Really, once Disney pretty much set the ball rolling with their 1949 adaptation, that was it: a timeless classic telling the stories of Mole, Ratty, Badger and pompous Mr. Toad have been told and re-told by just about everybody, British and American alike. Terry Jones, Rankin/Bass, the BBC...and now Ray Griggs is next in line to recreate the stories - not only with a darker view of the book but with hopes that Ricky Gervais would be up voicing Mole...
Oh. Joy. How. can. I. con-tain. my. ex-cite-ment. < / sarcasm>
Honestly, of all the adaptations I've seen so far in this life, sequels and prequels included, while they may each have their own appealing charm, none of them - and I mean none of them - can compare with Cosgrove Hall's vision...which is, by and far, the strongest of the lot.
Next to a memorable cast consisting of David Jason, Richard Pearson, Peter Sallis, Ian Carmichael, and Sir Michael Hordern among others, it also boasted of some of the studio's most beautiful stop-motion animation in its history.
Cosgrove Hall (of Danger Mouse and Count Duckula fame) first adapted the book as a film in 1983, which was met with outstanding ovation for its tranquil theme, beautiful soundtrack and their own personal touches to the original text. As soon as they had bagged a BAFTA award and an international Emmy award, the studio then created the TV Series.
And unlike some Movie-to-TV creations these days, this was just as faithful to Grahame's style and characters as William Horwood's own work, right down to the introductions to each episode describing the changing of the seasons.
Picking up where the film left off, the first series (with Rosemary Anne Sisson co-writing) also made use of the three sole chapters that were omitted from the film - The Further Adventures of Toad, Wayfarers All and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And with Brian Trueman handing the writing from Series 2 onwards, it ran for Five Seasons, ranking up 52 episodes between 1983 - 1990, and was granted another TV Special, A Tale of Two Toads.
The writing especially is firmly on par with the animation and voice acting. The continuity Brian Trueman and Rosemary built up throughout is outstanding, with new characters like Auberon, Mole's Cousin, making their mark in the series, and constant references from previous episodes that also come into play for future ones to follow - often as the Chekhov's Gun for a particular storyline or three.
In fact, the storyline of Series 4 throughout, which sees the Riverbankers and Wild Wooders in threat of a foreboding railway company, is exactly the sort of thing that grabs the viewer's attention and urges them to "stay tuned for the next episode". It makes such shows far more interesting to watch, with the sort of careful script writing that makes you believe that these characters, though set in the 1900's, were actually real. The believability in their personalities and the adventures they've had has, for this series at least, much more appeal and curiosity than stand-alone episodes that have little to no connection with the original books they were "based" from...or in some cases, their own continuity created by some TV Executive.
However, comedy has always been a major part of the show's charm, in relation to the original book, which has seen Toad play out a number of lead episodes as he goes from one craze to another. In fact, the entire Fifth and last Season, "Oh, Mr. Toad!" became a spin-off focusing on Toad's antics, even though it still maintained the strong continuity from the previous seasons. Despite this, the original opening titles were replaced with the classic theme tune in later broadcasts (and DVD releases) to avoid possible confusion.
In short, if anyone asks what's my favourite version of The Wind in the Willows, there can only be one clear winner as I look now to the complete DVD box set sitting proudly on my shelf above me. And I never tire of rewatching the same episodes over and over, knowing full well that we may never see the likes of such a series again...at least outside of another Hollywood money-maker pipeline.
Oh, and to finish up - Rik Mayall, Charles Nelson Reilly, Matt Lucas...you all did your best, but David Jason's performance of Toad still gets the biggest laughs from me ;-)
Series 1 Playlist - for viewer's interest!
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Wind in the Willows Complete DVD Box Set (which includes the original movie and A Tale of Two Toads)
Download the Songs and Music of the original TV Series from Play.com - composed by Keith Hopwood & Malcolm Rowe