During the mid-Eighteenth Century in Yorkshire, a young draper's apprentice named Tolly (Stephen Hirst) was assigned the job of looking after a corpse which had been recently hanged for murder, belonging to a Frenchman who was only known as Black Jack (Jean Franval) because nobody around there could pronounce his name. Tolly was locked in with the body in the home of the woman who would sell it to surgeons for dissection, in spite of his protests that he had a job to go to, and found that no one wanted to help him out. That was until Black Jack made a surprise recovery - the noose hadn't done its job and now he was awake and looking to get away, with Tolly by his side.
Not that Tolly particularly wanted to be there, but it's that sort of introduction that can mean a tale of excitement and adventure will follow, which was certainly the case with Leon Garfield's well-thought of source novel for children. In the case of director Ken Loach's adaptation, on the other hand, the reception was less welcoming, with many complaining of a definite amateurism to the production, especially in the case of the actors, and specifically the child actors who came in for a lot of stick and never acted again. They were chosen from local schools by Loach's talent scouts, wanting authentic Yorkshire kids to carry the storyline, which may have been overoptimistic in light of the reception.
However, there have been those down the years who caught Black Jack on its occasional television showings - it wasn't exactly a blockbuster in the cinema - who have warmed to it, and can see what too many judged as amateurism as a refreshing lack of guile and a realism that did Garfield's original justice; certainly he was happy enough with the results. It's just that the unadorned readings and flubbed lines kept in were difficult to adjust to, no matter that Loach apparently believed he was right to pursue the methods of bringing period detail to the screen with a completely affectless rendering. Somehow this had been ideal for what would be his most famous film, Kes, but too many had their doubts here no matter that the style was more or less the same.
What he did downplay as a result were the more "magical" aspects of the yarn, with only the last few lines indicating that anything more supernatural might have been going on. This was probably a wise decision with regard to how Loach usually worked, with only the far later effort Looking for Eric embracing fantasy and even then it was far from the kind that Garfield would have courted, but with the character of Belle (Louise Cooper) she might have been better off with more of a nudge towards the fairy dust aspect of her presence. Nevertheless, as a girl who Tolly saves from being stuck in a mental institution while on the road with the wicked Jack, she may have been quite off-kilter enough with her occasional violence and playful ramblings to the fore.
Although the title was Black Jack, Tolly was really the protagonist, starting off confident of his path through life then thrown off-balance by being effectively kidnapped by the brutish Frenchman which sees both of them first trying to upset carriages to get monetary rewards for getting them out of danger, Jack not listening to Tolly as the voice of his conscience, then ending up with escapee from one carriage Belle in a travelling carnival, or at least a medicine show. It is here you'll see some of the only recognisable actors in the film since four of the Time Bandits to be were in the cast as part of the band of entertainers, but there's trouble at - well, not trouble at mill, but Belle is proving a problem to her well-to-do father as a daughter who has gone mad is a source of shame for a man in his position. Things do grow rather grim as this proceeds, with Tolly as the reasonable, just and fair character who we measure the others by, especially when those others gave into their worst instincts too often, but that made the ultimate fate of Tolly and Belle all the brighter - even Jack. Folk music by Bob Pegg.