Telly Checked*: Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal

Posted on July 2, 2010 by


Sky has had a rather haphazard track record with adapting the works of Sir Terry of Pratchett, which has lead to the pretty good Hogfather, (Annoying marketed as ‘David Jasons’ Hogfather, because he was a supporting character..) and followed that up with the downright abysmal The Colour of Magic (Again, starring David Jason as a character who should have been at least half his age). I’m not going to go into what made them good or bad, but I may come back to them later on to illustrate some of my points regarding Sky’s newest Discworld adaptation- Going Postal.

Some of you may remember that in our feature, the Top Ten Books of the Decade, we made Going Postal our sixth best book of the Noughties. This was the book that revitalised the Discworld series, which been in a little bit of a slump. As Pterry knows, there is no kill like overkill, and Going Postal proved to be one of the best books in the series, with its colourful, engaging characters, fast-paced plot, and the beautiful satire of the internet vs. the postal service. Were it not for The Truth, I would have no qualms describing this as my favourite Discworld book. We are, however, not here to talk about the book. So let’s dig into Sky’s production of Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal.

There is a problem I know many people have had with film/television adaptions of favourite books- that they often have to remove parts of the book, or even change things, in order to make the material more suitable for the medium. This can be done very well- For the most part, the Harry Potter films have done a good job of excising plot details and side-stories that, were the left in, would result in a film 8 hours long. It can also be done very poorly- The Colour Of Magic, for example, barely resembles it’s source material in so many places that it would have been better described as ‘loosely based upon’ rather than ‘adaption of’.

Your mileage may vary on how much Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal is a faithful, if pragmatic, adaption, or… not. Personally, I’m siding with pragmatic adaption. There’s a lot of material cut out from the book, it was mostly superfluous to the bulk of the plot, but much of it was vital in establishing the characters, which leaves the cast in the adaption as somewhat different people.

The story- A cut-down version of the one from the book. Moist Von Lipwig is a con artist who gets caught and hanged. He wakes up in the office of the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, who offers him a choice. Go back to being dead, or revive the run-down out-of-business Ankh-Morpork Post Office. Having had more than enough of being dead for one lifetime, Moist accepts. He meets his parole officer not long after, a golem called Pump 19, who apprehends him some distance from the city, Lipwig having promptly legged it the second he was out of the palace.

Pump explains the history of the Post Office, that it was a lumbering, over-staffed institution, which fell to pieces with the invention of the Clacks (A sort of telegraph/internet analogue, using semaphore towers dotted in lines across half the disc). The problem is that now, the Clacks is in the hands of the piratical Reacher Gilt (Now a corrupt corporate executive instead of a genius conman with vision, so skilled at the con that he makes Moist look like an amateur), who is running the system into the ground to squeeze out every last drop of profit, safe in the knowledge that he has no competition.

Moist meets his staff, the elderly Junior Postman Groat (There was nobody around to promote him) and Stanley Howler, a young boy who has an unhealthy obsession with pin collecting. He is still plotting to turn the situation to his advantage until Pump explains that he has calculated the human cost of Moist’s conning over the years- a death toll of 23 people. (Originally 2.3 people in the books, but TV likes to up the stakes). Moist had never used violence, and had only ever tricked people who thought they were ticking him, but the revelation that his actions had leads to the shortening and destruction of so many lives after a lifetime of what he had thought of as a victimless crime spree, spurs him to pull off a new con, one where everybody wins.

He enlists the help of Adora Belle Dearheart, owner and proprietor of the Golem Trust- a sort of union for the giant clay men, to ensure they get equal working rights and fair pay, introducing a system where a Golem can work to buy itself, the only way the Golems (which knows they are a ‘things’ not a ‘persons’, tools property etc) feel that they can achieve freedom.

What follows is a battle of wits between Lipwig and Gilt, each trying to outdo one-another to get more customers, Moist using his natural charisma and showmanship to illicit the attentions of the Citizens, who always like a new thing, even if it is in fact an old thing, but now so old that it seems new, while Gilts tactics are more underhanded- attempting to kill Lipwig, burning down the post office and being generally evil.

