Jack reclimbs beanstalk to repair fairy tale's message

Petula Clark and Charlotte Church sing in TV specials

The truth of fairy tales lies not in the details, but in the spirit of the story. Thus, many are about abused little girls who find their freedom by their own productive behavior, led by their own good hearts - though often with the help of a kindly old woman. Whole cultures have expressed the fervent longing for justice in these stories with their deus ex machina endings.

But what if a tale should get twisted in its telling to justify some awful injustice?

That's the premise of Brian Henson's poignant Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (CBS, Dec. 2 and Dec. 4, 9-11 p.m.). It's a fanciful, but thoughtful retelling of the original story about a foolish young man who trades his mother's only possession, an old milk cow, for a handful of magic beans. When in disgust she flings the beans out the window, a beanstalk grows into the sky, so far up it enters an invisible world where a giant lives.

Jack steals the giant's golden harp and goose that lays golden eggs and descends the beanstalk. With "Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman/ Be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread" ringing in his ears, Jack cuts the beanstalk down. The giant falls and Jack becomes a local hero.

Ah, but was the giant really good instead? And was Jack the villain? Did the goose and the harp make the meadows flower and the harvest grow? In fact, this Jack was a thieving, murdering, and greedy scoundrel. And now, hundreds of years later, his only heir must put things right. This Jack Robinson (played with good humor and charm by Matthew Modine) must return the goose and the harp to end the curse on his family and the drought in the upper kingdom.

Brian Henson co-wrote and directed this revisionist fairy tale, finishing it in time for the holiday season. He draws on various mythologies to create his fairy kingdom, which does all seem familiar. But his engrossing story has its moments of beauty.

"I've always been attracted to stories with a big mythic sort of quality to them," Mr. Henson told television critics last summer. "We wanted to tell a very, very big epic story ... but set in modern times."

Instead of macho daring, this story celebrates understanding the meaning of honor.

"We just completely disagreed with the morality of the fairy tale," Henson says. "It's a story that's rich in English history - mostly told during empire-building.... So it was just that little invention of 'what if the giant was good?' and using that [idea] as an allegory...."

Unlike some other revisionist fairy tales in recent years, this keeps the viewer invested by keeping the story relevant.

"Everybody wants to believe that they have a destiny within them [and] that there's a heroic element that can save a world once they know what that destiny is that awaits them," Henson says. "It's a film about taking responsibility for your actions personally, as a society, and realizing your obligations back to the world for what you have, and what you have benefited from."

Modine added that he never liked the original story - when he read it to his son, he thought it was an awful story and put the book away.

Years later, after his wife had read the screenplay, she told him the script had found him.

"We keep, unfortunately, repeating the mistakes of our ancestors," he says. "So in a story like this, it's kind of wonderful just to ask ourselves, 'Do we have a responsibility to the past?' And I think, yes, we do. And we should do whatever we can to keep from repeating those mistakes."

In the end, "Jack in the Beanstalk" is a festive show, great for viewing at the holidays, even though it has no particular relationship to them.

* * *

Petula Clark may be best known for her pop hits of the 1960s, but she has been in show business since the 1940s. Recently she played Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard." Ms. Clark returns to TV with Petula Clark in Concert: A Sign of the Times (PBS, check local listings through the month), taped at the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk earlier this year. In the best song of the show, "At Last," Clark sings with the cool Lou Rawls.

These veteran performers tap into nostalgia. And the same can be said of Charlotte Church: Enchantment (PBS, check local listings). The angel-voiced teen sings old show tunes with a lot of feeling, a new direction for this young singer associated with light classical music. Her version of the Celtic love song "The Water Is Wide" alone makes the concert worthwhile. But fans of showstoppers like "Bali Hai," "Tonight," "Papa Can You Hear Me?" and "If I Loved You" may really appreciate the teenage soprano's new direction. "I think my appeal in the beginning was my innocence," she said in a recent phone interview from London. "Among so many sordid acts, I was the innocence that was missing."

Her new concert shows off her voice to some advantage, and she makes no bones about wanting to be more commercial. But, she adds, "Basically, what I want to do is be as original as possible. But I don't want to make music that has no thought process behind it. I want to make music that means something."

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