It took about five months but I have now watched the whole series. In my last post I had intended to give some thoughts on the series as a whole, but rather ran out of space/time having written a lot about the final episode.
This overview contains spoilers!
1. The First Day
Darrell, Sally and Gwen arrive at Malory Towers for the first time. We learn that Darrell is there for a fresh start and she may have been asked to leave her previous school – St Hilda’s – while Alicia begins her tales of Lady Jane Malory, the resident ghost.
This is a good opening episode, introducing us to the main cast. It sticks reasonably closely to the book with the exception of the ghost story and the rumour about Darrell’s expulsion.
2. The New Girls
Gwen begins to investigate why Darrell left St Hilda’s and Darrell ends up admitting it was true but not the reason behind it. Sally denies having a sister, Alicia carries on with her ghost tales and Gwen discovers she’s not the top student she thought she would be.
As the girls are settling in it’s not surprising that nothing major happens in this episode, but it establishes Gwen’s nature as a sneak, the mystery of Sally’s family and Alicia’s slightly mean streak.
3. The Trick
Darrell and Alicia start playing tricks and Alicia ramps up the ghost stories again – scaring Mary-Lou badly.
This episode rather goes its own way featuring only one plot from the book – the deaf trick – which has the perpetrator switched. The ghost stuff, at this point, started to feel a bit like filler nonsense.
4. The Slap
After Gwen ducks Mary-Lou in the pool Darrell slaps her and the other girls struggle to work out how to deal with this. We discover that Darrell left St Hilda’s because she pushed a teacher down the stairs.
There might be just the one slap instead of four but it doesn’t truly matter as the spirit of the book is kept here. Information about Darrell’s past continues to be teased out, and is perhaps related to the fact we see her having trouble with writing and spelling – something book Darrell was very good at.
5. The Match
The first formers play against St Hilda’s at lacrosse, and it becomes clear that the St Hilda’s mistress has it in for Darrell. We discover that Miss Gale was bullying girls and cutting their hair as punishment, and the episode ends on the reveal to everyone that Darrell pushed Miss Gale down the stairs.
I’m glad we only had to wait until episode 5 to resolve the mystery of Darrell’s last school. It was quite dark, and although a complete TV fabrication it was a good story.
6. The Midnight Feast
The girls hold a midnight feast the night before an exam and end up in Miss Grayling’s study. Darrell is tempted to cheat by looking at the questions but doesn’t. Gwen does look but it is discovered that someone had been in the study so the exam is changed and she doesn’t gain anything.
This episode doesn’t really resemble the book but draws on plots from other Blyton books. The midnight feast was a nice inclusion, and the ghost story becomes more of a mystery than complete imagination.
7. The Open Day
Darrell hasn’t a special friend so takes Emily for lunch with her family, and tries to keep her underwhelming exam results hidden from them. Both her results and Gwen’s end up being found out, and their parents deal with it very differently.
This episode half sticks to the book and half doesn’t. Darrell not having a friend and taking Emily out is pretty similar, but in the book she doesn’t have exam results to hide. It cleverly shows the difference between Darrell’s life and Gwen’s though, and perhaps helps the viewer have more sympathy for Gwen.
8. The Push
Darrell and Sally argue about her sister and Darrell pushes Sally over. Sally ends up in the San and Darrell runs off into the night to fetch her father as he is a surgeon.
Sally’s illness gets this whole episode and at first sticks to the book but then veers off into silly territory as Darrell attempts to walk 10 miles in the dark. Matron also features heavily and goes from a bit lazy and mean to downright negligent.
9. The Letter
Sally recovers from her appendicitis, but her mother wants to take her home for good and she wants to stay. Darrell begins remedial classes due to her poor results, and finds out she has word blindness (dyslexia).
This is another half and half episode. It roughly follows the book in regards to Sally’s mother visiting, but drags it out with some silliness. The plot about Darrell’s dyslexia is entirely made up for the show, but it’s a relief for it to have come to a head.
10. The Dress
There is a debutante at Malory Towers and Gwen is trying to get in her good books – if only she knew who it was. It turns out to be Pamela who teaches remedial, and she and Darrell go head to head arguing about what’s right for Pamela’s future.
This episode is entirely made up for the show and is the weakest of the lot. I like the feminist arguments Darrell puts forward but there is a lot of silliness too.
