15 films that deserve to be bigger – and 15 TV adaptations that don’t

BBC Radio 4

Tim Harcourt is good at rattling off the numbers – proselytising for actors’ rights, chiding melodrama teachers, extolling the virtues of “highly theatrical” soundtracks for film.

So it’s a surprise to learn that his screenwriting debut is a short, barely-named vehicle about an elfin teen. The Little Lad?

Right, no more talking. Time to watch it…

I admit it. Not much surprise there. But the story (which comes from Joanna Trollope’s rich novel) is an absorbing one and the small screen edition is slick and intelligent. As Harcourt’s bouncy jazzy score hints, it’s far more knowingly little-lit than the family comedies of the 1980s and ’90s – and yet it’s also beautifully acted and served up in a handsome box.

The adaptation is probably best known to fans of Trollope’s work as The Princess and the Pea (1970), even though it only aired in 1971. But the novel deserved more than just that and, as Harcourt’s success with all things burlesque reveals, he can be a real talent.

Indeed, as I watch him craft this little story of exploration and confusion at heart, I find I’m thrilled and horrified at the same time. The Little Lad? And his director is on fire too. (Justin Shanes plays a lone fool. Jenna Love and Natalie Gumede are solid as the mother and daughter with a rebellious son.)

“The Little Lad? And his director is on fire…” – Tim Harcourt making Fairytale

As well as hauntingly spirited music, the small-screen version boasts some brilliant visuals, casting Lucy Teasdale as a pretty teen, with her village dwelling every bit as strikingly picturesque as The Gingerbread House that James Whale inhabited on the big screen.

And then there’s the visuals.

Trollingope wrote the screenplay herself for the big screen adaptation, though Harcourt is still credited on this version.

“I’d never heard of Joanna Trollope,” he says while we’re discussing Hollyoaks actress Teasdale. “But by the time I had written it, I’d become a huge fan. Her books are very emotionally rich. They’ve got this sense of family togetherness and her characters are witty and strong. I’ve loved Trollope ever since.

“Even in this script, you can get through the dark parts and feel the humour and the optimism.”

On top of all that, The Little Lad! comes with beautifully matched costumes (all made by costume designers as yet unnamed for publication – “I gave them massive hangovers,” says Harcourt, “but they’re alive”) and a cheeky idea of holding a contest of “love, loss and hangups” in the school library.

“We had no play dates, no fathers – what would I do for Dad?” says first-time mum Teasdale, who plays the schoolteacher with infinite self-confidence and, as Harcourt wrote, “sharp teeth”.

“For these kids, I just get on with it. It’s brilliant – they’re such big cogs of energy.”

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