`Illusion,` a double length episode introduces the second season of one of the best children’s dramas of recent times. By its nature Leonardo has to be inventive because placing one of history’s most creative people in the midst of runaround adventures set in his youth does not seem a natural fit. Yet the first season proved it does fit and indeed was a triumph of ingenuity. The series is not telefantasy or historically accurate, neither is it a straightforward adventure. Filmed in South Africa to replicate the sunny climes of 15th century Florence, It is in a category of its own and recalls the halcyon days of children’s drama when formulas were kicked against. Yet even the most avid followers of the series might wonder how a further season can sustain given the limitations of the series’ format and indeed locale. Wonder no more because, against the odds, Leonardo has pulled it out of the hat again!
Leonardo spots the ice cream van
Though `Illusion` opens with the final scene of last season it has been re-shot with a new actor playing the inventor’s nemesis Pierro de Medici. Alastair MacGowan has gone and the character is now played by James Clyde. Within moments you realise this is an inspired replacement that suits the newly built emnity between the two. This Pierro is nastier and scarier than his predecessor. And this episode sees him playing Leonardo in one long game that he is- unknown to our hero- controlling. Clyde’s s portrayal also gives Colin Ryan who plays his son Lorenzo something stronger to kick against. One aspect of season one that wobbled a little was the father / son dynamic between the two but thanks to the casting change and Ryan being a bit older these scenes are more believable.
Pia Ashberry has penned a tricky, dialogue heavy plot that stretches easily into the expanded time period allowing for nuances the series never normally has space for. It provides our main characters with new challenges and pleasingly does not end with grins and hugs but in an uncertain place with suggestions that de Medici has a much more daring plan to unveil as the season progresses.
One of the hallmarks of the show is Leonardo’s creative responses to antagonists and this episode contains the best one yet involving no more than canvas and paint. It is enough to make you applaud even if you’re thinking- yes, but could he really have done that. Such narrative sleight of hand gives the show an edge over some adult dramas which fail to be as clever as this. It’s sort of like a junior Sherlock in its ideas at times. This time though even this plan falls at the final hurdle – in the episode’s best action sequence a race to the city gates is stopped agonisingly close to triumph and you think- how brilliantly breathless is this series?!
Just an evil look was enough to fire up De Medici's wok
Jonathan Bailey really does take the lead, pulling the series in all kinds of interesting directions. I’ve said elsewhere that whoever casts the next Time Lord should really consider this actor who embodies the sort of charisma, presence, physicality and most of all unusual acting choices that the Doctor needs. With Leonardo not getting much of his own way, Bailey is able to show real range and depth from his pleading with de Medici even though you know the character hates to do it, to real anger plus plenty of his spirited energy.
If there’s a slight criticism it’s that both Mack and Lisa are sidelined a little and we never really get to see how they feel about Lorenzo whose broken friendship with Leonardo is given a lot of time. Never mind though because they will surely have their moments as the season progresses. One advantage though is that we get to see a little more of Verocchio, Leonardo’s mentor and `maestro` who runs the workshop. Till now something of a secondary, almost comedic character, we learn more about him in the episode. This is a confident, clever start to a series that always manages to do the unexpected. Yes, it’s billed as being for children but we all know another tv show supposedly for kids that has kept adults glued to the screen for half a century. Don’t be fooled by the category- Leonardo is fun for everyone.
Season 2 of Leonardo continues each Thursday at 5.15 on CBBC or on the BBC iPlayer.