This apparently very rare 1987 British TV show for kids admittedly feels like it’s a ‘70s show, but I think that’s one of its strengths, actually, since it veers into darkness while retaining a quality of innocence. Perhaps this is a result of the struggle between the nice enough script and the never-seen-a-performance-quite-like-this-on-a-kid’s show turn by Shirley Henderson.
As the troubled Elizabeth Finley, this was Henderson’s first acting role, and I can’t believe anyone could watch it at the time and not think something was going to become of this actress.
Elizabeth is unsettled. She doesn’t really get along with all the other kids. They think she’s weird. She’s obsessed with boats and the sea, for one thing. She’s also having a hard time at home. Her mother has been dating her school headmaster and they are going to get married, displacing Elizabeth’s grandmother, the one person she believes understands her, out of the household.
Elizabeth is also fixated on a stone in her village which stands on a cliff overlooking the water and is purportedly originally a witch based in local historical legend. Elizabeth is so fixated on the legend that she has vivid visions of the young accused witch, Mary Lamont, and is slowly beginning to empathize with the girl from the past far too much.Is the spiritual connection real?
At the same time, an American with ancestral ties to the region, specifically the legends that Elizabeth obsesses about, has come to town and Elizabeth muscles her way onto his boat, much to her mother’s disapproval. She wrangles the American into giving her boating lessons, but as the story continues, he begins to make note of Elizabeth’s delusions.
In Henderson’s hands, Elizabeth is a force to be reckoned with and one of great depth and agony. The other people in the show are fine – including Alan Cumming, who most recently won a Tony for his role in the revived Cabaret – but the actress seems as much of a handful as the character she plays. The other actors don’t know quite what to do with this young woman as she dances rampaging circles around their standard television emoting. It’s glorious to watch.
And thanks to Henderson, the show does become compelling. You want to know what happens to Elizabeth and you even want to find out whether there is any validity to her delusions. Henderson obviously went on to prove that everything she had in her in the unassuming little kids’ show was ready to come out, and it’s great to be able to watch the volcano as it just started to erupt.