Sky One * 17 and 18 December
DIRECTOR: Vadim Jean
STARRING: David Jason, Michelle Dockery, Marc Warren, (voice of) Ian Richardson, Joss Ackland
There is, when any favourite piece of fantastic fiction makes it to the screen, a moment when you know whether it’s going to be okay or not. With Hogfather, the first live-action adaptation of a Discworld novel, it’s a moment that comes early: when you see that the spooky head of the assassins’ guild, Lord Downey, is being played with trademark studied precision by the world’s spookiest actor, David Warner. Director Vadim Jean and his team, you realise, get the Discworld.
Thankfully, it’s an impression that never wavers, as the story of how celestial bureaucrats The Auditors arrange for the Hogfather (think Santa Claus) to be inhumed (murdered) unfolds. Except it’s no easy thing to kill such an ancient figure: it requires the special talents of gigglingly insane assassin Mr Teatime (Marc Warren).
Only Death (voiced by Ian Richardson) and Death’s granddaughter by adoption, the formidable governess Susan, stand in his way. While Death takes on the role of the Hogfather, Susan (Michelle Dockery) travels to the realm of the Tooth Fairy in a bid to stop Teatime’s scheme.
Largely eschewing big budget special effects shots – partly because of inclination, partly because of the limitations of TV budgets – Jean sticks close to his main players throughout. The result is a character-driven piece that offers these main players plenty of chances to shine. This gives you ample opportunity to admire, for instance, David Jason’s flawless timing as Death’s manservant, Albert, a performance made all the more impressive when you consider how often he has to be a comic foil for an expressionless skull.
That’s not to say this is an adaptation without flaws. In particular, Hogfather the novel has a complex central story that deals with the nature of belief. There are times when you wonder whether the filmmakers have actually been too faithful to the book: would a simpler structure have kept the story moving along quicker?
But let’s not be too critical. Vadim Jean has taken an important first step, bringing alive the Discworld with its warmth, humour and spirit safely intact. Can we have another one of these for Hogswatch next year please?
Reviewer: Jonathan Wright