The cast- Richard Coyle as Moist Von Lipwig (named by doting, if unwise parents). Master con artist, skilled at manipulation, disguise, and making grand plans, which he adapts on the fly to fit new circumstances. He is ably played by Coyle, but is written more as someone who is having trouble keeping up with the plot, whereas in the book, Lipwig was always the one driving the lot forwards with new ideas, schemes and a manic desire to win. Coyle makes him a memorable character, if a bit slimy.

Caire Foy as Adora Belle Dearheart. She suffers from some massive character derailment (Originally an advocate of Golem rights, and believer that they shouldn’t be manipulated against their will, ending up trying to force them to stop willingly working for the Post Office because she doesn’t get on with Lipwig -another change, there was no point where the two fought or argued in the book as they do here- in fact thinking of Lipwig as an honest man until he eventually reveals to her his true self) BUT (and it’s a big butt, I cannot lie) Claire Foy makes it all allright. I cannot, with the sole possible exception of Helena Bonham Carter, think of a better person to play her, but of course I may just be biased because of that scene with her holding a whip, staring down the lens and says the words ‘you’ve been a very naughty boy’…

It's very hard to find actual pictures from the show...

Charles Dance as Lord Havelok Vetinari. Jeremy Irons played Vetinari in the TCOM, in my opinion, the only good thing about it, but here instead we find Charles Dance, who, besides being blonde, is utterly perfect for the role. There is only one person who could have done it better- Stephen Briggs. Dance is pitch-perfect throughout, though his character comes off as more of a calculating tyrant than a Benevolent Dictator.

David Suchet as Reacher Gilt. Very villainy. As I mentioned above, in the book, Gilt was a master con artist with a vision of making the biggest corporate robbery ever, here though, he is merely a nasty man who is slimy and manipulative, making him a more traditional enemy as opposed to someone who is like the hero, only much better at it.

The supporting cast are all generally excellent, and I demand to see more of Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as Sergeant Angua. Steve Pemberton plays an oddly snarky Drumknott (a man hired by Vetinari as his aide purely because he is was completely dull). But the supporting actors are mostly just there to be in the background, and they rarely bring anything special to the story.

The effects- As a TV special, Going Postal doesn’t have the highest production values, and it shows in some ways far more than it does in others. Ankh-Morpork looks fantastic- all of the sets are stunning in their sheer level of detail. The costumes are all sublime- though I can’t help but notice that for the most part of the story, Lipwig seems to be wearing David Morrissey’s outfit from the Doctor Who christmas Special The Next Doctor…

Where the low effects budget really shows, though, is in three places. One, the people of AM. By the time of Going Postal in the books, AM is a bustling metropolis, populated by Dwarfs, Trolls, Vampires, Werewolfs, Ghouls, Zombies, Gnolls, Gnomes, Banshees, Gargoyles, and many other non-human species, but nearly every person on-screen is human. There are some cameos, Angua the werewolf, Otto Chriek- the vampire photographer, but the city seems to be mostly populated by normal human beings. The second place the poor effects show is in the Golems. Their costumes are laughably bad, although you could argue that they are part of the charm, and you do stop noticing it after a while. Thirdly is during the post office fire- The letters attacking Mr. Gryle. It was just hilariously bad.

The soundtrack was entirely unnoticeable, which for someone like me, who is always interested in the scores from television and films, was rather disappointing.

Overall, it was a pretty good adaption. While it deviated from the original book in a number of places (So many that, were I to go into them, this would be a two-part review) it captured the spirit of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld excellently, and is a good starting point for a more regular series of TV specials- probably based on the City Watch books, which is the most prolific series within the Discworld. If you don’t have Sky, Going Postal will be coming out on DVD in August, and is worth buying if you’re a fan, and is worth watching even if you aren’t, on the off-chance that you will be afterwards.

Posted in: TV