Terry Pratchett on TV
In the realm of fantasy fiction, the late Terry Pratchett has been overshadowed by rivals J K Rowling and Phillip Pullman.
Pratchett has suffered from a degree of snobbery, with his novels seen by some as the preserve of a particular type of fantasy fan, felt to lack either the mainstream appeal of either J K Rowling or the intellectual pretensions of Pullman – which gave him cachet with those who wouldn’t typically own up to reading the genre.
Whereas it may be socially acceptable as an adult to be seen reading Rowling or Pullman on the bus or train, Pratchett seems damned as strictly the province of the nerd. Pratchett himself saw those who consumed his novels into two distinct groups – “There are fans and there are readers. The fans will look out for the scenery shaking and any alterations in the stories’ adaptations, but the readers are not quite so particular.”
The sheer volume of work the best-selling Pratchett generated could also be off-putting to those tempted to dip into his oeuvre – with 41 novels in the Discworld series alone. Last year Pratchett’s friends fulfilled his wishes and steamrollered the hard drive containing his unfinished novels. To non-fans this probably represented a small act of mercy.
With the announcement of a new BBC Studios adaptation of Pratchett’s Discworld novels and the BBC/Amazon production of Good Omens (his collaboration with fantasy master Neil Gaiman), it looks like the author may finally take his place in the sun – although typically his thunder could be stolen by 2019’s BBC/HBO series version of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
With the casting of James McAvoy (X-Men/Split/Shameless), Clarke Peters (The Wire/Three Billboards), Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Tom Hopper (The King’s Speech/John Adams) and writer Jack Thorne (Channel 4’s National Treasure & Kiri) shaped up to be a very high-end proposition. However, viewing figures have declined in both the UK and the US, but whilst reviews are generally positive, they are not overwhelmingly so.
Unlike the big screen success of JK Rowling and Pullman’s Golden Compass cinematic misfire, Pratchett’s works have so far been confined to the TV arena – animations in the ’90s on the UK’s Channel 4 (Soul Music, Wryd Sisters, 1997) and mini-series/TV movies in the 2000’s from Sky One. (Hogfather, 2006, The Colour of Magic, 2008 and Going Postal, 2010). Cosgrove Hall’s two animated series (Soul Music & Wyrd Sisters, both 1997) are now over twenty years old and haven’t aged particularly well – in fact they looked dated at the time they were broadcast, although the author claimed to be pleased by them.
Sky One’s three Pratchett adaptions in the UK suffered from comparatively low budgets and a broad approach, which to the uninitiated appeared to pigeonhole them as strictly kids TV, which was mirrored in their early evening scheduling. Even though they’re not particularly old, they also seem dated, especially when compared to fantasy drama such as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC1, 2015). Critics were generally kind enough to Hogfather and Going Postal, but The Colour of Magic drew mixed reviews and upon its limited US release, The Village Voice commented that:
“To one unsteeped in Pratchett lore, this celluloid spin-off—released as a two-part telefilm in the U.K.—is unwatchable, and nothing more.”
Due to negative experiences in Hollywood, Pratchett was initially resistant to live action versions of his work.
Talking in 1998 about attempts to get his Discworld novel Mort onto the big screen Pratchett said:
“There’s still some UK involvement, but I really cannot see a purely UK movie made. Mort isn’t fashionable UK movie material – there’s no parts in it for Hugh or Emma, it’s not set it Sheffield, and no one shoves drugs up their bum…”
Eventually he was wooed by director Vadim Jean and producer Rod Brown to give his approval and co-operate on their planned Sky adaptations. Pratchett had cameos in all three shows and was involved in their making, but, being famously protective of his work he sometimes cut a cantankerous figure on set, although he was relatively satisfied with the three.
The series performed well enough in terms of ratings, and boasted some quality onscreen talent that included Christopher Lee, Claire Foy, Charles Dance, David Warner, Tamsin Greig and David Suchet. It must be said that some cast members participated either with an air of vague embarrassment – or as an excuse for playing their roles in a pantomime style, which, given the variable quality of some of the scripting, was excusable.
The decision to cast British sitcom veteran David Jason (Still Open All Hours/Only Fools & Horses) as the lead in both Hogfather and The Colour of Magic may have had a polarising effect with both uncommitted viewers and aficionados, as, whatever you think of his talents, there’s little doubt that Richard Harris, Michael Gambon and Ian McKellen carry more weight with fantasy fans.
Which brings us to the Pratchett adaptations, Good Omens and Discworld.
The challenge for both series is to establish a more committed approach than previous Pratchett adaptations, retaining the humour, but paying attention to the satirical aspects and social commentary that’s part and parcel of his novels. Of the two, Good Omens looked to be the most promising as Pratchett’s usual schtick was leavened somewhat by the novels co-author Neil Gaiman, who is also scripting and show-running the series.
A long gestating project, Good Omens deals with the impending Biblical Apocalypse and the unlikely alliance of Earth-loving Angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and demon Crowley (David Tennant) to prevent the final battle between Heaven & Hell. A top notch cast also included Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Michael McKean (Better Call Saul) and Miranda Richardson (Girlfriends). Yet to debut on BBC2 (despite being available on Amazon Prime in the UK), the series received mixed reviews, dependent on how much the viewer could tolerate the whimsy, mugging from the cast and Frances McDormand’s intrusive narration.
Little is yet known about BBC Studios Discworld, another series that has been in development for years, other than that the show will consist of six-hour long episodes and will be scripted by Simon Allen (Sky Atlantic’s well received Das Boot). Allen’s other credits include journeyman fare such as The Musketeers (BBC1) Strike Back (Sky One) and New Tricks (BBC1), but he has also shown an affinity for the fantasy genre with his BBC shorts Fables of Forgotten Things (2008) and The Magic Mile (2005).
To some the preponderance of Pratchett’s occasionally cringe-inducing character names*, quaintness, and general ‘magical’ verbiage may be wearing to the viewer and difficult for the actors to deliver convincingly – which could prove a turn off to non-fans. Whatever the finished product, and with the obvious exception of GoT, TV versions of fantasy novels can be a notoriously hard sell to mainstream audiences, attested to by the failure of Emerald City (NBC, 2017 -based on L Frank Baum’s Oz books), Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC1, 2015), Earthsea (Sci-Fi, 2004) and Gormenghast (BBC2, 2000) – itself now up for a remake under the aegis of Neil Gaiman (again) and Akiva Goldsmith.
With upcoming The Lord of the Rings Amazon series, The Wheel of Time, The Dark Tower, Narnia, Cursed, The Witcher, Shadow & Bone, Gaiman’s Sandman (all Netflix), The Watch, Runestaff (BBC Studios), The Broken Earth (TNT), The Kingkiller Chronicle (Showtime), Got prequel House of the Dragon (HBO), Ruin of Kings (TBC) and Tales of Asunda (HBO) all on the horizon, they’ll be no getting away from fantasy shows – whether you’re an addict or not.
*Glenda Sugarbean, JHC Goatberger, Cohen the Barbarian, Polly Perks, Cheery Littlebottom, Moist Von Lipwig, Walter Plinge – you get the idea