A battered child and a curmudgeonly old man cement an abiding friendship in Masterpiece Theatre's adaptation of "Goodnight Mr. Tom", by Michelle Magorian, airing Sunday, May 30, 1999, 9 to 11pm ET on PBS (check local listings).
John Thaw (Inspector Morse on Mystery!) stars as Tom Oakley, a reclusive widower living in rural England at the outbreak of World War II. Nick Robinson is Willie Beech, a nine-year-old Londoner who is evacuated to the countryside with other children and ends up in Tom's care.
Published in 1981, "Goodnight Mr. Tom" was hailed as "a powerful first novel" (New York Times Book Review) and "an engrossing and poignant story" (The New Yorker). Many awards followed and the book has settled among a select company of beloved children's classics that are in constant demand in libraries and bookstores.
"It makes a perfect family film," says Thaw, who takes on a radically different role-and appearance-for this film. "It has something for everyone, because in a way it's about everyone. We've all been children. We've all felt frightened. We've all felt unloved-and loved, hopefully."
Love seems in pretty short supply when young Willie arrives in the village of Little Weirwold from bomb-threatened London. His single mother has instructed that he be placed "with someone who's religious or near a church." Tom qualifies in the latter category, since his cottage is next to the churchyard where his wife and young son have lain buried for more than twenty years.
Willie's mother has another instruction: "Like most boys he's full of sin," she writes. "I've put the belt in for when he's bad." Tom soon discovers that Willie is covered with scars and that his spirit is completely broken.
And so begins Willie's rehabilitation to a world he never knew: friendship, help with his education, encouragement in his natural talent for drawing, carefree play with other children, fishing trips, and above all the affection of a real father.
Completely immersed in his unexpected role as parent, Tom finds that his own scars are healing-the painful wounds suffered with the loss of his wife and child to scarlet fever while he was serving in the previous war.
But one day Willie receives a telegram from his mother telling him to return home. Reluctantly, Tom puts him on the train. Weeks go by. Suspecting that something terrible has happened, Tom travels to London and arrives in the midst of a bombing raid. He makes his way to Willie's address and discovers the true depths of horror experienced by the boy he has come to regard as his own son.
"Goodnight Mr. Tom" is a production of Carlton Television, and is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston. It was adapted by Brian Finch from the novel by Michelle Magorian. It is produced by Chris Burt ("Inspector Morse", "Into the Blue") and directed by Jack Gold ("Into the Blue"). Executive producers are Ted Childs and Lewis Rudd.
Masterpiece Theatre is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston, where Rebecca Eaton is series executive producer. Pulitzer prize-winning writer Russell Baker is series host. Masterpiece Theatre is closed captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by The Caption Center at WGBH.
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