There's innocence, corruption, revenge and a midnight flight to the sea. Add in an epic journey through the European countryside peppered with a motley collection of eccentric characters. No, it's not a soap opera: it's the Disney Channel's version of Charles Dickens' classic The Old Curiosity Shop.
Set in 19th-Century England, this serio-comic tale follows the adventures of Nell (newcomer Sally Walsh), whose secure and innocent childhood is threatened when the family curio shop is repossessed by the evil moneylender Quilp (Tom Courtenay). Nell and her grandfather, who owned the shop, flee to safety.
Peter Ustinov says his role as the compulsive-gambler grandfather was worth returning to drama for. "I think the producers thought it was time I worked again in a role and I agreed," he recalls from Berlin, where he is doing the German narration for PBS' "Vatican" series. "I was dying to do something like this project. I enjoyed being back in the saddle."
Ustinov says he's continually impressed with how visual Dickens' writing is and how well "The Old Curiosity Shop" translates to the screen. "His stories play well in a very modern way, even if they're archaic in tone. You just understand him, since there were the same paradoxes in life then as there are now."
Families can benefit from the tale, as it depicts "the possibilities and wickedness of the world," Ustinov points out. "Dickens never pulled any punches and children like that. They don't like to be molly-coddled. They like the Brothers Grimm and they like Dickens."
Nell "becomes a very bittersweet critic," someone a young audience can learn from as well as enjoy, he says. "To read her, she seems like a sentimental cliche, but she's so very mature and so very interesting. The whole story is so very subtle and interesting."
The international cast, which also includes James Fox, filmed the tale in Ireland, which subbed for England. "There are streets in Ireland that look much the same as they did in England back then. You can't find much of England that could double for that era," Ustinov notes. "(Shooting) was arduous at times. The weather is very uncertain, but it's a marvelous place to work and a very creative island."
"The Old Curiosity Shop" airs Sunday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m. on the Disney Channel. For ages 8 and up.
More Family Shows
Now, here's a real buddy pic: Two boys, a computer-loving American, and a proud Kenyan with a Masai heritage, share adventures and brave dangers in the African wild as they try to save an orphaned baby elephant from an unscrupulous businessman in The Great Elephant Escape (Saturday at 8 p.m. ABC). Stephanie Zimbalist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jomo Batiany and Julian Sands star. For ages 6 and up.
Everyday heroes are honored in the premiere of Heroes of the Street (Sunday at 9 p.m. and April 2 at 9 p.m. Family Channel), a three-part documentary series profiling people who have found solutions to crime and take a stand against violence.
"Restoring the Lost Generation," the first segment, focuses on the transformation of high-risk kids and juvenile crime offenders into active, productive members of society.
"The Survivors" profiles forgotten victims of violent crimes, as well as good Samaritans who volunteer time and money to help victims and the homeless.
The final chapter, "Rebuilding the Community," reports on towns and cities where citizens and police have united to rid their neighborhoods of crime, making them safer places to live. The program is part of cable's Voices Against Violence effort. For ages 6 and up.