It’s lovely the way things fall together sometimes. Noel Streatfield’s book Ballet Shoes is a huge favourite in the Clowns family household – my mum enjoyed reading it as a girl and it was one of those books I loved to read and re-read in my own childhood. And whilst I was initially filled with trepidation at the prospect of a television adaptation, the cast that was announced was like something out of a fantasy dream team of dames and dames-to-be. From Eileen Atkins to Lucy Cohu, Victoria Wood, Harriet Walter and Gemma Jones, this is the kind of female cast I dream about seeing and for it to be in a story so dear to me felt just right.
That story concerns the three Fossil sisters – all adopted as young girls by Gum, a wealthy palaeontologist and adventurer, but raised by his niece Sylvia and Nana. When he fails to return from an expedition, the family are left to fend for themselves in increasingly straitened circumstances and in his absence, decide to sell off some of his extensive collections of fossils and artefacts and take in a variety of boarders. And this injection of new life into the household offers up a whole new world of opportunity for Pauline, Petrova and Posy who until now had previously been home-schooled as Posy receives the training to become the ballerina she is fated to be, Pauline is able to develop her interest in becoming an actress and Petrova can follow her passions of mechanics and following in aviator Amy Johnson’s footsteps.
Emilia Fox brings a hugely compassionate fragility to the ever-worrying Sylvia and Victoria Wood is just brilliant as the brusquely comic Nana, who both try and keep Emma Watson’s determinedly talented Pauline, Yasmin Paige’s practically minded Petrova and Lucy Boynton’s downright precocious Posy in line. But the real joy comes with the boarders – retired academics Dr Jakes and Dr Smith, Gemma Jones and Harriet Walter both blissful in kindly loved-up form who tutor the girls, Lucy Cohu’s delightfully vivacious dance teacher Thea Danes who introduces them to the world of stage school where they seem set to pursue their futures, and Marc Warren’s hauntedly handsome John Simpson who appeals to the quieter members of the family, but in different ways.
Where Streatfield’s writing really succeeds in standing out is in the decidedly melancholy undertones to the lives of so many of her characters and this is something that Heidi Thomas’ adaptation doesn’t shy away from either. There are many lonely souls in this world, desperate to make connections with someone, anyone; the threat of poverty that drives the young girls into becoming working actresses is all too real; and though the main thrust of the story is about following one’s dreams, there’s a keen eye on the consequences of selfish ambition and the importance of family ties.
As with all adaptations, there are aspects of the novel that have been changed and sometimes bafflingly so, but it is usually best not to pull too hard at that thread and just to appreciate what is in front of us. And this is a gorgeous piece of television that feels true to the spirit of the original and capturing much of the childhood magic that has kept its place so beloved in my heart.