Fairy Tales – starts Thursday 10 January 2008 at 9pm on BBC One
Update – 5 December 2007: BBC One's anthology of Fairy Tales, originally scheduled to begin in Week 48 2007 with Rapunzel, will now be screened in the New Year.
An anthology of four contemporary adaptations of classic fairy tales
Four classic Fairy Tales, Rapunzel, Cinderella, The Emperor's New Clothes and Billy Goats Gruff, are re-invigorated and updated by contemporary writers – Ed Roe, Richard Pinto, Anil Gupta, Debbie Horsfield, Jeremy Dyson and brought to life by the very best in British acting talent Bernard Hill, Geraldine James, Shaun Williamson, Lee Ingleby, Charity Wakefield, James Nesbitt, Maxine Peake, Charity Wakefield, Denise Van Outen, Hariett Walter, Liz White, Mathew Horne, Paul Nicholls and Sarah Smart – for BBC One.
Executive Producer, Mark Redhead at Hat Trick Productions says: "The anthology includes tales made popular by the Grimms, Anderson and Perrault's collections and many of these stories have been around for centuries.
"In our collection of comedy-dramas, these timeless tales are reworked by some of the most talented and original writers in British television who tell their own contemporary and hugely entertaining versions."
Patrick Spence, Head of Drama, BBC Northern Ireland, says: "Fairy Tales felt like the obvious next step after the adaptations of the Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare. And these stories offer such fantastic scope for comedy drama, from the screwball comedy of Rapunzel to the edgier, bitter sweet comedy in Billy Goat. We are hoping that everyone will recognise a little bit of themselves in each of them."
Keen to create a collection of distinctive and completely individual stories, Hat Trick approached a diverse group of writers who would bring contrasting comic and dramatic approaches to the project:
- Richard Pinto and Anil Gupta, Hat Trick regulars with huge comedy experience who wrote Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42;
- Ed Roe, a brilliant comedy writer with a background in series like Teachers and No Angels and a very original comedy mind;
- the highly creative Jeremy Dyson one of The League Of Gentlemen, co-writer of the surreal Funland and author of a book of fantastically original, funny and scary short stories;
- Debbie Horsfield writer of the wonderful Cutting It and many other series.
"Fairy stories express the deepest human fears, feelings, dreams and urges which pulse beneath the surface of the modern world just as they did thousands of years ago," says Mark Redhead.
"What's great about adapting a fairy story is that while the basic structure is there, there's often not much in the way of a detailed plot, so the writers have enormous scope to introduce new material to surprise and amuse the audience.
"One of the pleasures of the series is the way in which our versions follow, diverge from and otherwise have fun with the audience's expectations of stories with which they think they are very familiar, which makes each show a very satisfying experience..."
The first fairy tale in the anthology is Rapunzel, updated by Ed Roe (Smack The Pony, Teachers, No Angels). The original fairy tale told the story of a girl with incredibly long hair, thought to be based on the legend of Saint Barbara, who was locked in a tower by her father and was made famous by the Brothers Grimm, who coined the catchphrase 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair'.
"For me the real challenge was trying to find a modern equivalent for the story," says writer Ed Roe. "With fairy tales, you're operating in a world of fantasy, where the drama is externalised and where the characters are generally iconic and uncomplicated, with clearly defined goals and moral positions."
"On a structural level Rapunzel, is a fairly small, intimate drama with a love triangle at its core, and love triangles are pretty much the basis of everything I write," continues Ed.
Ed's updated Rapunzel is set in the competitive world of tennis and tells the story of a failing male tennis player, Jimmy Stojkovic (Lee Ingleby). Jimmy is persuaded by his errant father, Sava (Shaun Williamson) to disguise himself as a woman in a final attempt to win the grand slam tennis final.
Ed continues: "The main character, Jimmy, is a guy who is struggling to be the hero, he constantly falls short of his own and everyone else's expectations of what it is to be a man. This sense of inadequacy, of not being the prince he feels he should be, disables him."
The plan goes awry when Jimmy falls in love with the beautiful reigning champion, Billy Jane Brooke (Charity Wakefield) much to the horror of her over protective mother (Geraldine James).
As to the enduring appeal of fairy tales, Ed adds: "I guess they appeal to the side of us that yearns for a sense of order to the world. As we grow up, we all lose a conviction that good will triumph over bad and gradually come to realise that we're not destined for a happy ending. Indulging in a fairy tale allows us briefly to recapture that innocence."
Richard Pinto and Anil Gupta (Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars at No 42) have chosen to update Cinderella. The original is thought to date back to ninth century China in which Yei-Hsien is helped by a ten-foot long fish, who proves every bit as capable as a fairy godmother, furnishing her with a dress made of kingfisher feathers and tiny gold shoes.
Richard and Anil have set their version in the world of anthropology, at a bustling university and asks the question: Who is really responsible for the evolution of the human race, man or woman?
"The story of Cinderella, which has been around for at least 2,000 years, addresses all the big fairy tale issues: oppression, injustice, and empowerment, oh, and getting dressed up in a fabulous outfit, obviously!" says Richard Pinto.
"Many would argue that it's the most famous of all fairy tales, so it was a daunting task to take something so well known and tell it in a new way, but I hope we've stayed true to the original spirit of the story.
