In the twinkling of an eye
You'll grow tall or even fly
You won't know until you try, so do.
- Closing song
Five Children and It is a much-loved children's story by E Nesbit. First serialised in 1900 in The Strand under the title The Psammead, in 1902 the stories were published as the novel Five Children and It that in 1991 was adapted into a six-part serial dramatised by Helen Cresswell and directed by Marilyn Fox. A marvellous, magical adventure, it tells the story of five children who discover 'It', a Psammead or sand-fairy, living in a gravel pit in their garden. Each day the Psammead can grant the children a wish that will last until sunset, yet the children either accidentally wish for something they do not want or their wishes do not quite result in what they were expecting.
The grumpy Psammead is the last of its kind, as Psammeads die after getting wet. It can grant one wish a day. It explains that when it was young, children would wish for a brontosaurus, pterodactyl or other prehistoric animal to eat. As wishes only last until sunset, at dusk the remains, normally only the bones, would turn to stone and this is what created fossils. The Psammead also warns the children to take great care what they wish for, explaining that one boy he knew even once wished he was dead, and then he was! At least he was until sunset, but even so that was enough to upset his parents. Yet despite this warning, the children never quite think their wishes through before they make them.
Each morning after brekker the children have what they feel will be a rather ripping idea for a wish, but soon it becomes clear that it has resulted in their being in a pretty jolly beastly fix which will result in their going to bed without dinner yet again.
Author Edith Nesbit (1858–1924) has been called 'the first modern author for children'. Perhaps her most famous novel is The Railway Children, the 1970 film version of which is considered one of the best family films ever and was a huge influence on the heritage railway movement. Five Children and It is the first of her Psammead trilogy and is followed by The Phoenix and the Carpet1 and The Story of the Amulet. She wrote over 40 children's novels and books of poetry and co-wrote many others, as well as books for adults.
Edith Nesbit's father died when she was four and her sister Mary's tuberculosis meant that she spent most of her childhood in boarding school away from her immediate family. When she was a teenager, her family settled in Kent, the setting of Five Children and It. Her married life was unhappy; she married Hubert Bland at the age of 19 when she was pregnant, only to discover that two other women were pregnant with his children at the same time but nevertheless adopted them as her own. Edith Nesbit had a strong social conscience which led to her political activity. She and her husband were two of the nine founders of the Fabian Society in 1884, which later became one of the founders of the Labour Party. The Fabian Society also founded the London School of Economics, a university dedicated to the 'Betterment of Society'.
Five Children and It: The Television Series
The phenomenal success of The Box of Delights in 1984 led to the BBC making more adaptations of British fantasy children's novels for television. These adopted the serial format, were typically nostalgically set in the dawn of the 20th Century and involved upper-class children encountering something magical. Five Children and It, known in America as The Sand Fairy, (1991) was an adaptation of E Nesbit's 1902 novel by children's author and scriptwriter Helen Cresswell.
Helen Cresswell (1934-2005) was a children's author and television scriptwriter who was four times nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Best known for her fantasy work, she also adapted novels such as The Demon Headmaster series (1982-2002) for television (1996-8). Shown on Wednesdays in January and February 1991, Five Children and It was successful enough to be BAFTA nominated for Best Children's Programme. A sequel serial was commissioned, Return of the Psammead (1993), based on Helen Cresswell's 1992 novel sequel.
Malcolm James was the Visual Effects designer who created the Psammead. After a series of character sketches based on the Psammead's appearance as described in Nesbit's novel, producer Richard Callanan announced that he wanted something children could identify with more, with a more child-friendly appearance. Clay models were made before the Psammead's appearance was finalised. Main puppeteer Francis Wright's hand had a cast taken and the Psammead's face was sculpted around this cast. This was done to ensure that the Psammead's lips would fit the puppeteer's hands perfectly to ensure the greatest possible amount of emotional mouth movements for added realism, down to the smallest, most subtle movement. The finished puppet was also cable-controlled by a team of five people2. As the Psammead lived in a gravel pit, a special hole was dug in the gravel on location near Wolfeton, Dorset so that the team of six puppeteers would be able to operate the puppet there. In Five Children and It the Psammead is only ever seen in the sandpit, however it would be seen elsewhere in the sequel series, Return of the Psammead.
In a 2004 interview Charles Richards, who played child Robert, said of the Psammead,
He seemed like a real person, a real character, rather than a puppet. Every time you made a wish his stomach would swell up. On one occasion everything just fell out of the bottom, balloons popped out, it looked like his guts were hanging out…
Nicole Mowat who played Anthea agreed that the puppet was incredibly lifelike,
He was really real, it was like when you talking to him, it was like talking to a small child or a dog or something.
During this interview Simon Godwin revealed that his prominent memory is that in order to prevent chaffing from the harness used to create the flying sequences, which were filmed in front of a blue screen and the background inserted in post-production after, the cast had to wear nappies and leotards beneath their Edwardian costumes.
Difference with the Novel
Although the story is closely based on Edith Nesbit's 1902 novel, there are some minor changes. For instance, the novel is clearly set in Kent just outside Rochester whereas in the television series this is never stated, nor is the exact year the series is set in mentioned. Names too are explained more in the novel, with it made clear that the reason the baby is nicknamed 'The Lamb' is because the baby noises it makes sounds like 'baa baa', which is never explained in the television series. A similar minor tweak is that Jane's nickname in the television series is 'Puss Cat' rather than 'Pussy' in the novel, presumably because since the novel's publication this word has gained slang implications.
