19 years ago, ITV produced a series based on the Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy (providing the now-famous Felicity Jones with one of her first acting roles). Now, the BBC is making its own series based upon the misadventures of Mildred Hubble (first chronicled in print way back in 1974). A tough act to follow!
The 53-minute opening episode of the series (officially episodes one and two, rolled into one) is currently available to view on BBC iPlayer. As a fan of the Worst Witch in all its formats, I was interested to see how this adaptation fared.
The opening seems to be aping Harry Potter, to the extent that Maud (who seems far more clumsy than Mildred in this version) broke her glasses and had them magically mended. However, Mildred’s briefly-shown towerblock home-life doesn’t exactly compare to Harry’s awful childhood and the introduction of a masquerade (never explicitly stated in earlier versions) didn’t really add anything to the story.
Mildred and Maud were passable – I did think Mildred looked more like Tracy Beaker than Mildred Hubble, although she grew on me towards the end – but Ethel was spot on. Hardbroom and Cackle were both good, although they didn’t manage to eclipse the portrayals of the characters in the ITV series. Overall, the acting was somewhat variable, although stronger towards the finale, and, while the visual presentation was good, the episode itself was somewhat uneven in tone, especially as it seemed to be trying to present the setting more seriously, yet veered sharply into humour at times. However, it is likely that the players will settle into their roles and the tone of the series stabilise as time goes on, so hopefully these are temporary niggles – and, not too serious ones, at that, if I’m honest.
Given that the plot of the first book was used as the plot of the Worst Witch movie, in addition to the opening episodes of the ITV series, the BBC bravely chose not to rehash it for a third time. Instead, they distinguished their version by crafting (pun intended) an original opening that loosely drew upon Agatha Cackle’s plot (in the book) to take over Cackle’s Academy from her sister. It’s possible purists might not be happy about it, but it works well enough and offers something new to those of us who’ve seen previous versions on the screen, without diverging too far from the source material.
Overall, it does a passable job of relaunching the Worst Witch for a new generation and I’m certainly going to watch future episodes to see how it develops, although I doubt it will displace the ITV series from my affections. Of course, while it will inevitably be compared to the versions that came before, it really isn’t for an adult to judge it. The real test is whether kids, who are probably unaware of the ITV and film adaptations, respond to it. I suspect it will win fans. For parents who might be wondering whether they should encourage their children to watch it, I can say that this first instalment presents no reason not to and is likely to entertain them. Definitely recommended!