It’s Time to Reevaluate BBC’s White Witch | Talking Beasts

Podcast Discussion

Before the crown was passed on to Tilda Swinton in 2005, the most famous portrayal of Narnia’s iconic baddie was Barbara Kellerman’s. Thirty years later, does her performance hold up?

This discussion covers episodes 2 and 3 of BBC’s 1988 television serial of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Listen and post a comment below or in The Narnia Facebook Group.

Glumpuddle, Gymfan

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19 Responses

  1. Larry W. says:

    Barbara Kellerman’s performance is exaggerated, but it is consistent with her character. The white Witch is portrayed as evil and is somewhat nastier than Tilda Swinton’s. She gets angrier in the role than Tilda, which may be more like the book. Tilda shows the coldness well but not so much the anger of the Witch. Barbara Kellerman’s portrayal was overacting, but it was for the most part according to Lewis.

    • Col Klink says:

      I agree that the White Witch in the book is a lot more emotional and obviously angry than she is depicted as being in the movie adaptation. But I don’t think Barbara Kellerman’s performance can be championed on the basis of book faithfulness. There’s nothing in the book to indicate that the White Witch had trouble seeming nice when fooling Edmund. In this adaptation, she sounds like she’s imagining ripping Tumnus’ limbs off when she tells Edmund that fauns tell lies about her. (That bit’s kind of hilarious. Edmund’s such an idiot. LOL.

    • Glumpuddle says:

      “it was for the most part according to Lewis.”

      We disagree there. 🙂 I see Book-Witch as being supremely confident in her absolute and eternal awesomeness… until she hears Aslan’s name. BBC-Witch, on the other hand, always seems really insecure about her power and prone to tantrums. Also, I find Book-Witch sufficiently scary, and BBC-Witch merely amusing.

      • Cleander says:

        I think Tilda Swinton came way closer to the book than Barbara Kellerman, even if she didn’t nail it. You get the same sense of calm, cold command with Swinton that you get in the book, whereas with Kellerman… ho boy. It’s hard to get how Edmund could even be remotely tempted by her when she’s practically foaming at the mouth with her barely-concealed desire to murder him during part of their first conversation. She’s fun to watch but hard to believe.
        And the same could be said of the twittish portrayal of Maugrim.

      • Geekicheep says:

        I agree, Glumpuddle. Your description of Book-Witch is EXACTLY how I imagined her. In my most recent Narnia post (on my blog), I described BBC-Witch as “a very different kind of scary (less black widow spider, more barking Doberman)”. BBC-Witch was definitely threatening, but Book-Witch was in a class by herself. She was the only book villain to ever scare me more than a movie or TV villain. So BBC-Witch may not be all that bad, but IMO it was Walden-Witch who really came the closest. BBC-Witch’s costume was way better though – Walden-Witch looks like an Elsa wanna-be! She had a flippin’ icicle coming out of her head! 😀

        And as for Maugrim, I agree about the roar at the end. It was so out of place, that even as a kid it made me bust out laughing! Wolves don’t roar, dude! They howl! 😀

        And yes, the animals’ costumes were hysterical, very Halloween. Maugrim’s was okay, but the Beavers made me laugh – they were giant egg-shaped puff-balls with beaver masks! 😀 But seriously, all this talk about costumes makes me wonder what this next generation of Narnians will look like. Netflix, I hope you’re following this podcast. 🙂

    • Thunder-Fist says:

      I keep picturing a side by side comparison of the Kellerman/Swinton deliveries of the line, “How dare you come alone!?” I would argue there’s real peril and anger in Swinton’s voice and manner. Kellerman sounds like she has something caught in her throat, and then she sits there with her arms outstretched like a weirdo .

      I did much prefer the set in the bbc version though. It’s totally a subjective opinion, but the icicle house with ankle deep fog (so they didn’t have to animate the wolves feet) just never felt right to me.

  2. narnia fan 7 says:

    I had similar thoughts on the dynamic between the Dwarf and the Witch. They kind of reminded me of the Queen and King of hearts from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. How she’s completely unhinged and bloodthirsty and he has to rain her in and be the voice of reason.

