Yesterday evening, wanting something to watch while knitting (yes, I can knit again, hurrah!) I trawled through the DVDs and picked The Lost Boys. It’s a BBC drama series which I was shocked to see was aired in 1978, before some of my readers were born. The three episodes were based on the book J M Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin. I read the book at the time, though whether before or after the TV series, I can’t remember. I did however remember the film very well indeed, which is a tribute to its excellence.
When this dramatisation starts, Barrie is already a famous writer, subject to depression and in a sad, sexless marriage. In Kensington Gardens he makes friends with young George Llewellyn Davies, gets to know his mother, Sylvia, and in no time at all is on intimate terms with the whole family. We hear his thoughts as he jots down notes for stories while playing with the boys and devising adventures for them. One story is The Little White Bird, which contains the first mention of Peter Pan. I read it years ago and found it toe-curlingly embarrassing. The best known work to come out of Barrie’s relationship with the family was of course the play Peter Pan, one of the greatest stage successes of all time. In it he made the children his own forever, as he seems to have wanted to do in real life, to make them ‘his boys’. It’s been said that Barrie seemed doomed, that anyone he loved, died. It sounds far fetched but look at what happened to the Llewellyn Davies family.
The father, Arthur, still a young man, in love with his wife and adoring his children, developed cancer. Barrie paid for the best possible medical treatment for him but he died in 1907. His widow, who had been dreading the long, lonely years ahead without him, herself died of cancer just three years later. Five boys were left orphaned and Barrie adopted them unofficially, paying for their schooling. There was no happy future, though. George, the eldest and Barrie’s favourite until he was in his teens, was killed in the First World War. Jack, less fond of ‘Uncle Jimmy’ than the others were, went into the navy instead of going to Eton like the rest. Michael, Barrie’s next darling, was drowned with a friend while at Oxford. The deaths have never been explained and may have been suicide. Peter, who gave his name to the play, won a MC in the war, then set up a successful publishing business. He became an alcoholic and killed himself when he was sixty three. The baby of the family, Nico, outlived all his brothers, surviving until 1980. Thank goodness for that!
Ian Holm is superb as Barrie, utterly convincing. He gloomily comes out with many now well known quotes, as:
‘Nothing much happens to us after we are twelve.’
‘All boys grow up, that is their tragedy. Except one, that is his.’
‘To die will be an awfully big adventure.’
The film links the literary with the real life events in a seamless way which makes it both a story and a piece of literary criticism. I was gripped by it all over again and look forward to watching the last episode this evening.
Photo of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, Daily Mail.