From The Gruffalo to The Snowman and the Snowdog to this year’s Stickman, adaptations of classic young children’s books are big business. The problem is that in most cases the books themselves are very short. To make expensive animation worthwhile, and to fill a timeslot, they require enlarging, yet that can often dilute the magic that made them classics in the first place.
In the case of Fungus the Bogeyman, Sky’s latest adaptation, Raymond Briggs’ 1977 picture book is barely 40 pages long. Somehow this has been spun out in to four and a half hours of screen time, mixing CGI animation with real people and backdrops. It’s scarcely surprising, therefore, that the first episode felt a little flabby.
In the story Bogeys are slimy green monsters who live underground and consider good hygiene to be all that we humans on the surface consider filth. They wallow in grime and snot, fart like troopers, eat maggots and despair when they lose their signature ‘funk.’ They call humans ‘Drycleaners’ or Drys, and they find all of our sweet-smelling superfluities like cut flowers and shampoo repulsive. It’s a brilliant inversion of the sort that children adore, and it was filthy fun for adults too.
With so much time to fill scriptwriter Tom Macrae and his animation team went to town. They were having so much fun furnishing Fungus’s [Tim Spall] universe that they forgot to get on with the story. The wordplay – “fartwinkle,” “crusty slobbage” – that initially had me grinning eventually became a little tiresome, as did the repetition of the central joke that this was a world in which it was good to be gross. Children are sharper than you think – once they know that Bogeys like muck you don’t have to keep on telling them.
A story did eventually emerge, in which Fungus’s son Mould came out as ‘dri-curious,’ headed to the surface to satisfy that inquisitiveness and was tailed by his distraught parents. At this point we discovered that Bogeymen are able to ‘Face Fold,’ meaning they could take on a human face on a whim and so live out adventures in the real world.
Funnily enough it was also at this point that the programme really came alive (which is probably not what the animators, who’d spent gazillions trying to enchant us with realistic CGI green heads, would want to hear.) Tim Spall has lost a boatload of weight to the point where he now looks like the love child of Peter Capaldi and John Lydon, but his voice and eyes retain a gentleness that makes him the ideal lost soul in an alien world. In concert with Joanna Scanlan as his wife Mildew, and Victoria Wood, having the time of her life as an evil Bogey-snaring ‘Inventrix,’ suddenly, 90 minutes in, Fungus looks to be going somewhere. I’m still not sure, however, whether I relish the prospect of another three hours in Bogeyland.
My hopes for Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, were modest at best, largely on the grounds that the title made it sound like a video game. It began with a séance, another tedious cliche that no one really needs ever to see again, and proceeded through a fairly workaday period ghost story about a big scary house with a hidden past that had come back to haunt the current inhabitants.
Yet Harry Price was captivating, largely on the basis of a complex, command performance from Rafe Spall as the ‘psychical researcher’ of the title. (Not only did he triumph over potentially dull source material, but he also got one up on his own dad too, who was over on Sky at the same time playing Fungus, and suffering in the comparison).
Price, the story went, had been first a charlatan – he’d rigged that opening séance – but then a tragedy of his making led him to commit himself to scientific explanations of the supernatural. Now he wanted to expose other charlatans. Yet during the course of the programme we saw him come to a third position – that sometimes, it was best just to be a compassionate fraud and tell the folks what they wanted to hear: if ghosts make you feel better then, yeah, they exist. Spall managed to articulate Price’s awareness of his own shifting sentiments with great subtlety and intelligence. He delivers lines with unexpected emphasis and phrasing and it makes him unsettling to watch (one reason why he stole every scene he was in playing a psychopath in The Shadow Line).
Here, he was the hero, but one worlds away from your off-the-peg detective or broad browed action man. This 90 minute special looked to be one of those pitches, which, if well received, could go to a series. It was by no means perfect, but it was a lot better than its name suggested, and in Harry Price it had a character who you’d happily spend time with every week.