    I think it’s possible Barbara Kellerman was playing it for laughs on purpose, but I don’t think the writers and directors intended for the Witch to be comedic. Everything else in the miniseries is played so straight that they probably used a level, I didn’t think it’s vary likely it was intentional on their part.

  3. Col Klink says:

    I actually watched episode 2 in preparation for this episode. Now I guess I’m going to have watch episode 3 before so I can make an informed comment on the parts of it you talked about. Sneaky devils! (That was a joke. I’d actually been looking forward to the discussion on Good Edmund vs Evil Edmund.)

    I wonder if Kellerman’s performance feels weird to people because she’s the only ham in the cast. (Also did anyone else notice she looks cross eyed when she first meets Edmund?) I enjoy a hammy actor now and then. (Bernadette Peters is awesome!) And some of the White Witch’s lines certainly lend themselves to hamminess like “Tell you what is written on that very table of stone which stands beside us?” But everyone else so far is underplaying their part, sometimes to the point of sleepwalking (except for Maugrim, I guess) while she milks every single line for as much emotion as possible. It’s like she’s in a different world. Maybe that was intended to make her seem creepy? (Even as a ham, I don’t think she’s good a ham as Bernadette Peters BTW.)

    Even though the dialogue with the professor in the book is awesome and I applaud them for not cutting it even though it’s not particularly necessary for the plot (especially when they weren’t doing The Magcian’s Nephew), I didn’t enjoy it that much. That was due to a number of factors so I’m going to write a ridiculously long comment. 🙂 First I feel like Peter and Susan’s actors weren’t directed that well. When they professor tells them he’s at their disposal, they should look relieved that they can talk to him but still sort of serious because of the situation. Here they’re like “Yay! He’s going to send our sister to the looney bin! Squee!”

    I’m not really a fan of Aldridge as the professor though I blame that much more on the script than on him. He seems really senile and childlike because that’s how he was portrayed in his first scene which was original to this series. All of his dialogue in his episode 2 scene comes straight from the book and the two scenes really weren’t written for the same character. (Can you imagine this version of the professor telling people to mind their own business if it wasn’t in the script?) You get the impression that only a really eccentric, goofy adult would consider believing Lucy whereas the book conveys that there are rational reasons for giving her the benefit of the doubt.

    I really wish this scene could have varied the camera angles more. I feel like there really needs to be a reaction shot from Peter when the professor says, “are they?” As it is, we aren’t focusing on Peter and it feels like he and Susan are just ignoring the professor’s question. They should have at least put a pause to show that they’re befuddled. As it is, it’s a great dialogue scene staged boringly to the point of awkwardness.

    There’s been a lot of negativity in this comment so let me mention things I enjoyed about this episode.
    Mrs. Macready’s actress. “Evacuees. From London.” Her line reading and the tourist’s snobby reaction is hilarious. Like they just hate people from London so much.
    They got a reference to a running joke from the book! “Never shut yourself in a wardrobe, stupid!”
    You’ve got to love Lucy’s smug smile when Peter and Susan start talking about how cold it is in the wardrobe.

  4. Courtenay says:

    Great episode, Glumpuddle and Gymfan!

    I totally agree, Barbara Kellerman’s White Witch is overdone to the point of comedy (whether or not that was the intended effect), BUT as Larry W. says, that may actually be a bit closer to the book than the Walden version was. In fact, having recently re-read this scene, what stood out to me was that Lewis makes very clear that Edmund is first confused and then outright afraid for his life when he first meets the Witch. She’s not merely chilly yet seductive — she is SCARY and she means business. At first, remarking to herself that Edmund is “easily dealt with”, she stands up, looks him full in the face and raises her wand; “Edmund felt sure that she was going to do something dreadful but he seemed unable to move. Then, just as he gave himself up for lost, she appeared to change her mind.”

