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'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe' - the BBC Television Series

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The Chronicles of Narnia: BBC TV Series
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe | Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader | The Silver Chair

One of the most successful children's television series of the 1980s was the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the classic novel by CS Lewis. The award-winning, highly regarded, critically acclaimed serial was not only given a peak viewing time, it was successful enough to lead to the adaptation of three more Narnia novels1 over the following two years.

Plot

It is 1940 and Britain is at war! The Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, are evacuated from London to keep them safe. They are sent to the countryside and stay in a big house with the eccentric Professor Digory Kirke. In the house Lucy discovers a wardrobe leading to a magical world called Narnia2, where it is always winter but never Christmas. She learns from a friendly faun named Mr Tumnus that Narnia is inhabited by talking animals and mythical creatures, and is ruled by the cruel Wicked White Witch3 who lives in fear of the coming of humans and turns anyone who angers her into stone. For it is prophesied that 'two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve' will end her rule, aided by the mythical lion king, Aslan.

None of Lucy's siblings believe her at first. Edmund follows Lucy and enters Narnia, where he inadvertently reveals to the White Witch that Mr Tumnus aided Lucy before. He is tempted by promises of Turkish Delight if he brings his family to her. Yet even after he has been there, Edmund still denies Narnia's existence to his family.

When all four children enter Narnia, will Edmund betray them? Will they be able to survive the White Witch's anger, and endure long enough to meet Aslan? What sacrifices will be called for and what will their consequences be?

Cast

Characters and actors whose names are in Bold appear in other stories in the Narnia series:

CharacterActor
Lucy PevensieSophie Wilcox
Edmund PevensieJonathan R. Scott
Peter PevensieRichard Dempsey
Susan PevensieSophie Cook
The White WitchBarbara Kellerman
Mr BeaverKerry Shale
Mrs BeaverLesley Nicol
AslanAilsa Berk
William Todd-Jones
Ronald Pickup (Voice)
Dwarf'Big Mick' Walter
MaugrimMartin Stone
Mr TumnusJeffrey Perry
Professor Digory KirkeMichael Aldridge
Father ChristmasBert Parnaby

Of the children, Richard Dempsey alone has continued acting - he played DC Nicky Robson in Crime Traveller (1997) and has been in a variety of minor roles since. Barbara Kellerman, who had previously been in Quatermass (1979), and Kerry Shale have since made numerous appearances in small acting roles. Lesley Nicol is perhaps best known for her role as Mrs Patmore the Cook in Downton Abbey (2010-15).

Since 1970 Ronald Pickup has enjoyed a highly successful acting career, playing characters in film and television, including Prince John in Ivanhoe (1982) and Norman Cousins in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films (2012-15). 'Big' Mick Walters is perhaps best known as Grumbly in Psychoville (2009).

Ailsa Berk is an actress/choreographer who since 2005 has specialised in instructing actors how to move like monsters or march like Cybermen in Doctor Who and had played a bounty hunter in Return of the Jedi (1983). William Todd-Jones is a highly experienced puppeteer, performing in films such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Michael Aldridge is perhaps best known for playing Seymour Utterthwaite in Last of the Summer Wine.

Behind the Novel

CS Lewis famously was close friends with JRR Tolkien when writing this novel. While Tolkien adopted a highly detailed, layered approach to creating his fantasy Middle Earth, Lewis' approach was to take ingredients from numerous mythologies, legends and fantasy tales and mix them all up with a dose of the Easter Story to stick it all together. So there are Greek and Roman mythical creatures such as fauns, satyrs and centaurs combined with strong elements from John Masefield's The Box of Delights, giants and even Father Christmas.

Major influences include Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen and E Nesbit's 1908 short story 'The Aunt and Annabel'. The Snow Queen turns people to ice, while the White Witch is a queen who can turn people to stone. Annabel finds a magical world through 'Bigwardrobeinspareroom', which is not unlike Lucy finding a magical world inside the big wardrobe in the spare room4. Other influences include Edmund Spenser's poem The Færie Queene (1596), the talking animals in The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame and the work of George MacDonald5, particularly Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895).

The Easter story with its theme of divine sacrifice purifying sin and leading to resurrection can be seen in the scenes set at the Stone Table. Lucy and Susan represent Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, being first to see the resurrected Aslan. Although Aslan is a representation of Jesus6, the original inspiration came from Lewis' childhood copy of Tales from the Arabian Nights.

CS Lewis' own life and experience also inspired the tale. Three evacuee girls, Margaret, Mary, and Katherine, were sent to live with him for a short time in 1939. Lucy, however, was based on his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield. Similarly, Professor Kirke was inspired by his tutor, Professor Kirkpatrick. Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland, which CS Lewis visited in his childhood, is believed to have inspired the fictional castle of Cair Paravel.

