Starring: Sophie Thompson, Gerald James
This BBC TV series from 1978 (based on the classic children’s novel by Alison Uttley) is an engaging mixture of history lesson and timeslip story. Recovering from pneumonia, city girl Penelope (Sophie Thomspon) is sent to stay with her countrified uncle and aunt on their Derbyshire farm, an historic pile that once belonged to a Catholic family involved in a plot to free Mary Queen of Scots from prison. Before she knows it, she’s stepping back into Elizabethan times where she is befriended by various locals who are very handy at providing ye olde exposition …
It’s a show that now has a double timeslip factor, in that one of its main attractions for contemporary viewers is the opportunity it offers to wind back the clock to the rural England of the ’70s. And with some nice location photography and a pleasantly cuddly performance from Gerald James (perhaps best remembered for appearing in the “Railway Station” episode of Sapphire and Steel) as the uncle, the “present day” scenes are very well handled, strongly evocative of log fires, cream teas and long country walks.
Despite humming with plans to tunnel Queen Mary to freedom, the historic scenes haven’t dated quite so well, partly because there’s too much theeing and thouing and lute-playing, but mainly because Penelope’s reactions don’t seem to have been thought through very clearly – she seems placidly ready to hang out with her new Elizabethan besties but keeps on mentioning things that only a denizen of the 20th century would know, although luckily they’re too busy doing picturesque but time-consuming chores to notice.
The series is spliced together from a combination of film and video – a common practice back in the ’70s, but in this case, the transition in particularly abrupt because the downstairs of the farmhouse is shot in film and the upstairs on video, with Penelop forever trotting from one to the other. Still, despite these niggles, this is an enjoyable version of a much-loved story, with a clean, attractive transfer on this welcome DVD re-release. 6/10