Fairy tales: Billy Goat (TV, 2008)
This modern retelling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff was part of a short series of updated fairy tales the BBC ran in 2008. They weren’t that great, apart from this one which I rather enjoyed. Enough, in fact, to put it in our “Death Ray 5” – reviews of our five favourite entertainments of the month (or, sometimes, the absolute worst). From Death Ray 11.
Writer: Jeremy Dyson
Starring: Bernard Hill, Paul Nicholls, Mathew Horne, Nick Mohammed
The most successful of the BBC’s recent four-part Fairytale series, and the only one with fantasy elements.
Perhaps the reason why the BBC’s recent series of fairy tales didn’t work is that they were too far removed from what we instinctively regard as fairy tales – morality tales dressed up with magic pots and talking foxes. The Beeb took the morality element of each story they riffed on, turned it round to an ironic angle, chopped off the magic bits, then dropped it into the modern day.
Dyson’s Billy Goat, however, does work, not least because he keeps the fantasy part front and centre. In this northern soul update, Billy Goat is a boy band, comprising two brothers Gruff – Connor (Nicholls) and Dean (Horne), and their friend Rafiq (Mohammed). They are convinced that they are the next big thing, and when offered the opportunity to work in London, they are fired up with dreams of glory. But their manager Grettongrat, a mean old troll, stands in their way.
This is no mere retelling, nor is it a rewriting, as Jeremy Dyson, on the BBC website suggests it is, but a new story. Billy Goat only uses the original tale as a stepping off point for a play on prejudice and blind ambition. Dyson comes down heavily in favour of the troll in both his interpretation and his reinterpretation of the fairystory. He has a point, the original Billy Goats Gruff were a bunch of greedy bastards, but the Troll, unlike his Grettongrat, was a wholly unsympathetic monster that waylaid and ate innocent travellers.
So, in order to make his version work, the Gruffs have to be that little bit greedier, and the troll that little bit nicer. So what if Grettongrat locks dodgy market traders into cases full of stinging nettles, or coerces a magician to sign his contract by forcing his wife to eat animals in an order according to the song “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly”? Despite his violent tendencies, Grettongrat’s unfalteringly honest, a salt of the earth Mancunian who dispenses sage career advice, He’s a Shylock character (the character design is similar to a 19th century caricature of a Jew), an outsider with funny habits, but nevertheless as human as everyone else.
Bernard Hill’s masterful portrayal of the troll is the real engine behind the success of this story. Hill’s an actor of high calibre, and even a half-baked performance from him is a good one, but he is truly remarkable here, creating a character that is all pathos and the pain of rejection, wrapped up in a thick blanket of spiky pragmatism. It’s an award-winning turn. The remainder of the cast is excellent, but they are merely satellites orbiting Hill’s star.
There’s some other nice touches too, like Connor finding an old book, then disregarding what it says because it does not fit his dreams (a comment, perchance, on we modern types ignoring the age-old wisdom of the fairytale?), and of course a happily ever after, only not for who you might expect… Wholly brilliant.