which may or may not be a good thing - your call). The model work is strange to watch now in these days of ubiquitous computer animation, and it has a bit of a creepy Jan Svankmajer vibe going on. Those hands could give nightmares to a modern kid. But you quickly get used to it. And the model sets are a delight in themselves - you just want to pick stuff up and play with it. There is also some beautiful countryside photography seamlessly blended into the mix.

The first episode is merely a rehash of the latter part of the film. It seems strange to start with a clips episode, but that is what we are given here. Some new backstory from the book is also presented. The other episodes are self-contained, although they occasionally touch on the film. On The Road Again, for example, has our animal heroes rediscovering the gipsy caravan. Rosemary Anne Sisson and Brian Trueman have done the bulk of the writing, which has tended to rely on the over-reliance of the weasels as villainous plot-engine. Here they are holding Mister Toad for ransom, there they are cheating at a country fair. Although of vital importance to the novel, they are not overused there. In the series it becomes apparent that they are an ugly proletarian underclass and our polite heroes have to keep putting them back in their place. It is probably an accurate assessment of Edwardian society, but it makes for uncomfortable viewing at times.

However, anyone who knows the book well will choke on the credits for episode nine. Wayfarer is listed as being written by Rosemary Anne Sisson based on characters created by Kenneth Grahame, but when Ian Carmichael's narration starts, it is word-for-word from Wayfarers All (coincidently chapter nine in the book). The episode follows the book fairly closely and details how Rat is infected by wanderlust after encountering the Sea Rat. It's one of the finest passages in the book, but probably one of the first you would drop when making a film adaptation. It is nice to see it here.

That, however, is not a patch on episode 12. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is probably the loopiest thing ever to appear in a children's book. To summarise, an otter cub goes missing on the riverbank on the riverbank and Mole and Rat find him asleep on an island at night being looked after by the (unnamed) god Pan who is holding court over the animals. And here it is, on screen. Quite amazing. This is the chapter that gave Pink Floyd their first album title, incidentally.

There are no extras, unless you count subtitles. It must be said, The Wind In The Willows didn't pass the three-year-old test in my house, but it is aimed at a slightly older audience. I'll be trying again when she's four or five.
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