If you’re unfamiliar with the Professor Branestawm books then let me bring you up to speed. Norman Hunter’s thirteen novels, written over a fifty-year period, chronicled the escapades of Professor Branestawm, a scatterbrained boffin who created absurd contraptions in his ‘inventory’, constantly trying the nerves of his ever-patient housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop. As a character, Professor Branestawm is like an adult William Brown (of Richmal Crompton’s Just William series): feckless and unpredictable except the good professor has the added trait of being mad as a bag of spanners. This Christmas, author, actor and screenwriter Charlie Higson has adapted Hunter’s novels into a family telefilm that boasts a terrifically starry cast – namely sealing down comedian Harry Hill as the eponymous scientist – and a plum positioning in the Christmas schedules. I’m sad to report that the results are rather mixed.
Set in the twee town of Pagwell, The Incredible Adventures Of Professor Branestawm sees Connie (a nicely understated performance by Madeline Holliday), a rebellious young girl storm out of her classes led by bitter schoolmistress Mrs Blitherington (Miranda Richardson is just one of the few big names given short shrift here) and, by chance, into the haven of local oddball Professor Branestawm’s chaotic home.
Understandably, it would be difficult for Higson to transfer the Professor Branestawm books to the small screen while still retaining the same storyline (I doubt many of us would sit through an hour-long adaptation of “The Professor Borrows A Book”, one of the original stories in which Professor Branestawm must hastily return all his borrowed volumes before they become overdue) so he has widened the scope and raised the stakes higher than, to use the aforesaid example, a library fine.
Instead, Higson’s script sees slippery businessman Mr Bullimore (played by Ben Miller who has made a tidy sum in moustache-twirlingly bad villains this year) and snotty parish councillor Harold Haggerstone (played by funny man David Mitchell) plan to raze Professor Branestawm’s house to the ground and build a munitions factory in its place (although a rather small one as it can’t be higher than the town’s church steeple, remember). But despite this hefty problem Charlie Higson’s script, strangely, confines the main characters to Professor Branestawm’s house and grounds and leaves them pottering about there for a great deal of the run-time. As a result there is never any real sense of danger or threat. Mr Bullimore might glide around town in his car talking about being evil and plotting to do evil things but there’s very little evidence (aside from the somewhat uncomfortable scenes of him mistreating his weak-willed wife). While I understand Higson’s decision to increase the peril and create a story more compelling than Norman Hunter’s original books, it feels as if The Incredible Adventures Of Professor Branestawm suffers from Postman Pat: The Movie syndrome. The main problem with the big screen transfer of the loveable postie was that the plot was light-years away from the mishaps we saw on television. The same applies here and, as a result, the Professor Branestawm TV outing doesn’t quite do the books justice. After all, Professor Branestawm’s adventures were always caused by his own mistakes.
The jokes are a bit of a hit-and-miss affair with some gags producing proper belly laughs (the professor’s equally potty best friend, Colonel Dedshott – played by Higson’s The Fast Show chum, Simon Day – and his habit of mispronouncing Haggerstone’s name as well as the robot father sequence were both highly amusing) and others leaving me cold (the slapstick with the local constable seemed to pop up far too often). However, almost every line delivered by Hill’s Professor Branestawm was hilarious and had The Incredible Adventures Of Professor Branestawm not secured Harry Hill in the central role, it wouldn’t be as nearly as good. Looking at Hill’s eye-popping, larger-than-life performance here, it’s amazing to think that this is his acting debut (outwith his duff feature film in which he played himself) and off the back of this, he’s sure to get plenty of acting jobs in the future.
I’m not sure if it was just me but was anyone else aware of the frequent use of CGI? From the fire in the town hall to the spring-cleaning machine throwing things out of the window to the scenes inside Mr Bullimore’s car, every time a green screen or digital manipulation was used, it was noticeable and off-putting. I’m not sure if The Incredible Adventures Of Professor Branestawm was aiming for deliberate nostalgic datedness or if it was just unintentionally old-fashioned but the CGI felt tremendously out of place.
On a brighter tone, I adored Higson’s gleefully explicit albeit brief nod to Doctor Who and it seemed that Harry Hill was channelling a bit of the Doctor in his performance. Or perhaps that was the clearly heavily influenced wardrobe department. Either way, he was a very charismatic Professor Branestawm.
In spite of my issues with the recurrent use of CGI, the scattershot humour and how wasted the stars were in bit parts (poor Adrian Scarborough had about five lines and Vicki Pepperdine was given very little to do. Furthermore, when you consider the character of the mayor was supposed to be played by Brian Blessed before he pulled out because of illness, you have to admit the talents of the supporting cast were squandered), I enjoyed The Incredible Adventures Of Professor Branestawm. It was old-fashioned, perhaps deliberately so, and it might not have hit the mark every time but it was light, relatively fun Christmas fare.
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