Old Gems: Archer’s Goon (1992)

Who farms crime? Shine, that's who

Archer's Goon and Howard Sykes

Diana Wynne Jones is a name that’ll be familiar to some, but won’t ring a bell for others. However, she is one of the most celebrated authors of children’s fantasy books around. Small wonder that the BBC would turn to adapting one of her most famous award-winning novels, Archer’s Goon, back in the early 90s.

The premise is relatively simple: normal English schoolchild Howard Sykes (Jamie De Courcey) comes home from school one day to discover a huge man (the eponymous Goon, played by Morgan Jones) in his house, claiming that he’s owed 2,000 words which he has to give to someone called Archer. It turns out that 13 years earlier, Howard’s dad, Quentin, agreed to write 2,000 words each quarter for a town official called Mountjoy, in return for not having to pay any taxes. However, he’s forgotten to do it this quarter.

Eventually, Howard and the Goon go to meet Mountjoy who reveals that the town is secretly run by seven wizardly brothers and sisters: Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine and Venturus. Each one ‘farms’ a separate industry, with Archer farming money, electricity and gas, Shine looking after crime, Dillian minding law and order, and so on.

Armed with this new knowledge, Howard and the rest of his family go looking for the wizards, trying to work out exactly what Archer needs with all those words. The siblings try to stop them, resulting in their various industries taking action against the family (musical instruments rebel, for example). Of course, when they discover Hathaway lives 400 years in the past and Venturus lives in the future, it all becomes a lot trickier…

The six-part BBC adaptation was actually pretty faithful to the books, thanks in part to Wynne Jones’s close collaboration with the producer and the scriptwriter Jenny McDade. It had a reasonably star-studded cast, with Roger Lloyd Pack (Trigger on Only Fools and Horses) playing Quentin, Susan Jameson (the queen in The Queen), Andrew Normington as Torquil, Annette Badland as Shine and Clive Merrison as Hathaway. It was also surprisingly complicated, with the eventual revelations about the identities of the siblings (the clues are all there if you can spot them) making it a cerebral affair as well as a fun one.

Joyfully, you can watch the whole thing over on Veoh, read in great detail about each episode, or watch bits of it on YouTube. But here’s how the first episode begins:

  • HOW did I miss this? (Oh was before I had children…) I am a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan, but actually this is one I have never read. Thanks Rob, will catch up looking at it tomorrow.

  • SK

    The first one of these I remember from the first time around! I watched this when I was at school. It was great. Years later, I sought out the book… and was glad to find out that it was very, very similar, and also great (I think it remains the only Diana Wynne Jones I’ve read, as by the time I discovered her books I had already decided that kids’ fantasy was beneath me and Isaac Asimov was where it’s at — yes, you may mock me, it’s not a period of my life I’m proud of.)

  • SK Have you gone back to DWJ? You should. They may only be children’s books (I say this ironically, I love children’s books!), but they are fab. Eight Days of Luke & Power of Three are my two favourites I think, but the Chrestomanci stuff is all fabulous too. Was v excited in my editing days to get a look at one of her ms, but to my disappointment it was weird and really off. She wasn’t being published at the time and I think was in the doldrums a bit. However glad to see she’s been revived since and HC have reissued her stuff and published some new which is pretty good too. Love her. Think she’s a much underrated children’s writer.

  • SK

    I haven’t (bar that getting hold of Archer’s Goon that I mentioned) and I was a little put off by the disappointing cartoon of Howl’s Moving Castle (though the Wynne Jones fan I saw it with tells me it is very unlike the book).
    But I shall bear her in mind for when I have more time to read, and fancy something refreshing.