The Curse of Clyde Langer
The Last Dance of Sarah Jane Smith, Part 2
Children's fantasy breaks adult's heart in the real world
"This is how it goes, isn't it? Everything you ever were, everything you ever wanted to be, it just gets worn away until there's nothing left." — Clyde Langer, reflecting upon his unexpected taste of living rough on the streets of London.
If last week's story was a good start to beginning of the end of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Phil Ford's second entry, The Curse of Clyde Langer, is a minor masterpiece — on first viewing, easily among the best entries in the program's five year history.
This week sees Clyde trapped not in a literal alternate universe, but in a metaphorical one, cut-off from friends and family, from anyone at all who knows his name, the very sound of which makes all who hear it recoil in fear and loathing.
First Sarah Jane, then Rani, Luke and finally even his own mother will have nothing to do with him. Confused and hurting, he narrowly escapes when the police come looking for him in his home and so he finds himself on the run, another homeless soul on the drizzly streets of London.
Clyde's exile, and his growing sense of despair as he comes to understand the depth of his sudden fall, are as harrowing as anything this program full of monsters has offered. I can't imagine any child who has even once been been bullied or shunned watching without a terrifying sense of familiarity.
Impressively, life on the streets is depicted with little romanticism and not much in the way of liberal platitudes. The homeless are less foul-mouthed and perhaps a little cleaner than in life, but there is an edge of verisimilitude that gives a true sense of menace to the situation.
The two-part story feels packed, yet it is a full eight minutes before the curse comes into play. Prior to that it is character-development time, interspersed with humour (Haresh's expression when the first fish lands on his office window-sill is priceless) and some basic mystery-setting. Eight minutes of "nothing" — no action, no special effects (if you don't count fish falling from the sky), just acting and an intelligent script ensure the time doesn't drag in the least.
The resolution when it comes does so from two directions. First, as a result of Clyde's well-established decency, and second, through the fundamentally decent curiosity of Sarah Jane's newly-adopted daughter, the alien Sky.
In the first case, Clyde is introduced to life on the streets by a girl who calls herself Ellie. Ellie remembers that Clyde had given her "a couple of quid" the day before and so decides to pay it forward by taking him under her wing. In the second, as an alien, Sky is unaffected by the curse, and refuses to accept that Sarah Jane and Rani would so callously turn on Clyde without reason.
The mechanism through which Sky helps Sarah Jane and Rani break the curse is the weakest part of the story, verging on another "Tinkerbell" sort of cop-out, but whether through the subtlety of the script or the strength of the performances, it rings emotionally true and so the weakness doesn't much matter.
Also emotionally true is the swift friendship and budding romance between Clyde and the homeless girl, Ellie. Improbably romantic it may be, but it is possible and in our hearts we want it to be true because we want Clyde to be able to help her.
This being The Sarah Jane Adventures, we know that Clyde is going to be all right — but Ellie?
Clyde's frantic search for her after the alien is dealt with is nearly as hard to watch as was Clyde's own fall, and the ambiguous ending hurts us nearly as much as it does Clyde himself.
Like the best of children's literature, this is children's television that hurts, that simplifies hard truths but doesn't pretend they don't exist.
I knew I was going to miss this program when it was gone, but I'm not sure I realized quite how much.
Last week: Sky. Next week: The Man Who Never Was and the end of the Sarah Jane Adventures.