This review contains major spoilers if you haven’t seen the episode yet. Part 1 is repeated next on Sky 2, Monday, May 31st at 4:00pm.
The next time you receive an Amazon package a couple of days late, or that errant postcard from your cousin turns up a month after they got back home, don’t get too mad, and spare a thought for the residents of Ankh-Morpork, capital city of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
Here, even first class post may end up amongst millions of letters in the darkest of corridors, burned by a screaming banshee or snatched by bandits. It’s a far cry from the Royal Mail, and almost as ridiculed. So, when a master conman gets the chance to run the postal service, it’s much more than a job in middle management.
The third adaptation of a Discworld novel for Sky, Going Postal opens with an excellently executed title sequence, easily matching many big screen films frame for frame. But more than just hinting at a healthy budget, this sequence introduces us to a main subject of the story, taking us through the inner workings of the clacks.
The clacks system is a mode of communication in Discworld, a sort of telegraph business that converts customers’ messages to ticker tape which are then relayed from one clacks tower to the next through the city and beyond by semaphore signals using opening and closing shutters at each tower’s top.
The system was the property of the Dearheart family until its inventor, Robert Dearheart, met with financial tragedy and an unexpected death. Control then passed to Reacher Gilt, an unscrupulous man who threatens employees into doing his bidding and who’s let the clacks system fall into disrepair and suspicion after an employee drops to his death in the opening scenes, while a large dark figure flies away.
Gilt isn’t averse to hiring assassins to remove anyone who gets in his way or threatens to thin his fully packed wallet. His preferred dispatcher is a banshee, a half-man half-bat creature who’s perpetually covered in ooze.
There is no competition to communication by clacks, as the all but abandoned post office of Ankh-Morpork is in an even worse state than the dilapidated clacks towers. Patriarch of the city, Lord Vetinari, the highest ranking government official, has the advantage of his own mythical creature in the form of a gorgeous female werewolf sergeant who can scent track criminals. Vetinari wants to abolish the clacks’ monopoly and fakes captured conman Moist von Lipwig’s death at the gallows with an offer of reviving the post office once more.
Von Lipwig, a man who’s lived by his wits since he was orphaned, becoming a master manipulator of men and women, takes the job, with escape and profit his end game objective. This will be difficult, though, as a huge Golem, Mr Pump, has been put in place as both protector and parole officer.
He’ll need looking out for, as each of von Lipwig’s predecessor post masters has met with a gruesome end.
Moist also discovers that this is no ordinary post office. Every surface of the massive, labyrinthine building is littered with undelivered letters and packages, lining every edge of every room and passageway, crammed in cubby holes and corners and spilling out of closets. He has only two postal employees for help, both long since out of practice, the young, simple, anorak straight pin collector, Stanley, and eager, older Mr. Groat.
But in the quiet hours of night, when no one’s around, the words in the envelopes have whispering voices and ink mingles in the air and combines to magically show von Lipwig the consequences of his many cons, in black-and-while silent films with title cards, projected on the post office walls. These scenes reveal that what he thought were victimless crimes actually resulted in death and ruin for many families, including the Dearheart family and the sole survivor, the lovely Adora Belle, with whom von Lipwig is immediately smitten on first sight.
Forced labour at the post office under threat of death isn’t just punishment, it’s his penance for his crimes, balancing von Lipwig’s immoral acts with improving people’s lives, by delivering long overdue mail, such as acceptances of proposals and other good news.
This is the first of the three adaptations to include any sort of romantic element for the lead character. It’s not heavy-handed and I’m sure it will become a vital element in von Lipwig’s eventual redemption.
Ankh-Morpork is a much more solid, but less intimate city-state here, filmed in Budapest in stone and brick buildings and streets. There’s not a pub in sight within city limits that I’ve seen so far, and that element may be missed by those expecting the milling about of shopkeepers, stall owners and animals in the close quarters seen in the prior films.
Another change that’s noticeable is the absence of Jeremy Irons’ softly lisping Vetinari. I thought his gentle menace in The Colour Of Magic was great, but I’m equally happy with Charles Dance in the role, who effortlessly shows, with a glaring glance and calm, even tone, that he’s a man in a powerful position and to be feared.
There’s also been no hint of magic, outside of the possessed letters of the post office, and the towers of the Unseen University are truly unseen in this adaptation. I haven’t progressed through reading the Discworld series of books to this thirty-third story, but it’s clearly nearly wizard-free and not the sword and sorcery story of earlier books such as The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic.
For all the changes from the prior films, once you’ve settled into the new look Ankh-Morpork it’s easy to appreciate the stunning performances of each actor. Richard Coyle, a favourite on the small screen in Coupling and Strange, is immensely impressive as Moist von Lipwig in what is essentially multiple roles in various disguises, dialects and mannerisms of the conman. Clare Foy is a petite powder keg of sarcastic sharp-tongued charm and compact strength in four inch steel-tipped stilettos in her Adora Belle guise, and David Suchet makes a surprisingly effective and intense villain, while managing to draw a smile in every scene.
The hallmark wordplay and puns of Discworld are all there, with quotable lines given to even the least prominent characters, as is the visual humour: in manner (Gilt rising to tiptoe in the presence of the taller Patrician), wardrobe (Reacher’s ridiculously oversized neckwear) and even signage (the hairdresser’s missing apostrophe).
The sets, props and costumes are all first class as are the special effects. One highlight and visual accomplishment is von Lipwig being swept through the post office corridors in a torrent of letters.
Part of the appeal of Discworld is in its parallels to our own spherical world, slightly skewed. We’ve witnessed the invention of the postage stamp (von Lipwig’s attempt to create value he can fold and steal) and the perforated sheet (a serendipitous discovery by the far-from-genius Stanley), and the creation of the Discworld version of the Pony Express.
We’ve learned too that it was Adora’s brother who fell to his death from the clacks tower, and Adora discovers, through Moist’s own letter to her, that it was his fake bonds scheme that was the downfall of the Dearheart family and the start of Adora’s addiction to cigarettes (conveyed here as a much more sinister and heartbreaking habit).
When we last see von Lipwig, he’s trapped in a burning post office, having heroically run in to rescue his workmate, but coming face-to-face with the deadly banshee swooping down on him and blocking his exit and escape from the flames.
I can’t wait to see where these characters end up and whether or not Moist and Adora get more than the most wonderful kiss they’ve never had.
Part Two of Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal will be broadcast on Sky1 tomorrow, Monday May 31st at 6:00pm.