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Jack Holborn
cast: Patrick Bach, Matthias Habich, Monte Markham, Andreas Mannkopff, and Terence Cooper

director: Sigi Rothemund

290 minutes (PG) 1982
Fabulous DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Barbara Davies
It's 1787 and 13-year-old Jack Holborn (Patrick Bach) must leave His Majesty's Orphanage, Bristol, and choose an occupation. Jack has two ambitions in life - to become a cabin boy, and to learn what happened to his parents, whose only legacy is a fuzzy recurring memory and a leather bracelet embroidered 'Jack'. But Jack isn't tall enough for his chosen occupation, so stern Lord Justice Sharingham (Matthias Habich) sends him to become a rope maker instead.

It isn't long before the discontented Jack has stowed away on board the Charming Molly, whose privateer captain just happens to be Sharingham's disreputable and identical twin brother (also Matthias Habich). Captain Sharingham knows what happened to Jack's parents, but he's not telling. Not yet, anyway. He's too busy joining forces with pirates to steal diamonds worth 20 million pounds. But he agrees to spill the beans when Jack has saved his life three times.

Life on the Charming Molly proves to be hard and dangerous; fortunately, the dependable Morris (Terence Cooper) and the parrot-keeping Vronsky (Andreas Mannkopff) take Jack under their wings. Thus begins an action-packed adventure to the African coast, involving treachery, superstition, switched identities, shipwrecks, sunken treasure, disease-ridden swamps, slave traders, dusky beauties, tricky native merchants who'll swindle you at the drop of a tricorne, and, in the very last episode, the truth about Jack's parents.

Period costumes, exotic sunny locations, and majestic tall ships in full sail - who could ask for more? But from the first notes of the rousing orchestral theme tune and the faded colours of the title sequence it's obvious that time hasn't treated kindly this TV miniseries - the two DVDs contain six 47-minute episodes - based on Leon Garfield's novel for children.

Jack Holborn was made in the early 1980s and filmed in and around New Zealand, which probably explains why the daylight in this late-18th century Bristol is too dazzling for authenticity. That the upper-class accents are a bit stiff and the dialogue sometimes out-of-synch may be due to its being a German co-production, using English-speaking actors from Central Europe. That doesn't excuse the wooden fight scenes or the frequently ham acting (in particular from the pirates). To be fair, such shortcomings mar much of today's children's TV too, but I doubt the RSPB would sanction the cavalier treatment meted out to Bartholomew, Vronsky's parrot. Even so, this is an entertaining enough swashbuckler, and the arrival by raft of the diamond-obsessed Trumpet (Monte Markham, familiar from numerous American TV series) in episode three broadens the plot's scope and provides welcome relief from Jack and his constant flashbacks.

Bach brings a gap-toothed, urchin-like quality to the demanding central role of Jack, but he lacks the expertise and experience to pull it off, and at times I found myself sharing the evilly cackling pirates' desire to heave him overboard. Habich (Downfall, Enemy At The Gates) fares better as the dashing Sharingham twins, though he never seems entirely at ease with his double role, trying to delineate between the two by being either overly po-faced or jovial, and his miming of playing the harpsichord is a joke. Markham and Cooper both turn in workmanlike performances of roles that expand in importance and screen time as the series progresses and the cast numbers are whittled down. And Mannkopff provides able comic relief, though I did wince for his parrot!

They haven't exactly gone overboard with the disc extras. You get a synopsis for each episode, and a slideshow of stills from the series, and that's it.

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