A bit of magic to help them through hard times

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Times Staff Writer

Children familiar with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” -- or, for that matter, with “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” -- will know that once upon a time there was a place called England that was fighting a war, and in order to save the children of London from the bombs that were falling on it, parents sent them off into the countryside to live with strangers. These strangers were not always congenial, but sometimes they were magical.

This is also the stuff of “Carrie’s War,” a BBC-made adaptation of the 1973 novel by Nina Bawden, a much beloved and admired British writer of books for both young and adult readers (rather less known and beloved over here). Airing Sunday on “Masterpiece Theatre,” it’s based on one of her young person’s books -- it’s on the national curriculum -- and though it looks at grown-ups from a child’s perspective, it’s also a story about adults in their own world and how they are with each other. This, and an underlying current of sadness -- we know from the opening narration that something bad will happen at or near the end, and one of the main characters is dying when we meet her -- give it a weight and seriousness often absent from such stuff.

It was first adapted for television as a five-part series a year after its publication, but the more compact present version, directed by Coky Giedroyc (“Stella Does Tricks”), feels neither stripped nor rushed. It isn’t so much a matter of plot here, anyway, as it is a deepening of mystery, the mystery of human variety. Apart from a score slightly too insistent on pastoral jolliness, the material is presented in a manner at once realistic and highly charged, communicating the disorienting excitement of new places and people and the transitional wonder of being 14 years old.


Unlike “Lion/Witch/Wardrobe” or “Bedknobs/Broomsticks,” “Carrie’s War” is not a fantasy, although there is a big house called Druid’s Bottom, and a Screaming Skull, and a curse, and a woman (Pauline Quirke) who isn’t a witch as such but “just what country people call a wise woman.” (She is, however, named Hepzibah, which sounds pretty witchy to me -- and it’s in “Harry Potter.”) But the magic is of the actual -- not the supernatural kind.

Many of its elements and characters are familiar to children’s literature: A serious, capable girl (Keeley Fawcett as Carrie) and her somewhat troublesome younger brother (Jack Stanley, in the inevitable bowl haircut and round spectacles) are put in the care of a mean, or at any rate an extremely grumpy, older person (Mr. Evans the grocer, played by Alun Armstrong) and his kind but dominated younger sister (Lesley Sharp). There are also a slightly older, or perhaps just taller, boy (Eddie Cooper) as a sort of too-soon-for-love interest for Carrie, and a disabled man (Jamie Beddard, who in fact suffers from cerebral palsy) who provides a kind of yardstick to measure the other characters -- we judge them by how they treat him.

In the same way, the contrasts between fettered town life at Mr. Evans’ and free country life at Druid’s Bottom, where lives his unconventional older sister -- played by Geraldine McEwan, who was recently Miss Marple on “Mystery!” -- are fairly schematic and literarily time-honored. The former is a house “run in fear of the Lord,” the latter built on grounds of “the old religion.” “This whole place was sacred once,” Carrie is told. “I think it is and it always will be,” she replies.” Yet the material is fresh, because it is deeply conceived, and because Bawden is interested in things that are not as they seem. Even Mr. Evans, the closest thing the story has to a villain, is given the right to be complex -- indeed, that’s practically the point of the story. At his most severe and thundering, and despite what other characters whom we like better have to say about him, we know that he’s not simply a bully and that his character was formed by the circumstances of an individual life, and not mere authorial fiat. (Armstrong, who was Detective Bucket in the recent BBC-produced “Bleak House,” plays him with great understanding and dignity.) “Sympathy is it?” he muses, when Carrie expresses some. “That’s something I don’t often get.”

Much depends on Fawcett’s central performance as Carrie, and she is quietly wonderful, whether being serious or scared or ecstatic. The whole progress of the story is written in her face, and even when the rest of the production flags or cheats or takes a shortcut, she never does.


‘Masterpiece Theatre: Carrie’s War’

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)