Most of these are the usual changes made in order to adapt an 11-chapter novel into a six × 30-minute episode format. Some adventures are more detailed in the television series than in the novel, others much less so. One chapter, in which the children wish that 'there were Red Indians in England', is left out of the television adaptation. The minor characters of Andrew Beale the gamekeeper and Lady Chittenden also have larger roles, with an unnamed lady revealed to be Lady Chittenden's French niece in the serial. Another minor change to simply things for television occurs when the children go to the fair; in the novel all four older children go, but in the television series only Cyril and Bobs do.
Other changes include how one wish takes place after the children are given their infant brother to look after and, fed up that they always have to look after him and no-one else ever does, wish that everyone would want him. This leads to everyone who sees the baby wanting to kidnap him and take him home with them. In the novel on the way home the children encounter a gypsy camp and all the gypsies fight over him but in the television series after an encounter with Lady Chittenden the children merely hide in a ditch and no gypsies are encountered.
Perhaps the biggest change is to the Psammead itself. The Psammead's appearance is much cuter than the novel, in which its eyes were on horns like a snail, with bat's ears, a spider-like furry body and limbs with monkey-like hands and feet. Instead the Psammead is humanoid and covered with grey fur. It has large ears and has antenna rather than eyes on horns, enabling a wide range of expressions. In fact there is no denying that the Psammead puppet out-acts all its children co-stars.
Sequels to the Original Novel
Since publication, Five Children and It has never been out of print. Its success has led to other authors writing sequels, including Return of the Psammead (1992) by Helen Cresswell, who adapted her novel into a television serial in 1993. In 2012 Jacqueline Wilson wrote Four Children and It about a modern family finding the Psammead while Kate Saunders in 2014 wrote Five Children on the Western Front. This features the original children during the horrors of the Great War.
|Cyril aka 'Squirrel'||Simon Godwin|
|Anthea aka 'Panther'||Nicole Mowat|
|Robert aka 'Bobs'||Charles Richards|
|Jane aka 'Puss Cat'||Tamzen Audas|
|Hilary aka 'The Lamb'||Alexander & Lewis Wilson|
|The Psammead aka 'It'||Francis Wright (voice)|
|Lady Chittenden||Penny Morrell|
Simon Godwin went on to become a highly-successful London-based theatre director, especially Shakespeare at the National Theatre and Globe. Francis Wright is a highly acclaimed puppeteer whose work includes Labyrinth.
|That the Psammead would come out.||They discover the Psammead and learn it can grant wishes|
|To be as beautiful as the day||No-one recognised them, they weren't given any dinner and had to wait until sunset before being able to go home.|
|For the servants3 not to notice any difference from now on when they make wishes.||This applies to all wishes made from now on, leaving the servants oblivious to everything magical.|
|To be rich.||Though the sandpit becomes full of gold coins that they take into town, the money is not legal tender and so they are arrested when they try to spend it.|
|Wings||After flying a long way the children take food from an open vicarage window and then get trapped on the top of a church tower after sunset.|
|To give the others their wish without coming to ask for it||Robert makes a wish unexpectedly.|
|To live in a besieged castle||Their home is transformed into a castle under attack, while the servants still see their home as normal. This means that the children cannot touch or see anything in their home, including their dinners, and try to defend the castle from attack.|
|Cyril wishes he was with the others||He is transported into the castle just before it is attacked.|
|That everyone would want the Lamb||Everyone who sees the baby will stop at nothing, including kidnapping and fighting, to have him.|
|To be bigger than the baker's boy||After being bullied by a bigger boy, Robert becomes a giant, but the circus want to keep him|
|That the Lamb was grown up||He becomes a spoilt, selfish woman-chaser4 although Martha sees him as a baby.|
|That Mother would find Lady Chittenden's stolen diamonds||The children fear the police will arrest her.|
|That Lady Chittenden rediscovers her jewels||She finds the jewels in her bureau in front of a policeman.|
|That Mother is involved in a terrible accident5||Mother forgets why she was travelling to town and walks home instead.|
|That they will never tell anyone about the Psammead||This is a wish on the Psammead's behalf, as he cannot wish for himself.|
|Wings||The children fly off into the sunset.|
The BBC adaptation of Five Children and It6 perfectly fuses a classic fantasy tale with high production values of early 1990s BBC drama at its best. The serial has a naïve nostalgic charm that perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of an undeniably quaint period drama. Those involved in making the series clearly had enthusiasm for Nesbitt's novel ensuring the serial is a refreshing, magical journey into an innocent age. This adaptation has aged well, and it is easy to enjoy the story and though the special effects are basic by today's standards, they work and do not take the viewer out of the story. The Psammead puppet itself is easily the equal of anything the Jim Henson Creature Shop or Disney were producing at the time, with an incredible range of emotions displayed on its unbelievably expressive face matched with believable body language.
The adaptation of Five Children and It follows the typical BBC formula of having magical adventures happen to rather posh children spending time away from their parents. The main characters on the whole work well and though the background characters are essentially caricatures, this does not detract from the story. In 2004 a film was made of Five Children and It. Though this had a bigger budget and utilised CGI and other more advanced effects than this original series, it completely missed the charm of the original tale. The computer-generated Psammead lacks the physical presence of the television series' puppet and the film also changed the setting to during the Great War, a less innocent age.
Every last frame of the BBC series is a joy, especially the closing credits. In these the normally grumpy Psammead is seen emotionally singing about how important it is for children to keep making wishes in order to be children.