Friday, 17 April 2015

The Day of the Clown written by Phil Ford and directed by Michael Kerrigan

This story in a nutshell: 'What happened to the children?'

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: Sarah's fear of clowns comes across as perfectly natural to me because it is one I share. Despite her apprehension, she faces up to her phobia and tries to laugh at it. It is only when she confronts it that she can really move on, like all fears. She is keen to stress to Rani that they don't just fight aliens but help out the ones who are in trouble too. Sarah admits that if she could turn back time she wouldn't have Luke or Clyde involved with alien skirmishes. It is a messy business. I really appreciated the flashbacks to Sarah Jane as a child hiding beneath the covers of the marionette hanging on the door. Like Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? it feels like the writers are opening up new avenues and telling us more about a character that I thought I already knew back to front and inside out. And with the mention of losing her parents it looks like there is more to come. The writers aren't afraid to show the vulnerable side to this character and that makes her far more convincing a lead as a result. One fear that is even greater than clowns is the thought of losing Luke. Odd Bob preys on that at the climax.

Schoolgirl Investigator: This is a decent introduction to Rani and shows a great deal of potential but I would say the best is yet to come. You can certainly see in her perky characterisation and Anjili Mohindra's confident performance the seeds being sown for the formidable Rani/Clyde pairing, the best Doctor Who companion team that never got to travel in the TARDIS (step inside it, sure...but they were grounded by the Judoon at that point). The only beats that felt insincere was when Ford attempted to push just how into 'weird' Rani is. It feels forced, like Maria has just left and she is immediately the to fill the gap as the perfect replacement. But this was early days and you have to cut any character a little slack in their debut story before the kinks have been ironed out. I thought that Maria's absence was going to damage the series at the time (especially with the loss of Chrissie and Alan) but Rani managed to not only fill that void but mature into an even more attractive alternative. Gita pushing home the point that Rani is very curious and wants to know everything about everything is also driving the point home a little too much. I guess Sarah Jane has learnt from the on/off behaviour of Maria (sometimes loving her exposure to aliens, other times condemning Sarah Jane for bringing danger into her life) and when Rani expresses an interest she offers her the choice to walk away and back to her normal life or to step into the Attic. That way Rani cannot pull out the blame card if things get too serious. You get that little thrill of being let in on something magnificent all over again when Rani walks into the Attic.

The Folks: I will start off by admitting that I don't think that the Chandra's are quite as effective as the Jackson's. There was something truly special about Alan and Chrissie that really struck a chord with me, whether it was the performances, the writing or a mixture of both. Saying that I do think that Haresh and Gita are perfectly acceptable substitutes, a mismatched pair who seem perfect for each other because of it. My only real issue is the extremes of their characterisation; Haresh is the stern school Headmaster and Gita is the scatty wife. However Ace Bhatti and Mina Anwar subvert these clichés through their well judged performances. Anwar might err towards the CBBC norm in her interpretation of Rani's excitable mother but she imbues the character with such heart and enthusiasm that I smile every time she appears. What's important is that whenever Gita or Haresh interact with Rani they come across as genuine parents and over four years feature in some surprisingly affecting moments.

Sarah's Gang: Maria's departure allows the writing team to explore with another issue that children might have to face during their teens - losing friends. For Luke this is almost like a bereavement because whilst they can talk online, Maria had been one of the most important people in his life ever since his birth. Now the natural conflict between Sarah and Chrissie has been removed from he series (it always kept it from becoming too much of a love in) it has been replaced with tension between Clyde and Haresh, which is fascinating to watch develop.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'What encyclopaedia did you find that in?' 'Heat.'
'The fear of the painted smile...'
'If you really want me to count them all I'd pull up a chair, it has been over 700 years.'
'Can you imagine a bogeyman who brings children back from Never-Ever Land?'