    This is the point where the Witch suddenly changes and puts on a “nice” act (Kellerman does this very much by the book) and invites Edmund to come and sit with her “and I will put my mantle around you and we will talk.” What stands out to me in the book is that even then, we’re told, “Edmund did not like this arrangement at all but he dared not disobey…” She is a really scary and dangerous character and Edmund realises that from the start. It’s not until she gives him a hot drink and the Turkish Delight that he starts to warm to her, now under the influence of her magic.

    So really, in the BBC scene there, I would say the big problem is not the White Witch being over the top (although she is) — it’s actually Edmund in that scene. He reacts to her (as you two were saying) in a really casual, matter-of-fact way when, according to the book itself, he SHOULD be scared and IS scared. It also isn’t very consistent of him to act all unruffled as he finds himself in a fairytale land when, as we’ve already seen clearly, he didn’t believe Lucy at all when she first told them about Narnia and was the one teasing her and mocking her the most.

    Oh, and the beaver costumes… the notorious beaver costumes. Believe me, you guys, I was laughing at those when I first watched this at the age of 7 or 8!!! And I still do. I wouldn’t even call them too literal — too bottle-shaped is more like it. I also wouldn’t say the BBC did the best they could in this instance. They really would have done better to just put them in fur fabric suits with perhaps only a little padding and have them relatively human-shaped with just appropriate ears, noses and tails attached — which is actually pretty much how they do most of the other animal costumes in this series. I don’t know why they had to make the Beavers so incredibly absurd-looking!!

    I get what you mean about the oddness of the “Aslan is on the move” moment where we just see a shot of each of the children in turn as the theme music plays — it’s obvious they’re trying to show there is something special about that name, which is important, but unless we’ve read the book, we don’t actually know what each of the children is feeling. But to be fair, as I think you touched on, that is something that the book can easily do in narration but it’s very, very difficult in a film and it’s hard to see what else they could have done (other than leaving that out entirely and not having the same mysterious build-up to discovering who Aslan is). Hey, it could have been worse — if they’d gone ultra-literal and had the children themselves SAY what they were feeling as they heard that name, it’d be far more awkward and clunky!!

    Also the “two Edmunds” scene — I remember how surprising I found that when I first saw it too. It’s obvious what they’re trying to do, but it’s a little weird. Perhaps they’d have done better to have Edmund say his nastier thoughts out loud and then we merely hear his conscience speaking in voice-over (slightly echoey as if it’s in his head), rather than having a “ghost Edmund” step out of himself? Mind you, I remember the second Lord of the Rings film did something very like this with the two sides of Gollum’s character arguing with each other — it’s just that the camera cuts between them instead of having two of him on screen at the same time!!

    Love how you ended with Maugrim’s hilarious scene-spoiling RRRAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!

    • Larry W. says:

      I remember seeing a video about the BBC series where they talked about the Beavers’ clumsy costumes. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver would fall down on the set so they had “beaver retrievers” to get them back on their feet again. I think the costumes were appealing in an awkward, funny way, and the people who made the series had a sense of humor. 🙂

  5. Eric Geddes says:

    When the Professor is talking to them you just know he’s thinking Bless me what do they teach them at these schools?

  6. Monty Jose says:

    I appreciate Gymfan and Glumpuddle pointing out the victories of the BBC adaptation, even as someone who does not enjoy the serial overall. The wins (like the transition to Narnia that Glumpuddle described) fuel my imagination.

    That said, the fails are enough to make me never want to see them again. Unfortunately, not all the fails are necessarily a product of their time (I’m looking at you, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.) Scaling back on the “realism” or “accuracy” of the beaver costumes could have been one way to go, but I honestly don’t see why they could not have gone with puppets. Totally achievable. Star Wars made it work with Yoda. Yes they would have been less expressive, but Aslan was a puppet and they kinda made it work with the voice inflection.

    • Col Klink says:

      I watched a YouTube video with the Pevensie actors and they said that the Aslan puppet was really expensive. I guess the reason they did it was because they knew he was such an important character. Too bad they couldn’t have done more. I agree that puppets would have been better for the beavers.

  7. Lil says:

    I remember being somewhat being bored by it as a kid, funny enough I was terrified by Maugrim’s roar.

