Tonight I’ve sat down to watch the first episode of the Secret Series as adapted by Umbrella Entertainment in the 1990s. It should be an interesting experience as judging from the back of the box, the programme bears little resemblance to the original work. I warn you now this contains a lot of spoilers and is a very very long review.
My first thoughts are that the theme tune is pretty awful. It’s very Home and Away/ Neighbours style. The words are something along the lines of Secret encounteeeers. No one can find us we’re out on our own (secret encounters) can’t you see, that we’ll be, every hero, it’s great fantaseeee…” That last line doesn’t make an awful lot of sense but I went back and listened about four times and that’s what it sounds most like.
Anyway, music aside, we’ve got a very 90s setting for the story. (If you’ve seen Round the Twist you can imagine the look of things). There are three children, Peggy, Mike and Laura. I’m not sure why Nora got updated but Peggy didn’t. There’s no mention of Mike and Laura being twins. The children’s dad is going off sailing in his boat, accompanied by a woman called Charlotte who he doesn’t even know. She’s a photographer, though. Nanny Betts is going to look after the children in the mean time.
I HAVE MY PREDICTIONS…
At this point I had my guesses as to what would happen. Clearly dad’s going to get shipwrecked, but I had no idea how the children would end up running away. Nanny Betts seems too nice and the children seem happy being left with her.
Quite quickly my guess was proven right as a typhoon is on its way. There are several boat scenes up to and including the typhoon hitting before we find out what’s happening to the children. Nanny Betts has died! After being on screen for less than thirty seconds she’s fallen over and died.
LORD FOGGO, SCOOP MAGAZINE AND THADDEUS?
IS THIS EVEN STILL A BLYTON STORY?
Lord… something that sounds like Foggo, a posh English gentleman, then phones Scoop Magazine. Bear with me while I explain the ‘relevance’ of this. Lord Foggo wants to get a message to Thaddeus (yes, that’s the father’s name…) Arnold to tell him that Nanny Betts has died. (I’m not sure whether she’s his mother or the children’s mother – or indeed just an elderly relative and nothing is ever said about it, or indeed what happened to their mother). Anyway, the editor at the magazine is stunned. Why should be bother interrupting Thaddeus in a typhoon to tell him some old woman has died? Well, says Lord Foggo, the children are being sent off to stay with an aunt and uncle and they are a bad lot. In his words, the children are at risk. Editor man is unimpressed. He has an exclusive deal with Thaddeus and Charlotte, only he can talk to them and they to him but he promises to pass along the message should Thaddeus ring back after the weather settles.
AUNT HARRIET AND UNCLE HENRY
Naturally they are shipwrecked before such a call can be made, not that it would have made any difference. The aunt and uncle come to collect the children and are fairly unsympathetic about Nanny dying (I can only assume she was the mother’s relative otherwise Aunt Harriet would be related to her too) despite the fact the hearse is pulling away from the house at the time. Aunt Harriet is at least kind enough to say they can go to the funeral, while Uncle Henry is more concerned with telling the children their father is very dead.
Mike, in a thick and barely understandable accent, denies this on the grounds that Laura has a feeling about these things, sooo theeere. Now that we’re on slightly more familiar ground I am desperately hoping that I can find enough familiarness to actually enjoy the episode, despite the obvious glaring differences between 90s New Zealand and 40s England.
Quickly we find out that Uncle Henry wants to sell “Peep Holes” which must be the children’s home (a very large house near the sea). I wonder if that will somehow tie into The Secret of Spiggy Holes, should that be the next episode.
We also meet Jack, or at least see him sneaking about and spying on the children. There’s a dog on the farm who isn’t allowed in the house, so Laura gets into trouble when he runs in. She also gets scolded for knocking over a bucket of water while cleaning the floor and is sent to bed after she mops up. The other children are also sent to bed, without supper – though it’s broad daylight outside.
Whereas in the book we come to the children well settled in their new lives the TV episode takes great pains to show us the whole story leading there. Unfortunately it is still rushed and Aunt Harriet and Uncle Henry mostly come across as crotchety and out of touch rather than truly negligent. (One of the children’s biggest complaints is that the food is greasy and fatty.)
The aunt and uncle are scheming meanwhile – launching a lengthy and convoluted side plot which doesn’t really add much to the story. If I have it straight, they want the court to presume Thaddeus dead. That way they can be declared guardians of the children and therefore sell the house. With the money they can then buy Old Luke’s farm. (Old Luke being Jack’s grandad).
The children maintain that their dad is alive – the proof being that Laura has seen him in her dreams. Both Laura and Mike are very whiny throughout, and not particularly likeable. Peggy as the older sibling is somewhat more likeable as she tries to look after the other two, though she has her stroppy moments too.
Jack (who they have never met before this point) warns the children about the plot to sell their house. He reveals he will run away to “his secret place” should his grandad sell the farm. Immediately the children “wish they could come too” and begin begging.
SUDDEN PLANS ARE MADE
It’s all quite unbelievable at this stage. They don’t have the happiest of lives at the farm but they aren’t treated half as badly as the Arnold children of the book. They don’t know Jack at all, they only met him thirty seconds ago and suddenly they want to go to his mystery secret place.
Anyway, as if to add impetus to their need to run away Uncle Henry says he is going to put the dog down as he’s a poor worker. The children tell their uncle to his face that they hate him. They then rescue the dog and send him to Jack, their mind made up to run away.
THE NOT-SO-SECRET ISLAND
The secret place is revealed as an island, about twenty feet from the shore and clearly visible from a long way off. It’s set that they will go on Saturday night as aunt and uncle always go out then. They pack up blankets, candles and what tinned food they can find but aunt and uncle decide not to go out after all. Aunt Harriet discovers the larder is bare and, after quizzing Peggy, decides to blame Jack then goes off out with Uncle Henry after all.