Differences from the Novel

The adaptation stays remarkably close to the novel, with only the few minor tweaks here and there for pacing reasons that naturally arise when a novel is turned into a television series. For example, instead of a robin leading the children away from Mr Tumnus before they meet Mr Beaver, in the television series they simply follow Mr Beaver. Similarly, in the series the White Witch's sleigh is pulled by two horses meant to look like unicorns rather than by reindeer as in the novel, but this minor change does not detract from the story at all.

In the television series, Maugrim appears able to become a wolf or manlike werewolf at will, rather than being a talking wolf. This is because the BBC uses both an actor and a wolf in order to portray him. One minor sentence removed from the adaptation is Mr Beaver's discussion of the White Witch. He states that she isn't human, but part giant and part descendant of Lilith7. This is contradicted by CS Lewis' later prequel novel The Magician's Nephew, so despite whether or not this was intended to be rumour, speculation or an early origin story for the White Witch, to simplify matters it simply does not appear in the serial.

Another very minor detail that does not appear in the television series is in Chapter 1 ' Lucy looks into a Wardrobe' of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This states that the only other thing that is in the room that contains the wardrobe is said to be 'a dead bluebottle on the windowsill'. Is the dead bluebottle a talking bluebottle from Narnia that had flown to our world, or was it an earthly fly all along? The bluebottle has confused American readers where the term 'bluebottle' refers to a type of flower.

Making

The phenomenal worldwide success of The Box of Delights in 1984 led to the BBC making more big-budget fantasy adaptations of British children's novels for television. These adopted the serial format, were typically set nostalgically in the early 20th Century and involved occasionally one, usually more, upper-class children encountering something magical. The BBC were particularly keen to adapt CS Lewis' Narnia stories, because of the numerous similarities with The Box of Delights. However, there were unexpected complications that led to delays, despite the story having been adapted for television twice before8. Anna Home, the BBC's Head of Children's Programmes, described this in her book Into the Box of Delights: A History of Children's Television by saying:

It had taken the BBC a long time to acquire the rights to CS Lewis's books – doing so involved a number of people and organisations, including the American Episcopalian Church Foundation9, but perhaps this was no bad thing. It meant that, by the time the rights were finally acquired, technology had evolved far enough to make a convincing production practical. Paul Stone, the producer, had already pioneered many of the techniques used in the series in his 1984 production of John Masefield's The Box of Delights, which involved a considerable amount of fantasy.

The serial not only shared the same producer as The Box of Delights but also the same writer, Alan Seymour, and many of the same special effects were used to bring the story to life.

Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC One, was fully behind the project. In order to raise the funds necessary to make The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, he instructed BBC Enterprises to pre-sell the series internationally in co-production with WonderWorks, an American television company co-owned by PBS and Walt Disney.

Although at the time multi-camera studio filming on videotape was the norm for most BBC productions, especially for series involving special effects, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was made on film10.

Most of the animals and mythical creatures were people in costume; however, cel animation was used to add others, such as flying horses, ghosts and ghouls. There was a degree of interaction between the animated characters and live actors, especially in a scene in which Edmund is rescued: he is picked up by an eagle and carried on the back of a flying horse. Actor Jonathan R Scott who plays Edmund had to wear a flying harness for this sequence, while Sophie Wilcox and Sophie Cook wore flying harnesses for the sequence where Lucy and Susan are on Aslan's back. In fact the very first thing the child actors did after being cast was to go to a theatre where there was a production of Peter Pan in order to rehearse the use of flying harnesses. Later, the boys had to rehearse sword fight sequences in which they were fighting against nothing, as the demons were added in later.

Aslan

The key character, of course, was Aslan, the legendary larger-than-life lion. It took three months to create him. At the design stage, lions were studied up close at Longleat Safari Park at times when it was closed to the public. The head began as a clay sculpture, then a plaster cast was taken and used as a mould. The finished head was covered in foam. Yak hair was used to create Aslan's glorious mane, and the rest of his fur was made from car seat covers. Aslan's voice was brought to life by Ronald Pickup while his face and body were controlled through animatronics and puppetry. Two performers were inside the lion costume, while one operated much of the animatronics outside. Aslan's eyes were designed to have a softer appearance than a real lion's, and were able to wink, blink and look in all directions. The mouth and nose too had a range of expressions, including being able to sniff, snarl and roar. When interviewed in April 2003, Richard Dempsey who played Peter said:

They'd spent a lot of money on creating this animatronic lion. The first time we saw him was in the rehearsal rooms in North Action and he had his head – his body wasn't quite finished – but suddenly you had a real lion in the room and it was real, it was magical... His eyes were very expressive. Aslan was suddenly there.

Location Filming

Extensive location filming took place, including in the Forest of Dean, and Aviemore in the Cairngorms, during winter.

