I’ve heard positive things from anyone who’s managed to watch it before me, so I have my fingers crossed that this will be a positive review (a rare thing here, sometimes it seems!). I could also do with some cheering up seeing as we’ve just entered a state of ‘lockdown’, so escaping to Malory Towers is just what I need.
A general non-spoiler review
I’ll start with an overview of what I thought for those who haven’t seen it yet, and then I’ll talk in more detail about some of the plots so avoid the rest if you don’t want any spoilers.
Overall I thought the first two episodes were very good. I was pleasantly surprised, in fact.
As we already knew, it is set in the 1940s and the war is briefly referenced. This was absolutely the right choice – it’s always the right choice to me, which is why I think the 90s Famous Five is superior to the flared 70s version.
The building posing as Malory Towers looks very much like the illustrations in the book, and the outdoor pool looked magnificent. The indoor sets looked good as well, as did the costumes, and the language used is a good mix of old-fashioned quaint sayings as well as clear language that modern child viewers will understand.
So far it has stayed fairly close to the book; the main plots being Darrell’s friendship with Alicia and her disagreements with Gwen. Miss Grayling’s speech featured and although it was not word for word from the text, and in fact is rather shorter it quoted a few important phrases and was well-delivered.
Exams aren’t our only measure of success. A Malory Towers’ success is someone good hearted and kind, loyal and trustworthy, good sound women the world can lean on.Women unafraid to forge a new future. You will all gain tremendously from your time with us. See that you give a lot back.
Matron features several times and is suitable strict and a figure to be feared at times yet kind-hearted at others. She takes an instant dislike to Darrell and I think she will be on her case a lot.
The girls themselves are a more diverse bunch than Blyton wrote, and so far all the acting has been good.
From left to right (not including the girl with pigtails talking to the teacher) we have Darrell, Alicia, Sally, Gwen and Mary-Lou.
What happens in episode one
Episode one sees Darrell heading to Malory Towers for a ‘fresh start’ – this detail will be relevant later. She instantly makes friends with Alicia while Gwen sets off on the wrong foot by being a tell-tale and being difficult.
Alicia apparently loves a ghost story and tells them about about the ghost of Malory Towers, Gwen is completely sucked in but Darrell is not a believer. The girls have a midnight feast, but Gwen is not invited which causes a rift between her and Darrell, though Darrell doesn’t know that.
Gwen reads a letter Darrell has started writing home and is upset that she has named Alicia as the friend she has made. She confronts Darrell by the pool, they fight and she falls in. She uses this to blackmail Darrell – she will tell Miss Grayling that she was pushed into the pool and get Darrell expelled unless Darrell does her French prep.
Darrell does this initially but then tells Miss Grayling the truth to get it off her chest. We then discover that Darrell is the girl who’s rumoured to have been asked to leave St Hilda’s school.
What happens in episode two
Alicia steps up her ghost tales and leaves a spooky message on the mirror for Gwen. Darrell and Gwen’s gym shoes go missing right before lacrosse try-outs so that neither of them can take part, though Darrell is offered the role as a substitute. Sally Hope makes the team, and she tells Darrell emphatically that she doesn’t have a baby sister.
During an exam Darrell’s pen leaks and blots and in trying to write a few more lines she knocks her ink all over the page. She then gets to do the exam over, which Gwen makes a big deal of and calls her a cheat. Gwen then begins a campaign to find out why Darrell had to leave her last school.
This culminates in her going down to the village late in the afternoon (alone, against the rules) to telephone her cousin who went to St Hilda’s.
Darrell, despite her problems with Gwen, insists on going to fetch her and the rest of their dorm have to distract Matron so she doesn’t realise they are missing. Darrell finds Gwen who tricks her into admitting she was in fact asked to leave St Hilda’s, but we don’t find out why.
Some more thoughts
I jotted down lots of little things as I watched so here are some of them.
Darrell’s character is a little different from the book. She is rushing, late for the train at the start, she is shown as being clumsy and a bit careless even and she is not good at spelling. I suppose this gives her room to grow, however. I’m not sure at all about the story of her being asked to leave her last school. It’s such a departure from the story we know, but it will presumably give a plot line that will run through most of the first series as we wait to find out what happened.
Alicia is also a bit different. Alicia in the book is a joker, but she is also very very sharp-tongued and unkind at times. We don’t hear her ‘smooth voice’ or sharp tongue, really. Just all the spooky ghost stuff. She’s also got a Canadian accent which takes some getting used to.
The pool incident is a trifle disappointing as it really looks like an accident that Gwen fell in. They are both tugging on an end of Darrell’s letter and she just falls in. Darrell does not push her in a rage, but she instantly apologies in absolute horror. I suspect book Darrell might have pushed her in anger – even if she didn’t mean her to land in the pool – and would have needed a little time to cool off before apologising. She also would have been more dignified in her apology rather than over the top.
Also, Gwen swims out of the pool without any real fuss – not the water-hating Gwen we all know!
The midnight feast was a nice touch but the girls make a hell of a noise ‘sneaking’ out for it.
I do think that Matron is pretty great but she entirely over-reacts to a mouse in the dorm (I’m sure children would have thought that bit hilarious, but I found it over the top) and although clever and funny it seems unbelievable that she wouldn’t notice two girls missing from the dorm especially when she’s said several times that she’s marked Darrell as a trouble-maker and will be keeping an eye on her.
Miss Potts is very good, there is one scene in particular where she shines. She praises Darrell for a good essay and when Gwen asks how hers was, she clearly struggles to be tactful. Her facial expressions were wonderful.
I like Miss Grayling though she seemed a fair bit younger than I would have imagined. She was still very poised, kind but firm, and I liked the little hint we got that she had lost someone in the war.
Gwen and her mother saying goodbye was another scene that was probably over the top – it almost seemed like they were acting at being so upset but I actually enjoyed it and thought it quite funny.
Gwen is probably one of the best things about this adaptation, though Darrell, Matron, Miss Potts and Miss Grayling were all good.
There are some nice details such as Pamela featuring as head of games, and Emily sewing a tear in Darrell’s dress which tells me that the people making this really, really read the books and are trying to recreate as much of the world of Malory Towers as they can.
I expect we will see a bit more of Sally soon, to deepen that mystery, and as I said above I suspect they will draw out the mystery of Darrell’s last school for a while along with a campaign from Gwen against her. I’m not sure about the pool slapping, that may already have been replaced with the ‘push’, but we might get some more lacrosse and I’d like to see a bit more of Irene as so far she’s been very much in the background.
It’s a lovely change for me to heartily recommend an adaptation of Blyton’s books, but I really do. If you have access to the BBC iPlayer you should definitely watch this.