This review contains spoilers.
From Quentin Blake and Tony Ross’ lush illustrations to his empowering message of kids’ ingenuity triumphing over grown-up stupidity, David Walliams’ novels have always had more than a touch of Roald Dahl to them. They’re automatic bestsellers these days and the BBC has wisely made its adaptations of the comedian’s oeuvre an annual occurrence. After last year’s brief detour to Sky One, Walliams is back on BBC One with The Midnight Gang, a spirited yarn that’s probably his most Dahl-esque story yet.
The pieces are all very familiar – there’s the wicked matron (a fun, campy turn by Haydn Gwynne), the curmudgeonly porter, a ditzy doctor and a ragtag bunch of kids – but in traditional Walliams form, everything’s done tongue-in-cheek. Though it’s a story that’s been told before, there’s always an anarchic energy to Walliams’ adaptations and The Midnight Gang charms, clichés be damned.
We start rather abruptly in St. Hugo’s Hospital as our precocious lead, Tom arrives after being thumped on the head with a cricket ball. Faced with the incompetency of the adults around him, including Mark Heap as the hospital’s clueless head, Tom finds solace in his fellow invalids as they embark on night time adventures around the hospital.
Everything about The Midnight Gang screams Roald Dahl. From Tom and the group’s late-night explorations around darkened hallways to the fantastical balloon-based liberation of an elderly patient framed against the London sky-line, it smacks of Dahl – particularly The BFG. It’s stripped-down escapist fun for kids, undistracted by celebrity cameos (a tradition with Walliams) and glaringly iffy CGI, punctuated by some unexpectedly poignant moments.
Like Dahl, Walliams’ novels have always worn their heart on their sleeves. It’s all daffy hijinks until we see a father proudly accept his son for enjoying dressing in drag or one boy learning to appreciate his grandmother just before she passes away. Here, The Midnight Gang doesn’t shy away from the fact that these are kids in hospital and centres its touching finale around Sally, a young girl being treated for cancer.
Sally’s role here is considerate, noble storytelling and Walliams and co-writer Kevin Cecil establish that while she may not live a long life, her friends will do everything to ensure she has a full one. That final montage was really delightful stuff, and it’s heartening to know that families around the UK are watching this kind of mature entertainment at Christmas together.
Everyone in the adult ensemble is game for this, and it’s nice to see Alan Davies tap into his goofy Jonathan Creek shtick as the hospital porter. The twist that the porter isn’t in league with the matron and actually helps the kids is a lovely, unexpected turn and gave Davies the chance to nicely play it straight for once. Walliams and Gwynne were terrific value as our villains and it’s always fun to see Harish Patel’s Raj make his customary cameo, this time touting some dodgy ice lollies.
It helps a lot that the cast of kids are all stars in their own right. Oliver Zetterström effortlessly anchors the whole thing as Tom while Josh Gottlieb is great fun as the permanently blindfolded Robin (a visual gag that somehow never wears out over the hour). Zaris-Angel Hator has probably the most difficult job as Sally, and she shines in her limited brief screen-time.
High-brow entertainment this is not, but The Midnight Gang only aims to provide good-natured fun for kids, and a handful of fine performances and an unexpectedly mature edge ensures that it scores a bullseye.