The Famous Five, review: forgettable Enid Blyton update is an awfully boring adventure

Kip the dog, Diaana Babnicova, Flora Jacoby Richardson, Kit Rakusen and Elliott Rose
Kip the dog, Diaana Babnicova, Flora Jacoby Richardson, Kit Rakusen and Elliott Rose - BBC

The BBC’s new Famous Five adaptation has been made by Nicolas Winding Refn. If you’re not familiar with his work, it’s enough to know that his stock-in-trade is ultra-violent films such as Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Refn adapting Enid Blyton is a bit like asking Quentin Tarantino to make The Wind in the Willows. The opening titles for The Famous Five: The Curse of Kirrin Island (CBBC) promised horrors to come: the names of the cast stamped on the screen in strikingly modern, nausea-inducing style.

But what followed was a mostly traditional and really quite boring 90 minutes, and the only trace of Refn was the 1980s synth-pop score jarringly laid over almost every scene. The grand cinematic gesture is that Timmy the dog gets an origin story.

The thing you will not fail to notice is that George is now mixed race, because Aunt Fanny (Ann Akinjirin) is black and Uncle Quentin (James Lance) is white. But that’s the sole concession to modern sensibilities. Refn hasn’t done away with the swarthy foreign villain; he’s also kept in the ginger beer, although it does make a very late appearance. The writers had an open goal with the character of George – in Enid Blyton’s books, she declares: “I hate being a girl. I won’t be.” Imagine what Russell T Davies would have done with that! But there are no explorations of gender dysphoria here, just George being a tomboy and warning her cousins: “The last person that called me Georgina got a slap.”

Blyton’s books didn’t go big on the interior lives of her characters, and nor does this, in a story loosely based on Five on a Treasure Island but mostly invented. Julian is a brick, Dick is a geek, Anne is whiny. There’s nothing else to them – even George, who has been put at the centre of the story.

Jack Gleeson and William Abadie
Jack Gleeson and William Abadie - BBC

The adventure itself is perfunctory, involving some hidden treasure and the font of all knowledge. Game of Thrones’ Jack Gleeson has fun as the megalomaniac baddie and is the only person here attempting comedy. Lance, a decent comic actor, is wasted.

Right at the end, Refn goes madly off-piste by giving Gleeson a vision of the future which features – in archive news footage – Nazis, the atom bomb, the Spice Girls and a queue outside an Apple store. Then we’re back to the ginger beer.
Classic stories can still appeal to today’s children – Mackenzie Crook’s Worzel Gummidge films are charming, and the BBC has done a lovely job adapting Blyton’s Malory Towers books. But this one is instantly forgettable.