11. The Spider
Gwen starts playing mean tricks on Mary-Lou while Darrell and Sally hatch a plan to give Mary-Lou more confidence. Darrell pretends to drown and has Mary-Lou save her.
This episode more or less follows the book, though it has brought various small scenes from different chapters together.
12. The Ghost
The ongoing story line of the Malory Towers is finally resolved as Darrell and Sally catch Emily sneaking to the San to visit her mother who works there. Matron catches them and Margaret almost loses her job.
Finally the ghost story is over! In the end the reveal is quite satisfying, actually.
13. The Last Day
Darrell is accused of playing the tricks on Mary-Lou and more of her classmates vote her guilty than innocent. Mary-Lou turns up the evidence that proves Gwen was the guilty party.
This is almost a part 2 to episode 11, and roughly follows the book but in a much shorter time frame. Darrell has a rather hard time but at least it ends well for her.
Although the series has left no loose ends, I felt a few story lines were rather abandoned. Darrell’s dyslexia was diagnosed and then Pamela left (she didn’t even come back after the debutante ball to collect her things!). Diagnosing dyslexia doesn’t make it go away. We never really got a full explanation as to what happened between Miss Gale and Darrell. Did Miss Gale falsely accuse Darrell of pushing her down the stairs? Did she try to hit Darrell and she defended herself? All we know is the Miss Gale was a bully and Darrell didn’t assault her.
Miss Grayling’s sad loss in the war is only briefly touched on and never expanded – but perhaps that’s yet to come!
If we get a series 2, and I really hope we do, I hope that Darrell’s dyslexia is an on-going story line. I’d like it if Margaret didn’t just disappear into the abyss of South Tower, and that Matron continues to get her comeuppance for her terrible behaviour.
Now that a secret passage has been introduced that can’t just be forgotten about, either!
The cast and characters
Darrell Rivers – Ella Bright
Darrell has more going on in the adaptation than the books, not only has she a temper but also a complicated back story and a learning disorder. Ella Bright plays her wonderfully whether she’s laughing, shouting or crying.
Alicia Johns – Zoey Siewert
Alicia is a little different from the books as she doesn’t have her cutting tongue or spiteful nature. She does still love her practical jokes, though. Zoey Siewart has a Canadian accent but it has no impact on her credibility as Alicia.
Irene – Natasha Raphael
I wish Irene had been featured more as she is terribly funny on the page and on screen. Natasha Raphael captures her absent-mindedness brilliantly.
Sally Hope – Sienna Arif Knights
Sally has quite a complicated character to play, she’s unhappy but also angry for much of the story and then opens up to a friendship with Darrell. The series shows her being friendly on occasion earlier than the book, otherwise she probably wouldn’t have had any lines. Sienna Arif-Knight embodies Sally’s steadfast sensibility well in the later episodes.
Jean – Beth Bradford
In the books Jean is a shrewd, forthright Scot who rarely speaks unless its to put someone sensibly in their place. On screen Beth Bradford gets to have a bit more fun as Jean is involved in most of the main plots.
Katherine – Twinkle Jaiswal
Katherine is the sensible head of the form and Twinkle Jaiswal plays her with authority but also a sense of fairness and empathy.
Emily – Saskia Kemkers
Emily barely features in the books other than to be sewing quietly and spending one picnic with the Rivers family. On screen she has a background role in the main plots, then Saskia Kemkers gets to shine when it is revealed she is the ghost. She shows us Emily is a girl with a lot of worry and weight on her shoulders.
Mary-Lou – Imogen Lamb
Mary-Lou is just like in the books, almost annoyingly cowardly. Imogen Lamb absolutely looks the part of mouse-like Mary-Lou and also had some of the most wonderful, unexpectedly humorous facial expressions.
Gwendoline Lacey – Danya Griver
Gwen is just as scheming and vicious as in the books and Danya Griver plays her perfectly. She is hands down the best actress in the whole series. Her face is just so expressive and captures the nuances of Gwen’s complicated character perfectly.
Pamela – Hannah Saxby
There may be a Pamela at Malory Towers in the books but this character is a TV creation. She is games captain and runs remedial study sessions for the lower formers.
Ron – Jude Harper Wrobel
Another TV-only character, Ron is the gardener’s boy who pops up now and again to lend a bike or catch a spider.
