Finn Dove (Jack Wild) is a thirteen-year-old boy who lives with his stepfather Tobias Cromwell (William Rushton), but more importantly has to look after his younger sister Derval (Helen Raye) whose youthful optimism is sorely tested by their conditions. Cromwell is their sole guardian now their mother has died, but they dream of visiting Ireland and leaving England far behind, hoping that they can unite with their grandmother (Dorothy McGuire) in her little thatched cottage on the west coast of the country. After Cromwell smashes the gift Finn brings Derval, it's the final straw, and they plan to run away...
It's safe to say Lemony Snicket was taking notes when he watched Flight of the Doves, a British family adventure set and filmed in Ireland, and oddly the project director Ralph Nelson chose to follow up his controversially violent Western Soldier Blue. The plot was basic, episodic even, as it concentrated on the two kids and their escape from not only their dull-witted but cruel stepfather, but also the real star turn here, which was Ron Moody as their evil uncle Hawk Dove. He is an actor, just as Jim Carrey played in A Series of Unfortunate Events, adopting a series of disguises in his attempts to track down his nephew and niece, though with a giveaway tattoo on his wrist.
We're told he almost killed a man once, and his first scene shows him essaying the roles of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to nobody's interest until he flies off the stage in a fury and starts throwing things about, but if or when he catches up with the kids we are aware there will be no almost about it, he wants them dead. This is because they are due a huge inheritance (for 1971) and if they are out of the way he can claim it for himself, but he has to be careful and not throw suspicion his way, hence the array of disguises he dreams up, which not coincidentally allow Moody to show of his considerable range as a seasoned character actor, a better one that the person he is playing, oddly.
This varied approach to the villainous role offered something that bit more special than the usual pantomime that Flight of the Doves could have been, no matter how broad Moody played it we could still discern this was the man who had dazzled us all as Fagin in the blockbusting British musical of the sixties Oliver! which had also made a star of Wild. He was beginning his slow descent into sorry alcoholism by this stage in his career, an all-too well publcised fall from grace which made Wild's fans only feel their hearts go out to him all the more. This left a work such as this, where he was actually an adult but short and baby-faced enough to pass for a younger teenager, more precious to those who felt protective towards the unhappy star.
It was an eclectic cast, for once the children reach Ireland, stowing away on the ferry as money is tight, a selection of fairly famous faces awaited them, including as a "tinker" (their word) Eurovision Song Contest winner of the previous year and future politician Dana who is coaxed into giving us a tune which she sings in Gaelic. Stanley Holloway made one of his last appearances as the judge who may be an obstacle to the children's ultimate happiness, but then just as likely could offer them the contentment they need, but it was watching Moody weasel his way into the lives of those concerned about them that was the most enteraining, he truly made for a devious and resourceful bad guy. The schmaltzy message that little Derval was the one they should all be looking after since she really needs to be loved was not laid on as thickly as might have been expected, as Nelson preferred to highlight the narrow scrapes with seemingly the whole of the island searching for the heroes, though there was still time for an infernally catchy musical number cheerily stressing the friendliness of Ireland. Music by Roy Budd.