In 1989, Patrick Malahide had a very brief part in “Living With Dinosaurs“, part of the short-lived (and now very hard-to-find) “Jim Henson Hour” series. Mr. Malahide plays Uncle Adrian to Dom Marshall (Gregory Chisholm), a lonely and bullied boy who struggles with severe asthma, doesn’t get on well at school, dislikes his father (or possibly stepfather) Lee (Michael Maloney, last seen as Sir George Hardwicke in “New Worlds“), has a phobia about his father’s artwork, and worries about the imminent arrival of a new baby brother or sister. Dom’s only allies are his stuffed dinosaur, Dog (Brian Henson), who comes to life when no one else is around, “Calvin and Hobbes“-style, and his mother, Vicky (Juliet Stevenson, who would go on to play Nora opposite Mr. Malahide’s Dr. Rank in the excellent “A Doll’s House“).
The show is only 46 minutes long, which is a real shame as there are enough story hooks and plot developments for an ongoing series. The writing, by Anthony Minghella, is compact without feeling rushed; within those 46 minutes we learn a great deal about ten-year-old Dom, his family, and the struggles he’s facing. Dom feels so put-upon (with some justification) that one of his favourite activities with Dog is to make up “Enemies Lists” and describe, in gruesome detail, exactly how they’re going to get their revenge on their various nemeses. I suspected Uncle Adrian might be trouble when he was #2 on Dom’s list.
A Shiny Car and a Loud Sweater
Our first introduction to Uncle Adrian tells us almost everything we need to know about him at a glance. He’s better off than the Marshalls and has great taste in cars, arriving at Vicky’s house in a silver Mercedes (although he does seem a bit worried with all the seagulls flying overhead), blaring rock music. However, his taste in sweaters may be a bit more questionable. Well, it’s a very Eighties sweater anyway, and I suppose it has the advantage – or should that be “disadvantage” – of making him extremely hard to lose in a crowd.
For All Your Home Electronics and Unwanted Advice Needs…
Uncle Adrian is, to put it bluntly, something of an overbearing, obnoxious git – but a terribly amusing one, so we don’t really mind. He’s married to Vicky’s sister and has evidently done very well for himself in the electronics business. When his son, Victor (Darren Bastable), can’t find any batteries for his Walkman (tee hee 😉 ), Uncle Adrian generously offers – in a way that lets you know that he’s lording his magnanimity in a big way – to send Vicky whatever electronic doodads she needs. He’s also the sort of guy to offer advice on everything you’re doing wrong with your life. He recommends that Vicky should get a keyboard (because that’s apparently all she needs…?) so that Dom can put away those sissy stuffed toys, like Dog, and play real boys’ games: “You don’t need toys — stuffed toys — when you can play and learn. That is a philosophy.” He’s even gotten Victor a copy of “Space Invaders” in French! (*Psst…* no one tell him that there isn’t a lot of reading to do in “Space Invaders”. 😉 ) If the Marshalls represent art, Uncle Adrian is technology, and there’s no room for cuddly toys in his world. Although he never says it in so many words, it’s obvious he thinks the Marshalls are coddling Dom.
Vicky decides to try distracting Uncle Adrian with an offer of coffee – not a bad strategy, even though it doesn’t work. Undaunted, Uncle Adrian proceeds to ask even more uncomfortable questions: how Dom’s doing at school (having obviously heard all the gossip from Victor, who’s actually one of Dom’s bullies) and how his asthma is, the latter in a pitying, almost patronizing tone. Okay, now we know why he’s on Dom’s hit list. He also offers to throw a party for Dom’s upcoming birthday at his house, to take some of the pressure off Vicky, who’s expecting the baby (she calls it “the Bulge”) to arrive very soon. Of course, the party will involve lots of computer games and videos because Uncle Adrian knows what proper little kids really like. Or maybe he just likes playing “Castle Wolfenstein“.
No Appreciation for Art!
But Uncle Adrian’s expertise doesn’t end with child-rearing! He goes on, while scanning the flat in a “what a dump” way, to say that Vicky looks “thin” and “pale” (just what every pregnant woman wants to hear!), adding that it’s a shame she has to “bear the brunt of the baby as well”, with the clear implication that he doesn’t think much of Lee’s earning potential. He even suggests Lee would probably make more money beachcombing with a metal detector. Unfortunately for Vicky, she knows Adrian actually has a point. She’s a medical doctor and the current family breadwinner since Lee’s art business has never been particularly successful, but it’s galling to be reminded of it by Adrian. Maybe she’d be a little more amused if she noticed the number of sweetener tablets he loads into his coffee – I lost count after the first six or seven. He appears to run on aspartame. Anyway, Lee only confirms Adrian’s misgivings by arriving seconds later, staggering triumphantly under the weight of a huge piece of driftwood he’s going to turn into artwork. Adrian looks on in baffled disbelief, resignedly muttering, “I’ll say nothing…” to himself. Somehow I don’t think he’ll be able to resist mentioning the topic again.
Dom’s Clever Ruse
Meanwhile, Victor goes up to Dom’s room, only to find Dom in the throes of a severe asthma attack. He raises the alarm and while Lee and Vicky see to Dom, he and Adrian hesitate uncomfortably, trying to decide what to do. Adrian in particular doesn’t seem to know how to react to Dom’s sudden illness. However, to give him some credit, when Victor says finding Dom that way was “horrible”, he does tell Victor “Don’t be ridiculous, the boy’s sick.” After a perfunctory and not-very-sincere offer to stay and help, he and Victor make a beeline to their shiny Mercedes and get the heck outta there. We then find out that Dom faked the entire attack, knowing nothing would chase them out of the house faster. Clever, tricky Dom! Both Lee and Vicky seem to admire him for that one.
But He Leaves Us Wanting More!
And that, sadly, is the last we see of Uncle Adrian. I had hopes that we might see Dom’s birthday party at Adrian’s (no doubt huge and lavish) house, complete with wall-to-wall Ataris and Commodore 64s, but it was not to be. It would’ve been a lot of fun to see more of Uncle Adrian, the Marshalls, and the various family dynamics at work; there was certainly enough material there for more shows. Would Adrian always remain an obnoxious git or would he perhaps mellow and develop some empathy? Could he possibly even begin to appreciate Lee’s fish sculptures…? Naaaahh, probably not. Mr. Malahide only had one short scene, but he gave us such a believable character in Uncle Adrian that we got to know him right away.
I will leave it to the reader to track down the episode and discover what becomes of Dom and the Marshalls. The show had surprisingly adult writing; it wasn’t kiddyfied at all and remained very absorbing throughout, providing a very realistic portrait of a family dealing with common issues in a non-sugar-coated way. Well worth seeing if you can find it and badly in need of a remastered DVD release, preferably as a set with the other “Jim Henson Hour” shows.
UPDATE (Aug. 23, 2014): Admin has discovered that a series pilot script was developed for “Living With Dinosaurs” in 2000, so apparently it wasn’t only me who thought it would make a good series. However, the script was never produced. All of the main roles would’ve likely required re-casting by that time, anyway.