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The Famous Five. Image: Tina Tiller.
The Famous Five. Image: Tina Tiller.

Pop CultureDecember 24, 2023

The Famous Five review: Indiana Jones for kids, minus the funny bits

The Famous Five. Image: Tina Tiller.
The Famous Five. Image: Tina Tiller.

A lifelong fan of Enid Blyton’s beloved novels watches the first of three movie-length BBC adaptations streaming on ThreeNow this summer.

I grew up with The Famous Five. I had every single book in Enid Blyton’s series. I was with the Five when they found smuggled treasure, locked burglars into basements, made friends with circus folk, and rescued kidnapped children. I tested every wooden panel and the back of every cupboard in my childhood home looking for a secret passage to smuggled treasure, and found fuck all. I learned that trick of getting yourself out of a locked room, by pushing a piece of paper under the door and then poking a hairclip through the lock until the key fell out, before drawing it back under the door via the paper. Kidnappers always left the key in the lock, always. They were bad men with shifty eyes, stubbled chins, thin lips, and scientific blueprints hidden in a secret compartment of their briefcases. 

Timmy was excellent at spotting bad men. He was a dog of no particular breed who adored chasing rabbits, saving the Five from disaster, and his owner George. She desperately wanted to be a boy, insisting everyone treat her as such and guess what? Everyone did and then got on with their lives. Anne loved housework. If the Famous Five ever found an abandoned shack, or a seaside cave, Anne would be the one putting up shelves, squishing bracken to make beds, and sewing floral curtains. Julian was the oldest: responsible and boring. He always made George and Anne stay behind when he and his brother Dick went off snooping at midnight, because they were girls. It drove George apoplectic. Dick was nothing really. He was just there to make up the five. He had less personality than Timmy. Name one interesting thing that Dick did. You can’t because he didn’t.

It makes sense that with my extensive knowledge of and love for the Five (as they called themselves; they already knew they were Famous from book one) I would be called upon to review the new BBC adaptation streaming on ThreeNow, a job which I immediately accepted because watching telly is my second favourite thing to do next to sleeping, and you don’t get paid for that.

The episode is called the Curse of Kirrin Island, which is a dead giveaway that it’s nothing at all like the first book, Five on a Treasure Island. It’s 90 minutes long, and lush and gorgeous to look at because, well, BBC. Unlike the series made in the 1970s, which was set in the 70s, flares and all, this is set in the 1940s, when the first books in the series were originally written. The internet is non-existent, entertainment is all IRL, no one speaks in acronyms, and the kids all have extraordinary amounts of freedom to come and go as they please as long as they’re back for dinner. 

There’s hardly any reference to George’s fight to be a boy. They’re just themselves. And they’re BROWN! The joy I got from imagining racists going nuts over – gasp, diversity – was immensely satisfying. And Dick finally has a personality! He’s a tiny book nerd who knows everything and has the best line when describing George’s scientist father: “If he’s such a brilliant inventor, how come he never invented anything?” Touché, small Dick, touché. Julian hasn’t changed. He’s responsible, boring, and weirdly, about ten feet taller than everyone else. I watched a trailer where he describes his character as “the muscle” of the group. Anne is the biggest disappointment. She’s turned into a whinger. “I’m starving.” “It’s cold.” “This pillow has no pillowcase.” When the kids find an ancient goblet engraved in Latin, it’s Anne who suggests hocking it off for cash. She does not sew a single curtain. 

Kids were tough in the 1940s. George finds a dead man on the beach and doesn’t scream or gasp or even widen her eyes in shock. She just pokes him with a stick and steals his dog. (Timmy!) When she shows the drowned corpse to the others, Julian suggests they tell George’s parents, but I don’t know if they actually did, or if they just went, “yeah, nah fuck it”, and left it there for the tide to take away. This might have something to do with the fact that the director is Nicholas Winding Refn, who is a Cannes award-winner with a rep for brutal, violent cult films, or it might be because they didn’t really care about the state of our oceans back then, I don’t know.

The Five get some great action sequences. Locked in a cobwebby crypt, they rob a grave, prising a skeleton’s fingers off a sword. They almost drown in an underground cave, rip aside rusty bars leading to freedom, slide down a chute into the ocean, and then laugh, because almost drowning twice is super fun. They escape from a mansion owned by a cult, explore dark booby-trapped tunnels, and sail boats across the sea without life jackets or adult supervision. It all reminds me of Indiana Jones without the funny bits.

From left to right: Timmy, George, Anne, Dick and Julian.

Still, I suppose you have to be tough to deal with this particular Bad Guy, played by Jack Gleeson, who learned all his shifty-eyed bad man skills from playing King Joffrey on Game of Thrones. He’s a creepy, husky-voiced psycho, hellbent on ruling the world, and is actually quite fun, more of a comic villain with black eyeliner, shiny capris, and a natty wee moustache.

The continuity is horrible. Working with dogs must be a nightmare. So many scenes where Timmy is one place and the next he’s somewhere totally different; it’s like he can teleport. One moment he’s attempting to lick Anne’s whinging face, the next George has him in a chokehold so he can’t go anywhere. 

The pacing seems off too. I think maybe it’s because the plot is quite convoluted, and exposition is delivered in massive chunks of slow dialogue. There’s loads of action, but also long periods of tedium where backstories are examined and the bad guys explain the dastardly things they’re going to do. Enid Blyton rarely gave us the bad guys’ POV. If we knew what the bad guys were doing, it was because they were being overheard by a good guy. 

After watching this first episode, I’m not sure… do we need another reboot of the Famous Five? Do we need this particular one? I don’t even know if we can call it a reboot. It’s more like Wattpad fanfic. It must have cost a bomb (which they didn’t spend on the music; it sounds like Ross from Friends improvised it on his synth), and I can’t help thinking that the money could have gone into something new and exciting and relevant.

Your kids might like it. Mine took the piss out of it mercilessly before demanding I turn it off because it was boring them to death; one of them chose to go to bed early rather than sit through one more moment of Woe Is Anne. In any case, 90 minutes was way too long for me too. Even Timmy couldn’t save it.

The Famous Five is available to watch on ThreeNow.

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