The vast majority of the snow was genuine. Although the children wore real fur coats, they also wore thermal longjohns with flesh-coloured tights to keep them warm as their characters were dressed in shorts and short skirts. The White Witch's costume was nylon, which left the actress freezing and relying on strategically placed hot water bottles between her legs to keep her warm. The snow was particularly difficult for the actors in the beaver costumes, who kept slipping over. Two men who were tasked with rushing in and picking them up whenever they fell over were soon nicknamed the 'Beaver Retrievers'. Some location scenes did use fake snow which, despite looking authentic on the ground, made the actors' shoes look like they were covered in soap bubbles.

This filming was followed by ten weeks at Television Centre and six weeks at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, which was used as The White Witch's Castle and the heroes' castle Cair Paravel11. Hawkstone Park was another major location, that was returned to for the following year's adaptation of Prince Caspian. The stations Minehead and Crowcombe Heathfield on the West Somerset Railway were used to represent the children leaving London and arriving in the country.

Aslan also appeared in scenes filmed on location. However, in these he is predominantly stationary as, although Aslan could walk convincingly when crossing a perfectly flat studio floor, it was much harder for him to walk realistically in real forests with uneven surfaces and tree roots to negotiate.

Broadcast

The serial was broadcast on Sunday afternoons from mid-November to December 1988, capturing a family audience of over 10 million. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was nominated for an Outstanding Children's Programme Emmy Award as well as Best Children's Programme, Best Make Up and Best Costume Design at the 1989 BAFTAs, and it won Best Video Lighting.

Review

Of all the screen adaptations of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to date, the BBC's interpretation is the most faithful. Though slow-moving at times, it never fails to keep a young audience's interest.

Of the titular characters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is the most successful. He has the majestic aura of a large lion combined with an embraceable appearance that children cannot resist. To point out that the animatronic head's mouth movements do not always match what he is saying seems a little unfair as this goes unnoticed by the audience the show is aimed for. Aslan may not be the most realistic lion, yet you will never see any cuddlier, fluffier one ever. Aslan remains a convincing, solid presence throughout. While he never looks like a pantomime horse, Barbara Kellerman's performance is very much in the vein of a pantomime witch. Again, while it might on occasion seem over the top, this is quite suitable for the show's audience. The actors playing the beavers also perform admirably despite their inflexible costumes' handicaps.

One of the show's highlights is the beautiful opening sequence. This shows what at first appears to be a flat map of Narnia, yet as the camera comes closer the viewer sees the map become 3D and spring to life, with the flags of Cair Paravel fluttering in the breeze12.

As well as fantasy, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe benefits from its period setting. One of the most successful British television programmes of the 1980s was Brideshead Revisited (1981) which, like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was partly set in a large country house during the 1940s.

All in all, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains a stunning example of quality children's fantasy adventure from the 1980s that retains an affectionate place in the hearts of many who saw it on first broadcast, and it continues to captivate children today.

1Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair.2'Narnia' should not be confused with the planet Narn in Babylon 5. The town of Narni in Italy, named after the river Nar, was previously called 'Narnia'.3Not to be confused with 19th Century Isle of Wight witch Molly Downer.4CS Lewis' The Magician's Nephew (1955) acknowledges Nesbit's influence - the Bastables from The Story of the Treasure Seekers are mentioned at the very start. 5MacDonald features as a character in Lewis' The Great Divorce (1945).6Jesus is referred to as The Lion of the tribe of Judah in Revelation 5:5, while Old Testament prophets Joel and Hosea both said words to the effect of: 'The Lord will roar like a lion from Zion'.7Lilith in some accounts was created to be the first wife of Adam before the creation of Eve. However, Lilith chose to copulate with Lucifer instead, becoming mother to the race of demons. Lilith is also a feature of CS Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress (1933). Curiously when CS Lewis began writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1939, the discovery of the Arslan Tash amulets was published. Found in an archaeological site in Syria dating to the 9th Century BC, there is a debate as to whether the amulets are genuine but they show what is believed to be a representation of Lilith. 'Arslan Tash' means 'Stone Lion' and not only is 'Arslan' similar to Aslan, in later Narnia novels 'Tash' is the name of a demonic deity worshipped by Narnia's neighbours. 8The first adaptation was an eight-part studio-based production for ITV in 1963 which used puppets and simple animal costumes. Only two episodes are believed to have survived. CS Lewis, who reportedly hated television, expressed a hope that Narnia would be animated as he did not feel it was possible to recreate Narnia realistically with live action. This led to the 1979 feature-length animated television film.9CS Lewis sold this organisation the television and film adaptation rights shortly before his death.10Film records a series of images, or 'frames', chemically, whereas videotape records an electronic signal magnetically. Videotape is much cheaper, but film images look glossier. Also film is a universal medium whereas different videotape formats are used around the world: PAL, SECAM and NTSC. It is easy to convert film to all three, but converting one videotape to another format results in reduction of picture quality.11A different location would be used as Cair Paravel in each series of The Chronicles of Narnia.12One can only speculate as to whether the team behind the Game of Thrones opening sequence saw The Chronicles of Narnia as children.

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