Clearly it was an attempt to add drama, Jack nearly going without them as they are late, but in comparison to the book it all seems silly. They make it to the lake anyway, and after donning the life jackets head to the island.
THE MAD MONK AND DESERT ISLAND LIVING
Now for the strange bit. Before the episode started there was a very brief scene with a figure in a monk’s robe moving through a cave or tunnel towards a red light. I assumed it was to do with the production company whose logo came up afterwards and dismissed it from my mind. Yet when the children reach the island there is, lo and behold, a robed figure watching them!
We then flash over to Thaddeus and Charlotte again and get various bits of them surviving on their desert island. There is enough arguing between them to suggest they are going to be love interests in the future.
The children’s island is known as “haunted island” (and is nowhere near as secret as they think) according to Old Luke. The story goes that a mad old monk was marooned there a long time ago and then just disappeared. The police turn up at the farm to ‘investigate’ the children’s disappearance and are told they are off camping with cousin George. Who reported them missing isn’t specified.
The children make a trip back to the farm to get bread and other supplies and Uncle Henry assumes at first that it was those “darn gypsies”. Aunt Harriet wonders if it wasn’t the children and eventually admits the truth to the police that the children have run away. A helicopter is sent out searching for them with no luck.
I LOST THE PLOT…
I admit around this stage my attention wandered. The children planned to make a house and I did perk up, thinking of willow house. Unfortunately they decided to camp in an old hut instead.
More is made of the newspaper having some sort of contract, an exclusive one with the children and or Uncle Henry… I couldn’t really figure that out. Also incomprehensibly a new character by the name of Tom appears on this SECRET island, he’s a gypsy kid who often comes over to fish and catch rabbits.
Borrowing from Scooby Doo and The Goonies to name a couple of examples Laura falls and breaks her glasses and can’t see a thing without them. Then in Lassie style Prince (the dog) runs off to the others to convey Laura’s distress in a few succinct barks. Her spare glasses are at the farm, thus necessitating another trip there in the night.
Uncle Henry has installed what I thought was an electric fence around the farm, but it turns out to be a sensor wire for an alarm system. It all becomes very high drama as Peggy and Jack (yes, they let the girl go!) set off the alarm deliberately to lure Uncle Henry and Aunt Harriet outside so they can sneak inside to get the glasses.
Back on the island the monk shows himself to Laura and Mike and turns out to be a harmless old man. He’s not a mad monk (apparently) but a warden of a former owl sanctuary that has closed down. He couldn’t leave the birdS so stayed on the island, hidden in the caves. He couldn’t tell anyone as he didn’t have planning permission for the hut/cave dwelling.
The monk/owl warden listens to the children’s story and says, quite casually, that he can find their father. He’s sure he can get a fix on Thaddeus’ waterproof mobile phone, if only the children can remember the number.
While they are straining their minds to remember (oh the tension!) Old Luke and Uncle Henry come to search the island. They are scared off by a sneeze and some whistling the children do in the caves.
Again my attention wandered but all of a sudden Laura is unwell and the boys go off in the boat to get her medicine. The monk says the best medicine would be finding her father and so fires up his wireless radio set and gets to work radioing random boats on the ocean. Apparently there are language barriers and a poor signal but he’s a determined chap.
The boys have sold blackberries to get money for the medicine, or so they say, but Old Luke spots them at the chemists and calls the police (he’s after the reward offered by Uncle Henry). The police chase them across fields and into a tiny gypsy camp. They aren’t found despite the police looking right into the van they climb into, and Tom tells them that the boys went that way. Old Luke turns up as they climb back out of the vehicle and summon the police back.
Laura has another psychic flash and declares their dream is all over moments before the boys show up with the police in tow. And then dad’s waiting at home for them when they return with no explanation whatsoever, around half an hour after the monk started searching for him.
I don’t know where to start with the ridiculousness of the whole thing. It has only the slightest resemblance to the original story. Instead of being a story about four children surviving on an island, developing skills and growing as people, we get a whole lot of nonsense. The children are whiny and hopeless from start to finish. While the monk adds a level of creepiness to the tale it’s entirely unnecessary, the fear should have come from the idea that they might be found and returned to an abusive home. There’s tension galore in the book – the trippers, the island being searched, Jack hiding in the hen-house when the police man spots him. It didn’t need a silly ghost story. The explanation given for who the monk really was is utterly ludicrous – it would have been better if they’d left it a mystery!
Don’t get me started on an owl warden being able to track down a missing man on a deserted island. If it was that easy he wouldn’t be lost! I also don’t think that it was necessary to show Thaddeus and Charlotte on their island. It entirely ruins the ending of him turning up again. I sometimes cry at the end of the book – when Jack rushes to the hotel, heart in mouth, to find the Arnolds. And then they are reunited with their children who are overjoyed, yet sad to leave their beloved island. Come the end of the TV episode I rather went “Eh? How did they find him?” followed by “I’m so glad that’s all over.”
While the main flaw of the 90s and 70s Famous Five series is that they tried to squash an entire book into 25 minutes, and therefore had to cut a lot of good scenes. The main flaw of the Secret Island is they tried to make a 90 minute episode using around ten minutes of the book and eighty minutes of rubbish they wrote themselves.
The joys of the book which came from the careful planning of running away, building willow house, bringing Daisy over, making the island a comfortable and (as far as possible) a sustainable home are utterly absent. The closest we get to a plan for not being found is pushing the boat into reeds and covering their footprints with leaves. They’re barely only island a few weeks it would seem, perhaps that’s why Laura had to break her glasses to necessitate another trip to the farm.
I don’t know if I can bear to watch the next episode(s) now.