Spending time with a grandparent can be one of the most rewarding things in life, something that Grandpa’s Great Escape captures with real heart. It is, of course, based on the book of the same name by David Walliams – joining a long line of BBC adaptations of Walliams’ novels, which have come at an almost yearly rate since 2012’s Mr. Stink. This year has seen Sky 1 also join the Walliams universe with Ratburger, but the Beeb’s latest family comedy proves they’re still flying high, and that Walliams’ work has lost none of its wit.
The story follows Jack (Kit Cooper), a young boy whose grandpa (Tom Courtenay) used to be a Spitfire pilot during World War II. Today, he has Alzheimer’s, something that his family are struggling to deal with. David Walliams and Samantha Spiro are excellent as Jack’s parents, Patricia and Barry, who are having the difficult conversation of whether to move him into a retirement home, so that he can be better cared for. While it’s fun to see Walliams’ Barry lecture the family about his boring job counting traffic cones, though, the real spark of the drama is Jack’s relationship with his grandad.
Kit Cooper is endearingly sincere as the grandson who just wants his grandpa to stay put and stop being confused – and so he indulges him by pretending that the war is still on, referring to the dining room as the mess hall and pretending to radio him instructions to get him through day-to-day life. It’s a sweet gesture that, inevitably, goes awry, from an ill-judged school trip to a war museum to a nocturnal church visit. As time goes on, the family find themselves nudged towards a shady old people’s home, brilliantly named Twilight Towers and run by the sinister Miss Dandy (a delightful Jennifer Saunders, one step shy from out-and-out cackling). Which environment is better for him to be safe and happy? It’s a complex question, and Williams’ novel (adapted in collaboration with Kevin Cecil) does the author’s typically commendable job of not shying away from adult issues, even within the framework of a family tale. (Watch out for Harish Patel, who delivers an always-amusing turn as shopkeeper Raj.)
Throughout, that delicate balance is underpinned by Tom Courtenay, who is sensational as the old man, managing to be resilient and deceptively agile, while also vulnerable and sad. When he sits in a cockpit, he lights up in a way that recalls classic war movies, but still gets disoriented just walking between rooms. Is he a hero in the history books, or just in his grandson’s eyes? There’s no difference, the programme suggests, as it roots the laughter in the respect, affection and admiration Jack has for Courtenay’s veteran – a genuine bond that contrasts wonderfully with the town’s hilariously grotesque local vicar, and also elevates this adaptation above Sky’s comparatively lightweight Ratburger. The result allows for a very real sense of danger and pathos in its adventures, while still letting its spirits soar without restraint – a charming cocktail for a lovely drama that will have you longing to spend time with your grandparent as soon as possible. Ideal New Year’s Day family viewing.
Grandpa’s Great Escape is available on BBC iPlayer until 31st January 2018.
Photo: BBC/King Bert Productions/Mark Mainz