Many of you may recognize this from the reference Meg Ryan’s character makes to Noel Streatfield in You’ve Got Mail. I know that has been my only introduction to her works. When first reading about this adaptation, I’m not sure the light bulb went off, but either way, I do not regret having stumbled onto this little jewel.
An explorer who has no place or reasons to allow a small girl into his home, “Great Uncle” Matthew or “Gum” (Richard Griffiths) finds himself quite at a loss when he becomes the sole living relative to an eleven-year-old child brought to his home by her nana (Victoria Woods). The two find they have much in common and Sylvia forms quite an attachment to Gum, only to have him gallivant across foreign countries leaving her in the care of her capable nana. Upon his return trip he brings home an orphaned baby, who is called Pauline. At a loss with what to do with a child, Sylvia (Emilia Fox) and Nana take on the job of bringing her up while Gum returns to his adventures. At his next two stops he also brings home something of a souvenir both times in the form of two small girls named Petrova and Posey. Since the girls either have no family or are unwanted by a parent, they are given the surname of “Fossil” and raised in a loving but increasingly poor livelihood by their guardian, Sylvia. Grown into their teens, the Fossil sisters share a unique bond but each are different.
Youngest Posey (Lucy Boyton) was sent with a pair of ballet slippers from her mother who is a talented dancer, having choosen her career over her daughter. This makes young Posey determined to follow in those footsteps. Petrova (Yasmin Paige) refuses to become a lady, although she is smart, her head is often in the clouds, one day wishing to fly those “roadways in the sky.” Imaginative to a fault, Pauline (Emma Watson) is unsure of her ambitions but is quick to find them. Out of money and with Gum gone some twelve years, Sylvia is frightened at what to do with a family, that while not blood are made up of love. Opening their home to boarders, they encounter a variety of characters. From the energetic dance instructor Theo Dane (Lucy Cohu) to the quiet, grieving Mr. Simpson (Marc Warren) the house comes alive again. Theo sees in the girls’ potential to work in theater, something Sylvia bristles at but allows Theo to talk her into letting them audition. Pauline finds passion on the stage even while claiming it to be merely because she must while Posey is seen as a great talent… talent each girl longs to see realized but when an illness hits close to home, their lives could be changed. Charming is the best way to describe this little known novel-to-screen adaption. Unable to compare it to its original form, all I can attest to when looking at it merely as a story is what a fabulous job the BBC did in bringing this to light. It is a bit confusing in establishing all the characters, only because two of them have a nickname other than their given name, something we aren’t aware off, so we occasionally find ourselves curious as to who everyone is referring to. Too minor a complaint to spoil the story, there is something wonderfully innocent about it, where few but worth mentioning material soils the script.
The three girls are growing up without the benefit of a “normal” childhood in the sense that Sylvia struggles to bring them up properly, although we never doubt that they are loved. Being teenagers, Posey often teases the two elder about their growing out of their dresses “around the bust.” Some of the costumes/dresses may be a bit immodest; other girls attending school are quite competitive. Social drinking is seen in one or two scenes. The more potential to trouble comes with the pair of female boarders Dr.’s Jakes and Smith who do room together – one appears more masculine (deep voice, eyeglass), the other is more grandmotherly-like with a sweet disposition. Nothing is ever “confirmed” but in a glance we hear them remark to another person about learning to take life’s surprises in stride as they did. Being so minor it barely deserves a great deal of thought, but depending on your perception could in part ruin some of your enjoyment.
Knowing little of this apart from anxious anticipation from most everything BBC, this 1930’s set drama has since become one of my absolute favorites. Being a story about three girls coming of age under trying circumstances offers its viewers a glimpse, even if only for eighty-four minutes into what is sweetly pure in life. I loved its concentration on these girls’ lives and how each come into their own… even amidst the drama and misfortunes of the stage. The girls do become rather conceited and selfish, which is sad for a while but we are still quite fond of them throughout. More so in the elder and youngest cases; both of them act as if the rest the world is meaningless under certain situations. Pauline imagines herself a superior actress after one performance while Posey is fascinated with nothing but ballet – eventually they think of nothing but their pursuits, acting as if the people in their lives are there for nothing but to bend to their wills. And with that comes a great deal of sobbing, yelling insults and moments of heartbreaking emotions. Pauline claims her reactions as necessity when in reality they are more for selfish reasons than anything.
With such star-studded name recognition, BBC certainly had nothing but the best in this little period piece. Everyone from Emilia Fox to Eileen Atkins appear. Perhaps no one is more impressive than the three fresh faces that portray the Fossil sisters. Emma is naturally known for her role in Harry Potter these seven or so years, likely even by those of us leery of the film series, but Lucy and Yasmin are fairly new to the scene. Each girl was marvelous in her role, and seemed quite at ease with her character. Lucy in particular was lots of fun, because I’d also seen her in the 2008 miniseries Sense and Sensibility starring as the precocious Margaret Dashwood. Really, I couldn’t criticize one performer – everyone seemed well suited to his or her role. (Costume fans enjoy picking out all those familiar faces and voices from the feature film Sense and Sensibility to BBC’s David Copperfield.)
If looking for something “safe” to watch on one of those girly nights, this is a lovely choice, to say nothing of the fact that it is worth owning a copy of. There is heart behind it and although there is a kind of bittersweet ending, I was pleased that filmmakers didn’t choose to end on that note, showing us one last happy time instead which brings us to the closing credits.