The Good: Clowns. Brrr...One of worst phobias. Despite the laughable ending I still can't get through the film It without suffering nightmares afterwards. I don't know what it is that scares me more, the fact that there is an enforced jollity about them which comes across as false and sinister or the grotesque parody of human features smeared across their faces. And the laughter... It's quite a brave monster for The Sarah Jane Adventures to pull off because I can imagine many children have a similar aversion to clowns and they certainly don't hold back from making this teatime Pennywise any less monstrous (complete with disgustingly yellowed teeth and mad staring eyes) than his film counterpart. I like how the scenes of Rani and her family moving in play out in a similar fashion to Maria's arrival in Invasion of the Bane, they are deliberately filmed in a comparable fashion to drive home the point that her replacement has arrived. Rani's integration is helped by the fact that she is investigating weird goings on on her own and she draws closer to Sarah Jane because of it. If I looked into a mirror and saw a clown staring sadly back at me holding a balloon I would probably faint outright. If it reached out of the mirror to grab for me I would probably be locked in a padded cell. This is near the knuckle stuff. Plus scenes set in the toilets...that is a rarity for children's television. Even worse is the clown peering in through the window and then materialising, grinning insanely behind Rani in her kitchen...what the hell is Phil Ford trying to do to me? The role of the Clown/Piper needed to go to a versatile performer and I was surprised at just how good Bradley Walsh was in the role. Not because I thought he wasn't a good actor but because I was used to seeing him in Eastenders which is a fairly undemanding series to perform in despite its allusions to high drama. Spellman is all theatrical quirks, Oddbob the Clown is quietly husky and terrifying and the Pied Piper has an air of solemn regret about him. It's three remarkably different characters, all of which Walsh pulls off with some aplomb. Channelling The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, robotic clowns jerk into life and menace Sarah and her friends. The shows of them grinning straight to camera are shuddersome. Returning to the Pharos Institute gives the series a real sense of internal continuity and regardless of her CBBC inspired performance it is always a joy to catch up with Floella Benjamin's Professor Rivers. There s a glorious piece of music that accompanies the kidnap of the children from school and their march through the street with balloons, memorable because it is playfully menacing rather than bombastic. Such a simple idea, the balloons being filmed backwards floating down into the children's hands and yet it is very effective.  What a fun riff on the Pied Piper miff brought into the 21st Century.

The Bad: Like any group of school kids would be cheering on the science geek. It's not often that the small budget on this show is exposed thanks to sympathetic directors, often surprisingly stylish resources and strong physical and CGI effects. Whilst it isn't poor by any means, the Circus Museum does come across as little more than a single room with a handful of exhibits. It should have been far more elaborate, quirky and chilling. Ultimately it should be a prison of grotesques but it feels like you could just step out of the door at any time. Walking through the deactivated clowns should be a genuinely unnerving experience (like the sequence where the Doctor walks past the statuesque Cybermen in The Age of Steel) but it isn't shot with any great care, the director in far too much of a hurry to make it to the cliff-hanger. Clyde's gags defeating Spellman with laughter is a pretty lame conclusion, especially given most of them are weak.

The Shallow Bit: Mohindra is gorgeous, no doubt about that. And she only gets more beautiful as she gets older.

Standout Scene: The gorgeous moment when Sarah and Rani stand on Bannerman Road at night and discuss the wonders of the universe. It should be unbearably twee but the tone is judged perfectly and it drives home the excitement of being let into Sarah Jane's world. I also got the early signs of the treasurable relationship between Sarah and Rani.

Result: 'Even clowns have their dark days...' Given that he directed Battlefield in 1989 I was doubtful of Michael Kerrigan's assignment to the series and whilst there are a few moments where I felt the tension could have been more tightly wound, he has a fair crack at the whip and populates the story with some memorable imagery. Day of the Clown has the unenviable task of integrating a new set of regulars into the mix after the departure of the unforgettable Jackson's and to its credit it does a great job of maintaining the stability of the show whilst introducing three brand new characters. Whilst I don't think Rani, Gita or Haresh are at their absolute peak yet, they all exhibit a great deal of potential. It helps that the story that is being told is peppered with some of the most chilling imagery yet to feature in The Sarah Jane Adventures, featuring a fearsome and grotesque clown that abducts children simply to scare their parents. Odd Bob puts the willies up me in the way the few monsters in this show manage and Bradley Walsh deserves a lot of praise for realising the multitude of personalities of the villain so effectively. Spellman's modus operandi, existing through the fear of the parents he haunts with the kidnap of their children, is well thought through. It makes his behaviour believable because his survival is based on his actions. The solution to the climax might be a little too simple but there are a number of fun set pieces along the way (Sarah in the hall of mirrors is awesome) and Ford's dialogue is strong throughout. Not one of the stories that I think of when considering the best of SJA, The Day of the Clown just goes to show how consistent this series was as this is still very good indeed: 8/10

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