Five on a Secret Trail is a hard to find episode, especially on video cassette. A limited number of video tapes were released with this episode in the 1990s from the retailer WHSmith. Thus when the likes of eBay was invented and people started looking for their childhood TV programs for sale, Five on a Secret Trail was rare and hard to find. They also only came in a cardboard box, which is partly why not many of them survive today.
I remember bidding on one such video cassette in my mid-teens when I was eagerly collecting the Famous Five episodes once again. My mother was doing the bidding on eBay and unfortunately we had no internet that weekend, so we put in our maximum bid and were outbid at the last moment. That had been the last video to complete my collection. I still have all the video cassettes and a video player to play them on if I’m feeling particularly nostalgic. So I didn’t get to see this particular adaptation until a few years later when I purchased the Dutch Famous Five DVDs for the 90s series (good copies, missing Smuggler’s Top though – and I’m still unsure why we don’t have English DVDs!)
Anyway on to the actual episode. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it is available to view on Youtube, and I do recommend you do! We start off with a rather hazy montage of scenes where we can sort of make out that something is being taken, or stolen. In fact it looks like the same place that Richard Kent made his escape in Five Get Into Trouble was filmed. This is possibly true of course and the filters are used to make it seem different.
As the audience we are aware that something has been stolen, and we have an idea of what the Five will be looking for when we get to the main part of the adventure. We cut then to George (Jemima Rooper) and Anne (Laura Petela) chasing after Timmy who is going after a rabbit. Everyone knows that George doesn’t like it when Timmy goes for the rabbits and he is punished this time by catching his ear on some barbed wire and has to have a trip to the vets to get it stitched. The consequence of this is that Timmy now has to wear a cone around his head to stop him scratching the wound and opening it up again. This causes everyone in the village, even George’s own father to laugh at poor Timmy, causing George to run away until Timmy’s ear is better and the cone can be removed.
Anne agrees to accompany George, although in rather a timid way compared to in the book where she quite happily walks onto the moor behind Kirrin and joins her cousin. The boys, as you know from the book, are away camping with their school for the summer hols, which is why this book is always one of the hardest for me to get into, because in the book it takes up until about chapter eight for them to make an appearance and I find the action rather slow. However in a 25 minute episode, there is no time for all the dullness to settle in and before we know it, the girls have met Guy, a young boy who is digging around in an old archaeological trench containing Roman artifacts. He’s rather changeable in personality and the answer given in the episode is nothing like the one in the book.
[Spoiler warning] For all those in the know, Guy hasn’t got a split personality but an identical twin brother called Harry. The loss of Harry from this episode is a shame because it would explain Guy’s apparent mood swings much more clearly. Also, the fact that they hadn’t been able to find twins who were identical hasn’t mattered to the producers before as the Philpot/Finniston twins in Finniston Farm are non-identical when they are supposed to be as like as two peas. I suppose it might have made the situation in Secret Trail harder to run but they were not above changing the Blyton Gospel as we know!
After a disturbed and stormy night, where they think they see ghosts, hear strange noises and see odd lights, George and Anne are packing up to go home when the boys arrive, cheerful as ever and come to set the adventure straight. They convince the girls to stay, go and say hello to Guy and then start to explore. Obviously the idea that girls would be scared is something that’s picked up on when critics look at the books; the blatant sexism, that the boys aren’t scared and can look after themselves and the girls can’t. Fortunately I don’t see it quite as black and white as this, but as the fact that this was just how things were back when Blyton was tip-tap-tapping away on her typewriter. Society was much more consigned to the gender roles we were given (sorry, inner sociologist coming out there!)
With a bit more exploration and a night where the boys spy on the chaps who are trying to scare them away from the moor, the kidnap of Guy, and the discovery of the secret tunnel that the, once again, comic crooks can’t find even though they have been searching harder and longer than the Five, we watch the quick fire discovery of Guy and the item that has been stolen.
In Secret Trail the boys’ rivalry seems as alive as ever, Dick (Paul Child) trying to take the lead but being quashed by Julian (Marco Williamson). We even get to see Dick being less than impressed with his brother and being told by Anne to be nice. Its easy to see that how in the second series when Williamson broke his leg that it was natural for Dick to assume the role and for Julian to become a little more of a Beta character.
I like this adaptation of Secret Trail because as I said before, it’s a slow book to start off with, and the fact that we miss most of the ‘boring’ bit of the book appeals to me. I know I’m supposed to be a purist when it comes to Blyton but I do admit the girls don’t hold my attention nearly as well as the boys do, and especially when the Five are separated.
Overall, a good adaptation, with the only exception of the comic villains once again and the loss of Harry Lawdler- Guy’s twin. Has to be up there with some of my favourite adaptations.