Just William Review: Just Average

JUST WILLIAM: Tuesday 28th December, BBC1, 12.30pm ALERT ME

An old-fashioned and uneven Christmas offering, this television adaptation of Just William fails to live up to its hype as one of the Beeb’s flagship festive programmes, largely hampered by its stifling obsession with nostalgia and – judging by this opening episode – highly unimaginative narrative arcs. Although it has successfully braved the temptation to ‘update’ its characters and is supposedly aimed at children, there are frequent cultural references obviously geared towards entertaining accompanying parents. Most kids under the age of 12 will have little knowledge of Marlon Brando, The Wild Ones and what the initials B.R.M.C stand for.

This sense of obligation to please two demographics, which has marred several animated Pixar ventures, never accounts for the fact that what makes good child-orientated dramas are inventive plots and well-crafted characters. Just William is immediately problematic not because its central protagonist is anachronistic but, for the intended viewer, a severe distillation of other boisterous and benign rebels like Bart Simpson and the Beano’s Dennis The Menace. Yet the 1950s period setting and the social mores that governed that era shouldn’t isolate younger audiences, it’s the programme’s inherent lack of charm that will induce yawns before bed time.

The first of four episodes to be shown in rapid succession over as many days, this afternoon’s episode entitled “The Sweet Little Girlâ€? begins with a hurried summary of William and his family whilst Martin Jarvis, whose voice will be familiar to those who listened to the series on BBC Radio 4, provides a narration which diminishes in importance once he has painted the background and arranged the archetypes. Story-wise there’s little to speak of. At his mother’s (Rebecca Front) request, William is forced to play with the daughter of his new neighbours, a 6-year old who likes playing fairies whilst her reluctant friend would prefer to be playing cowboys and Indians with the boys. One afternoon the scamps run into a little trouble with some local landowners (seemingly of West Country descent despite appearing to be set in Buckinghamshire) who can only articulate themselves through cartoon phrases (“Come back ‘ere you lot!â€? or “Oi! You!â€?).

The biggest problems with Just William are manifested in the girl’s mother, played in pantomime fashion by Caroline Quentin, her performance so over the top it clashes with the overall tone of the piece which is, in itself, a bit of a jumbled mess. A wobbly start for such a well-publicised show. Some kids might enjoy it, they’re parents probably won’t.