Carolyn Percy reviews the new Owen Sheers-penned BBC adaptation of the classic children’s story, The Snow Spider.
On a snowy night, Bethan Griffiths went out to look for a lost lamb and never returned. Four years later to the day, her absence is a fracture that still hasn’t begun to heal, felt keenly by all her family, particularly by her father Ivor and younger brother Gwyn. It also happens to be Gwyn’s ninth birthday, and his grandmother bestows him with five special gifts infused with the ancient Welsh magic of his ancestor, trickster hero Gwydion the magician, telling him to cast them to the wind. He does so, and Arianwen, the Snow Spider, answers his call. Could she be the key to finding Bethan?
Originally published in 1986, The Snow Spider (first part of The Magician trilogy), written by British Children’s Fantasy author Jenny Nimmo, takes its inspiration from Welsh mythology, particularly the Mabinogion, winning the Tir na n-Og Award from the Welsh Books Council and the second annual Smarties Prize. It has been adapted before for screen – the HTV miniseries, which included the two sequels, adapted by television writer Julia Jones and broadcast from 1988 to 1991 – and stage – adapted by Mike Kenny that ran between 1990 and 1991, as well as a brief 2013 Christmas revival. This latest adaptation has been commissioned by CBBC and BBC Wales (along with additional investment and support from from the Liverpool City Region Production Fund the Liverpool Film Office), for five half hour episodes, adapted by Owen Sheers.
The original books were set in the then present day of the 1980s, and Sheers has done a fabulous job of updating it for the twenty first century, integrating modernity and modern technology along with the rural landscape in a way that is not jarring but organic. The updated setting also allows Sheers to take advantage of the resurgence of the Welsh language, which is not merely set dressing but a crucial plot point – as Gwyn’s grandmother tells him, language is the key to the magic. This not only adds depth but a sense of connection to an ancient mythological past that enhances the magical atmosphere.
In episode one the visual/special effects are on the light side, but what there are – the whispers on the wind and the strange, eerie, lights on the mountain that seem to spirit Bethan away – all also serve to enhance the magic and atmosphere. The main visual effect is, of course, the Snow Spider herself. Now, some might not have thought it possible to make a spider cute, but BAFTA nominated Liverpool based design company Sparkle VFX (the same studio who worked on another recent BBC children’s drama, Wurzel Gummidge) have managed it. Arianwen (who lives up to the meaning of her name, “white silver”) is at once beautifully elegant and strangely adorable.
Of course good writing and effects are important, but a good cast is needed to complete that and complete it they do. The drama boasts an all-Welsh cast, including Melanie Walters (Gavin & Stacey) as Gwyn’s grandmother, Nain, Matthew Gravelle (Broadchurch) and Kezia Burrows (Doctor Foster) as Gwyn’s parents, Ivor and Glenys Griffiths, and introducing newcomers Fflyn Edwards as Gwyn Griffiths and Mali Jenkins as Bethan. At the heart of The Snow Spider is a story about a family fractured by loss and the effect this has on its individual members. Though Bethan’s disappearance has hit all of them hard, Glenys and Nain appear to be better at coping and functioning normally whereas Ivor has withdrawn emotionally, and Gwyn feels guilty because it was he who left the gate open for the lamb to get out and asked her to find it, and is desperate to have both his sister and father back. The performances are all sincere and on the right side of understated, communicating this well. This first episode ends with the story being set into motion, and the end product is an entertaining and heart-warming fantasy/drama that viewers of all ages can enjoy, whether they have read the original books or not. And may even inspire some to seek them out.
The Snow Spider is on every Thursday at 5pm on CBBC and at 6.05pm every Sunday on BBC1 Wales, with episodes 1-3 available on BBC iPlayer.