Miss Grayling – Jennifer Wigmore
Miss Grayling features a little more often than in the books but she gives very good advice when she does appear and Jennifer Wigmore plays her with great dignity and compassion. There are hints of a backstory involving a lost love in the war.
Miss Potts – Imali Perera
Miss Potts is younger than I imagined but otherwise just as sensible and all-seeing. Imali Perera gets some great lines and delivers them with some wonderful facial expressions.
Matron – Ashley MacGuire
Matron’s role is changed greatly from the book. In the book she appears at the start and end of term and pops up occasionally to hand out mending or to tend to sick girls. Screen Matron is seen frequently and is a very large personality – she is in turn greedy, scheming, lazy, squeamish, cruel and more. Ashley MacGuire plays her with great humour so despite all her shortcomings Matron can be, if not likeable, then at least relatable at times.
Mam’zelle Rougier – Genevieve Beaudet
Malory Towers on screen has only one French mistress so Genevieve Beaudet has had to take on a role which has amalgamated two characters. She acts mostly the haughty and sharp nature of Mam’zelle Rougier but on occasion the foolishness of Mam’zelle Dupont.
Margaret – Christine Horne
Margaret is an entirely new character, the assistant to Matron of north tower. She is much kinder than Matron and when we see her she is soft spoken and takes time to listen to the girls. As Margaret is so quiet Christine Horne doesn’t really get a chance to shine but she plays Margaret’s
Mrs Lacey – Naomi Sheldon
Mrs Lacey is also a bit younger and more glamorous (and more eyebrowed!) than I imagined but she is absolutely as self-absorbed, silly and affected as in the book.
Mr Rivers – Rob Carter, Mrs Rivers – Flora Dawson and Felicity – Minti Gorne
None of the Riverses are as I imagine them – Mrs Rivers is particularly glamorous, Mr Rivers is less imposing and Felicity more annoying! Saying that Rob Carter and Flora Dawson had me almost in tears at their loving portrayal of Darrell’s parents.
Every actor in this adaptation is great, my favourites were Danya Griver (Gwen), Imali Perera (Miss Potts), Ella Bright (Darrell) and Jennifer Wigmore (Miss Grayling).
What I haven’t mentioned above but should be clear from the pictures is that this is a very diverse cast. No cast will every match anyone’s imagination and rarely does any show cast actors that match every description from the source material. So whether it’s someone with a different hair colour, or who is taller or shorter, or has different eyes, or a different skin colour, I can’t see how it matters.
What’s also interesting is that actually this is probably a more realistic representation of an English boarding school of the time. There would have been a lot of girls of colour from the British Commonwealth as English schools were seen as extremely attractive places for rich young women to receive an education.
Also of note is the cast featuring an actor with a facial difference (I have replaced the phrase facial disfigurement which I have used before with facial difference as I have done some reading and think it is a kinder and more useful term). Jean’s difference is not referenced by the script and the programme makers explain a bit about it below:
Beth Bradfield’s visible difference was not central to her character Jean’s story line. How did you decide that and did any of the cast say anything about it to Beth, or did they just accept Beth for who she is?
With regards to Beth’s casting process, we had an open casting process with no predetermined physical requirements for any character. We always look for ways to represent people who have a disability or look different because we feel that is so important and so we looked for the girl first before writing the storyline to suit her backstory.
We kept it very light and we never called out or discussed Beth’s visible difference. Everyone fully accepted, without question or comment, Beth for who she is.CBBC Malory Towers Q&A on Changing Faces
Where did the idea for Jean’s character to be played by an actor with a visible difference come from? Was it decided from the outset or during the casting process?
This was a natural decision that evolved from the casting process. The role that media can play in authentically portraying the lives of people from different backgrounds is really important and how important it is for young people to see people like them reflected on screen was also something we were aware of.CBBC Malory Towers Q&A on Changing Faces
One thing I noticed is a slight lack of teachers at the school. The only teachers with speaking parts and names are the three above and so it feels a little bit different from the books where there is more of a variety of teachers for different subjects.
There are also no other girls with names/speaking parts – for example Alicia’s friend Betty, or any of the myriad of non North-tower first-formers. I appreciate this will have been for budgetary reasons but it made the world feel a bit small at times.
I’ll end by just saying that I really enjoyed the series despite the various niggles and look forward to more, if there is any. I haven’t had room to cover the costumes or locations here but all are excellent and various screen shots can be seen amongst the full episode reviews.