  8. JFG II says:

    I remember that, when I was a five-year-old child, I knew the beavers, maugrim and the Witch were people in costumes like in Wizard of Oz – and yet it was still scary. No little kid likes being yelled at, and the witch does that in spades. No child wants a wolf-man to threaten them. The beavers and Tumnus, however, represented ”stranger-danger” and about dining with unknown peoples. I was VERY glad they turned out to be good characters.

  9. Col Klink says:

    I’d like to say something about the actors who played the beavers since so much has been said about their costumes. But I can’t really think of anything to say. They’re not that bad. They’re not that good. Talking about the costumes is kind of easier.

    Speaking of actors…I used to think that people who said the kid actors in this serial were really bad were being overly harsh. They’re not that bad. But rewatching this, I’m beginning to feel that they really needed to be better for this story. There are so many scenes, like the reaction to Aslan (though the book’s description is practically impossible to convey exactly-at least they sold the idea that Edmund’s reaction was negative while everyone else’s was positive) or the other Pevensies’ reactions to the news of Edmund’s betrayal, that need actors who are really good at conveying specific emotions with their expressions and are interesting to watch. I wouldn’t say these actors are terrible but they don’t have the charisma to really bring this story to life. Maybe part of that is the direction though,

    I think the visualization of Edmund’s self justification doesn’t quite work because it’s the only part of this series that really portrays a character’s mental state in such a way. To be fair, I can’t really think of any other parts of this story (or the other Narnia books in this series) which would require it. As it is, it just comes out of nowhere and never returns, making it feel random.

    I’m surprised you guys didn’t talk more about the White Witch’s House. I thought that scene did the best job of creating a specific atmosphere so far in this adaptation. There are actually a lot of design elements of the White Witch and her stuff which I really enjoy.

    It’s interesting that they had the White Witch explicitly say why she wanted the harness for her sledge not to have any bells. It makes me think that this adaptation was aimed at the youngest Narnia fans who would likely need it explained for them. That would fit with how many people (including myself) were scared by the BBC White Witch in our youth but found her comical as adults. In any case, I found it to be the best cliffhanger so far. It actually kind of made me want to watch the next episode which the previous episodes didn’t. Mind you, I haven’t actually gotten around to watching it but I’m looking forward to doing so. After all, it contains the part where everyone panics while Mrs. Beaver calmly packs. That’s such a fun scene in the book.

  10. Skilletdude says:

    I never had a problem with Maugrim’s “roar”. Since it was my first intro to Narnia, and because the BBC Prince Caspian werewolf had a similar design, I always just assumed Maugrim was a werewolf. That is, before I read the book, then I put it together that the costume was created as a representation of an actual wolf.

  11. coops says:

    I always assumed there was supposed to be a comedic side to Barbara Kellerman’s portrayal of the White Witch, a little like that of a disney villain. The BBC version played everything very straight, dialogue right out of the books, hardly any changes from page to screen. The Walden version made her more sophisticated, she’s convincing when she first meets Edmund, there’s no almost turning him to stone or ‘losing her patience,’ or talking to herself about how Edmund’s ‘only one and easily dealt with.’ Because the BBC version puts all this from the book right in it comes across as a very over the top, theatrical witch who’s not fooling anyone. One of the most memorable moments from the BBC witch for me is her line ‘we’ll creep up silently and BURST UPON THEM!’ I loved that as a child.
    There are obviously some moments where it’s just totally laughable and not in a good way, like the big “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when Edmund asks for more turkish delight. But on the whole I think the BBC version gives us a great witch- but she wouldn’t work today. But nowadays adaptions of books do so much more to make the transition from page to screen work, changing what wouldn’t work, that’s where the BBC version failed.

  12. christine says:

    I mostly skimmed the comments on this page only while listening to you guys for the first time, and I wanted to say that the White Witch seemed to be portrayed as a pantomime villian/queen rather than a real character. The overdramatic gestures and voice work would be perfect for pantomime. I would really like to hear how the director told her to play the White Witch.
    And as far as the yelling, I would point out the era the book was written in and the type of schooling the children would have had. Lots of yelling and physical punishment handed out then.

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