"There was always an element of 'men versus women' in the original story (who's in charge of this relationship, Cinderella or the Prince?), we're just a bit more up front about it in our version," says Richard.
The delightful rom-com features the devilishly charismatic Professor Prince (James Nesbitt), who believes that the 'male of the species' is the reason we are all here today and university cleaner Cindy (Maxine Peake) who, despite her lack of academic education, is determined to prove him wrong.
Anil continues: "In our version Cindy is a cleaner at a university. She is deeply fascinated by anthropology, but despite being very bright and having a broad knowledge (self-taught) of the subject, she doesn't have the qualifications to pursue her dream of becoming an academic.
"She's kept in her place by two research students, Phoebe and Fenola (the ugly sisters), and the Head of the Anthropology department, Professor Brooks (the wicked stepmother).
"It looks like she's destined for a life below stairs, until the arrival at the university of Professor H Prince, a very modern academic, media savvy and photogenic, who's desperate to show the world his phallus..."
In terms of how they began research on their fairy tale, Richard adds:
"To understand what's really going on in fairy tales, to get to the root of the primal urges they describe, you have to revisit them all, from Hansel and Gretel to Rumpelstiltskin and back again. We also looked at the archaeological and anthropological debate surrounding the Great Leap Forward, a contentious period in human evolution when our ancestors suddenly became the dominant species on earth.
"Basically we still don't know why humans 'made it' and Neanderthals didn't, but we think it's either down to the feminine skills of language and communication, or the masculine skills of speed and agility. Basically the answer to this question is the ultimate answer to the battle of the sexes, who's best, men or women? This provides the bone of contention (bad pun, I know) between our two protagonists."
The Empress's New Clothes
Debbie Horsfield (creator of Cutting It, Making Out) retells The Emperor's New Clothes, a story which dates back to the second century.
One of the earliest versions features a painter of invisible pictures rather than a weaver, who claimed only persons of noble birth could see his art. And in a medieval Arabic version of the tale, a king struts naked convinced he's wearing clothes only visible to men who are the flesh and blood sons of their fathers.
"It's the story of a naive young mother who arrives in the big city, is befriended by a celebrity and is immediately swept away by the apparent glamour and excitement of her lifestyle," explains Debbie.
The universal theme about the urge to consume and outshine makes The Emperor's New Clothes so enduringly popular and provides inspiration for Debbie Horsfield's vibrant update.
In The Empress's New Clothes, just as the emperor defines himself through his fine clothes, Debbie's heroine, soap star Michaela (Denise Van Outen) is slavish to fashion to an extraordinarily high degree and hell bent on outshining her co-star and arch-rival Shekeelia (Koel Purie) at the Silver Sphere Awards, the highlight in the soap opera calendar.
Such obsession with expensive clothes and belongings can only lead to downfall and as we all know from the original story – nudity.
In terms of her inspiration for the comedy-drama, Debbie explains: "I talked to people who'd been publicists on various soaps. I combed the glossy magazines, particularly those featuring WAGs and soap stars. I talked to friends in the fashion industry and the PR industry.
"I talked to everyone about whether they bought designer clothes and why. I knew a bit about the world of award ceremonies, having been to a few myself! I'd had personal experience of being a naive newcomer in a big city so didn't need to research that! Likewise, I knew what it felt like to be a new mother with small children, feeling distinctly out of things.
"This fairy tale struck me as particularly relevant for today's celebrity-and-designer-obsessed society. The more I read it, the more I realised how every aspect of the story has contemporary resonances."
The writer of Billy Goat, Jeremy Dyson (co-creator Funland, The League Of Gentlemen) says:
"I was a big fan of fairy tales when I was younger, they were my first literary love. I had a small collection of the Ladybird editions – the ones with the scary, photo-realistic illustrations of talking wolves and cats and suchlike. Aside from Billy Goats Gruff, I was a big fan of Red Riding Hood – mainly for the wolf."
Jeremy's reworked version brings the story up-to-date and centres on Billy Goat, a boy band made up of brothers Connor (Paul Nicholls) and Dean Gruff (Mathew Horne) and friend Rafiq Bhavani (played by newcomer Nick Mohammed).
They enjoy local success in Northern clubs but crave pastures new and fame and fortune.
"I am an avid X-Factor viewer and when Billy Goat was taking shape I'd just started watching the last series. There's no doubt it fed into the conception of the story," says Jeremy.
However, there is one major stumbling block, their manager is a troll. In this world, trolls live side-by-side with humans and Billy Goat are unfortunate enough to have bagged a canny and threatening troll as their manager, Grettongrat, played by Bernard Hill.
As to the enduring quality of fairy tales, Jeremy comments: "Simply put they endure because they articulate durable truths about the human condition. They are deceptively simple on the surface, but full of richness and complexity underneath. They tend to rewrite themselves for each generation, like all the best stuff does."
"The Three Billy Goat's Gruff is a good example – on the surface a simple story about some goats wanting some nicer grass – but something about it gets under your skin. Has the troll really done anything so bad to deserve being butted into the water (and drowning as he does in the proper version of the story)? Isn't the big Billy Goat a little bit greedy to want all that new grass when there's nothing wrong with the field?"