❉ 1990 BBC adaptation of Victorian children’s novel ‘Little Sir Nicholas’, co-written by and featuring Julian Fellowes, arrives on DVD.
Little Sir Nicholas Tremaine is lost at sea, his parents drowned. Some years later his grandfather dies, leaving his grandmother alone as Lady Tremaine and apparently ending the Tremaine line. She puts a letter in a newspaper to see if there are any missing relations, where a Mrs Tremaine from London sees it and pushes her son Gerald into the role of heir. When Sir Nicholas is found in France and brought back to the Cornish household it causes friction in the Tremaine family.
‘Little Sir Nicholas’ was made in 1990 to fill the Sunday evening family viewing slot that was previously occupied by ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and if you’ve seen any BBC historical dramas from around this time you’ll know what to expect. It’s shot on film (which appears to have been given a cursory wipe over with a bit of spit for the DVD release) almost entirely on location around Cornwall and London. It is set in the romanticised Victorian England that we’re all so familiar with, created through delightful attention to the costumes, sets and period details.
The highlight of the serial is the shipwreck sequence in the first five minutes, which seamlessly mixes model-work and live-action footage as the Alberta is torn apart by the tempestuous sea. Because it is such an important (expensive) dramatic point we get to see it again at least once per episode.
It features Julian Fellowes as Apted, the Tremaine’s solicitor. He went on to write the films ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ before creating the phenomenally successful ‘Downton Abbey’. The serial was directed by Andrew Morgan and the two of them have worked together on a few shows for the BBC including ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ and the sci-fi epic ‘Knights of God’.
We also have Christopher Villiers who was recently Colonel Brigwell in ‘Hetty Feather’; James Ellis of ‘Z-Cars’ fame; Barry Jackson from ‘Midsomer Murders’; and Rachel Gurney from the original ‘Upstairs Downstairs’. The adult actors all give very solid performances aside from Bernice Stegers as Mrs Tremaine, who sets sail fully spread as she tries to hold on to her fortune while venting her rage on Little Sir Nicholas. Scarcely a scene goes by without her delivering a withering gaze or raising a scheming eyebrow. Her final breakdown to Lady Tremaine where she declares that she “Can’t go back to being poor” is so unrestrained you’d think she was sending the whole thing up.
Of the child actors, only Louisa Milwood-Haigh as Margaret Tremaine is really worth mentioning. Disappointingly, the Max Beazley who plays Sir Nicholas is not Max Beesley from Hotel Babylon but a cute kid with an unbelievably strong French accent. At least he has two other acting credits to his name which is two more than Jonathan Norris, who plays the precocious bully Gerald Tremaine. I appreciate that they are all quite young but it is possible to get children to act in a less stilted and unconvincing way than they do here.
Everything about this serial is incredibly gentle. It’s hard to get worked up about the fate of ‘Nicco’, even as he climbs down a drainpipe in the pouring rain to rescue his pony. There are a couple of sweet moments such as when Sir Nicholas fills the drawing room with farm animals and a classic BBC Victorian Christmas, but aside from that the story has very little to commend it.
‘Little Sir Nicholas’ is based on a largely forgotten story by CA Jones and the production team clearly embraced that by creating a largely forgettable serial. If a classic twenty-part BBC Dickens adaptation is a three-course meal, this is a cream cracker with a miserly scrape of margarine.
❉ ‘Little Sir Nicholas’ was released on DVD on 10 October 2016 by Simply Media, RRP £14.99.