The Lost Boys

 I’ve loved the Peter Pan universe ever since I was only three and when I watched Andrew Birkin’s 1978 docudrama mini-series “The Lost Boys”, the story of Peter Pan’s creator Sir J. M. Barrie fascinated me as well. The mini-series, which BBC produced, is about Barrie and his relationship to his five wards, the Llewelyn Davies brothers. Although directed by Rodney Bennett, it is scriptwriter Andrew Birkin, who brings the magic to the series, as he is the expert on Barrie.

 The three episodes each run ninety minutes. They tell the story of how the Scots author James Matthew Barrie (Ian Holm) in the late nineteenth century met the young boy George (Ian Holm’s own son Barnaby Holm) in Kensington Gardens in London. He struck up a friendship with the boy, his parents Sylvia (Ann Bell) and Arthur (Tim Pigott-Smith) Llewelyn Davies and his four brothers Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico.

 We also hear about Barrie’s own past, his mother whom he adored and his older brother David who drowned when he was fourteen. Birkin lets Barrie say that David drowned when he was twelve, though, in order to make it fit in with a sentence in Barrie’s novel “Margaret Ogilvy” about his mother: "nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much." Through the entire series, Birkin turns a lot of quotes from Barrie’s books into lines that he has Barrie say.

 We get to understand Barrie’s work process and see the different elements that made up Peter Pan and how and why Barrie used them. The series also touches upon his own struggle, not being able to grow up. It shows Barrie’s irony, his manipulating sides and the way he used his friends and family in his books. We learn that at first Arthur didn’t like Barrie as he found him intrusive and his relationship to the boys odd and unhealthy. Barrie loved George, but when George grew older, Barrie’s love turned to Michael and had people speculate why Barrie loved George and Michael so dearly, not understanding that he himself was just a little boy on the inside.

 The series shows Barrie’s divorce and the double tragedy in the Llewelyn Davies family that lead Barrie to become the guardian of the five boys. It doesn’t hold anything back, but tells about the problems with the boys’ nanny Mary Hodgson (Anna Cropper), Barrie’s neglect of his wife, actress Mary Ansell (Maureen O’Brien), and how she resorted to taking a lover, author Gilbert Cannan (Brian Stirner). It mentions Peter Llewelyn Davies living with a married woman and Michael’s homosexuality, although in the series the name of his lover has been changed from Rupert E. V. Buxton to Roger Senhouse (Adam Richardson). The last episode of the series shows how Barrie’s boys grow into men and how they are tragically affected by the Great War (WWI)…and by Barrie, Barrie ending up quite lonely except for his secretary Lady Cynthia Asquith (Sheila Ruskin) and her family.

 You can’t say “The Lost Boys” without saying Ian Holm. Holm doesn’t play Barrie, he IS Barrie. The likeness is striking and his acting is brilliant. Ian Holm is truly a gift to the series, but the same can’t be said about the other actors. Most of them don’t have an impact at all and William Hotkins as Barrie’s American theatrical producer Charles Frohman both looks and feels wrong for the part.

 As for the Llewelyn Davies brothers, no less than twenty-two actors play the five boys, none of them looking particularly alike, so it’s more or less impossible to recognise them from scene to scene as they grow older. The only ones I noticed were the young George (Barnaby Holm), the oldest Michael (William Relton) and the oldest Peter (Tom Kelly). Furthermore the real Llewelyn Davies brothers were all beautiful children who grew into handsome men, and that can’t be said about all of the child actors with the exception of Barnaby Holm, who has an almost feminine beauty as young George.

 There are several voice-overs in the series, as we “hear” real letters written by Barrie, Sylvia, Arthur and the boys along with Barrie’s notes and writings and this makes up the documentary part of the series. In general, it has more in common with televised theatre, though, than with a documentary or a film. Both the interiors and the exteriors reminds me of LWT’s old drama series “Upstairs, Downstairs” from 1971-75 except for the scenes in Kensington Gardens that are made to resemble Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in Barrie’s storybook “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” from 1906. All in all the series has a remarkable atmosphere, though, beautiful, sensitive, ambiguous, allusive and gloomy. At one point Barrie says that Peter Pan is a ghost of a boy who died in childhood, and that is the feeling of the series. Tragic, dark, sentimental and sweet all at the same time. Strangely, though, we don’t get to hear much about the work, release and reception of Barrie’s Peter Pan stories.

 There is a long sequence in the first episode about the making of “The Boy Castaways” from 1901, a photo book that Barrie made with the Llewelyn Davies boys at Black Lake as a forerunner for Peter Pan, but not much about the famous works. Sure, several of Barrie’s Peter Pan stories are mentioned (the novel “The Little White Bird”, the play “Peter Pan” and the illustrated story book “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens”), but they don’t take up much space compared to “The Boy Castaways”, and the children’s book “Peter and Wendy” is hardly mentioned. I also miss seeing the theatre and film man Barrie as he invented many of the special effects techniques that are used on stage and in films, so I think that would have been worth a mention. He also invented the girl’s name Wendy, but that’s not mentioned either, probably because there are no little girls in the series.

 Back in the seventies when I first saw “The Lost Boys” I didn’t know how big an influence it would have on my life. Not only was it a great help to me when years later I wrote my first Ph.D. thesis about Peter Pan and later a book based on the thesis, it also got me in touch with Andrew Birkin who has helped me out on another book of mine. In the early 1990 I got in touch with Andrew for the first time as I needed to quote his brilliant book “J. M. Barrie and the lost boys” (1979) in my thesis and then in the mid-2000 we got in touch again. By then I was writing the official biography of my friend, rock drummer Don Powell from the British rock band Slade, and Andrew was the lucky owner of several tour photos of the band as he had toured with them in the 1970s while writing the screenplay for the film “Flame”. He let me use his photos without charge, because that is the way Andrew is: kind, unselfish, sharp, intelligent, sensitive and with a great sense of humour. I still find it positively weird that both Andrew and I are leading Barrie/Peter Pan experts and both have worked with Slade. Slade and Peter Pan is such an unlikely combination in the first place, but that we are two with the same combination is even less likely!

 Anyway, “The Lost Boys” is brilliant because it tells the (almost) whole story and the (almost) truth about Barrie and his strange relationship to the Llewelyn Davies boys. What makes it even more brilliant is Ian Holm as Barrie. Well-deservedly, the series won a BAFTA and several RTS awards and I’m going to give it 5 out of 5 stars: *****

 © Lise Lyng Falkenberg, 2013