The Adventures of Black Beauty complete second series DVD review

After Skippy the kangaroo and Flipper the dolphin came Black Beauty the horse. Parsley the Lion revisited the show to see if he can believe in intelligent animals...

The complete second series, available fully in tact on DVD

In the early 70s each ITV region had its own flavour of children’s entertainment. I was living in the London area, so got Saturday Scene with Sally James, and shows like Catweazle and The Adventures of Black Beauty.

Horses were most emphatically the province of girls. It was portrayed as their every dream to own one, and go riding a lot. As a city dwelling boy from a family of modest means, the thought of riding a horse was a very long way from my mind, and I don’t remember ever watching an episode of the show at the time. However, with the possibility of some of my favourite actors and writers being involved I was up for revisiting the show to see if I’d missed anything.

First thing to say is that the production values on the show were extremely high. Made on film with a theme by Denis King and music by Harry Rabinowitz, the show boasted impressive and iconic footage of a black horse running through the countryside. So iconic was the imagery that afterwards Lloyds Bank chose to have a black horse riding through the countryside in its adverts, with music in a similar vein. They already had a black horse motif, but the show made it get up and walk. Or run, as it were.

That said, it does sometimes grate that the dubbing is so perfect and clean that it is extremely obvious that the action was not recorded at the time. If it wasn’t sacrilege to make such a gruesome comparison, you might say it had echoes of Paramount Comedy’s Badly Dubbed Porn, where a character occasionally speaks when it’s quite obvious that their mouth is not moving.

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Secondly, in a half-hour format of morality plays, the show in some sense was an echo of the fifties Robin Hood, also being a period-based drama, with very clear moral messages. By the 70s, such messages were explicitly the province of children. The series extrapolates from the original Black Beauty book by Anna Sewell, written in the late nineteenth century from the horse’s point of view. Thirdly, as I recall it was extremely successful and high profile, gracing Look In (children’s TV Times), and being very well known. This is quite an achievement when the end credits advise you that the action has all taken place on one farm endlessly re-dressed and re-presented to imply a world lost in countryside history.

So, how has it stood the test of time? I watched an episode in the presence of my friend Paul Lester and his three children to see if it would engage them. Paul and I were definitely interested, particularly when the episode featured Mike Pratt, famous for his portrayal of Geoff Randall in the ITC show Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Unless the brief was for him to be so hysterically over-the-top in Gawd-blimey ‘Artful Dodger’ clichéd awfulness that people would burst out laughing, I couldn’t say that his appearance was a ‘success’.

Paul’s boys, who (to his eternal credit) are Prisoner, Captain Scarlet and Doctor Who fans, were stoically unmoved by our interest. I did spot his daughter Talia glancing interestedly at the screen occasionally, but she soon lapsed into being annoyed that we weren’t watching the DVD of her choice. Still, I could have imagined that given a more sympathetic presentation, and without the insurmountable obstacle of her father and I being interested in it, she might just have enjoyed it.

The show’s episodes have a generally formulaic, if not unpleasant, structure. They begin with a short visual resume of what is going to happen in the episode, to the strains of rousing background music. As the action reaches some kind of not particularly obvious climax, the theme tune, and slow motion footage of Black Beauty splashing his way through the countryside take over.

The production boasts some British TV stalwarts including directors Charles ‘Charlie’ Crichton (later to be responsible for the only outdoor shot episode of Space:1999) and Peter Duffell (Man In A Suitcase).

The stories concern the likes of some dastardly injustice perpetrated by dodgy villains and exacerbated by the unpleasant arrogance of some local gentry. The good works of the Doctor father who owns Beauty usually prevail with the lucky intervention of well-intentioned children who do not always respect the boundaries of their father figure’s endless and bounteous morality.

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Black Beauty is not only endowed with the ability to behave in every sense as if he has a human brain, but he also has a sixth sense of being able to predict trouble before it has occurred. Like its predecessors Skippy and Flipper, he is somehow capable of conveying that something bad has happened, so forcing people to come to the rescue. As with the other animals, some idiot people aren’t able to appreciate that an animal can have such powers, but luckily those that know the horse are completely comfortable with his abilities.

Personally I can just about live with such plot devices, but I am rather romantically sentimental about such things. It’s no more ludicrous than the average contemporary fantasy piece, but probably seems more ludicrous because it is played so ‘straight’ by the cast.

Unfortunately the DVD set has not captured the love and affection that the series is almost certainly held in by many young girls of the time. Unlike the recent loving republications of Jackie et al, the DVD set is a ‘bald’ dump of the series that you could probably match with your own home-made DVD recorder efforts. That said, there is some virtue in having a straightforward episode navigation available, and not having to traverse tedious submenus or find that the DVD is playing the theme tune endlessly in irritating succession.

All in all a light fantasy romp into charming and very polite 70s children’s morality via a period drama delivered to a good production standard.

3 out of 5

Parsley the Lion’s own website is gardenrecords.com and he can be contacted via parsley@gardenrecords.com

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Rating:

3 out of 5