MERRY HOGSWATCH TO ALL
by Robert Lopresti
I have written before about Terry Pratchett’s wonderful fantasy series, Discworld. They are one of the most amazing collections of books I have ever read. Imagine my delight a few weeks ago when I discovered that a three-hour production of Pratchett’s novel Hogfather was going to be on TV. This was followed by days of suspense: would it be worthy of the source, or what we usually get from the studios, a butchered piece of schlock?
Before I answer that question let me ask another one: how did they ever sell this show to ION TV? ION TV mostly shows infomercials all day and then, during prime time, switches to reruns of sitcoms like “Mama’s Family” and “Who’s The Boss?” It used to be the Christian-based PAX network. The fact that someone sold them what is essentially a pagan fairy tale – and clearly sold it as a Christmas treat – is amazing.
Here’s the plot, briefly. On Discworld the winter solstice is celebrated as Hogswatch, presided over by the Hogfather, a jolly fat man in a red coat who soars through the air in a sled pulled by four flying pigs, and brings gifts to good children the world around. Sound vaguely familiar? This year, however, a sinister group called the Auditors have hired the Guild of Assassins to kill the Hogfather, and the only one who can save the day by pretending to be the fat, jolly, gift-giver, is Death. Yes, the skeleton with the scythe. Sort of a change from the usual family-learning-to-forgive- each-other tale you expect to watch in front of the Yule Log, huh?
I am delighted to report that the TV movie was great. Oh sure, you can argue that Death’s granddaughter Susan seemed a little too normal, or that the scenes at Unseen University were a bit confusing, but Marc Warren was perfect as the terrifying Mr. Teatime, and you had to love the cameo appearance by the Death of Rats. As soon as the film is available on DVD I’m snatching it up, faster than Death’s servant Albert can fry a pudding.
Waving the Union Jack
But the point I want to make is, how come British TV does such a great job on these things and American TV, to put it kindly, doesn’t?
I may be unfair here. Presumably the bad British stuff doesn’t make it over to our side of the pond. And I don’t buy most of the premium channels that have (I am told) the best American stuff. Maybe my information is out of date.
My opinions solidified back in the early eighties. I remember watching (on PBS’ “Mystery”) the great productions of Peter Lovesey’s “Cribb” series, each a little Victorian police masterpiece. Then I switched to American TV for the death-by-root-canal that was “Nero Wolfe,” starring William Conrad, a model of how NOT to adapt classic mystery fiction. Their idea of having Wolfe talk like a genius was having Conrad not use contractions.
Like I said, I know there is better stuff on Cable these days. (A&E’s version of “Nero Wolfe” only lasted about twenty episodes but it was pretty good. And I love “Mad Men” on AMC, which isn’t a mystery, but is brilliant historical drama.) But I wish someone on our side could do something like “Foyle’s War.”
If you have never seen “Foyle’s War,” it is a British TV series set in World War II. Foyle is a fiftyish cop who wants desperately to be involved in war work – “My son is flying Spitfires and I’m arresting people who overcharge for batteries.” But the powers that be think that he is needed investigating crimes on the southeast coast of England. When a superior tries to cheer him up by asking what he plans to do after the war he replies, pleasantly, “that rather depends who wins.”
The best way to watch the show is on DVD, because on each episode there is a small section that says things like this: “The crime in this episode is based on a robbery in Dover in 1941. The incident Private Jones describes really happened to a soldier named …” And so on. More reality than the usual fluff we get fed.
Words of parting
But speaking of reality, I want to end with my favorite line from Hogfather, the only important speech from the book they left out of the TV movie. A child named Twyla asks her governess if there really is a Hogfather. The governess replies (ellipses in the original):
“Wherever people are obtuse and absurd, and wherever they have, by even the most generous standards, the attention span of a small chicken in a hurricane and the investigative ability of a one-legged cockroach,,,and wherever people are inanely credulous, pathetically attached to the certainties of the nursery and, in general, have as much grasp of the realities of the physical universe as an oyster has of mountaineering … yes, Twyla: there is a Hogfather.”
Wishing you a very happy winter solstice.