Saturday, 3 January 2015

Seventies TV: The Famous Five

I didn't watch these shows as a child - whether it was because I was too young, I don't know. Neither did I read the books - we weren't allowed them in my school & so they were exchanged as if they were porn, & I was too good in those days to read that rubbish. I really don't know the reason our headmistress banned them, but there was no pressure at home to read them. I had one friend who'd read all the Famous Five books, in copies that his mother had had as a child. I think I rather guiltily read some of the Secret Seven books. Certainly 1970s children's TV wasn't lacking in an ability to press parental buttons. I watched Grange Hill actually with my parents, & I was forced to watch Tiswas - in retrospect I think my dad had a pash for Sally James. Some family friends forbade their children from watching either of these programmes, a ban they easily overcame by turning the volume down so that their mother wouldn't hear the relevant theme tune.
They lived in a large house on Moor Green Lane in Moseley, & my memories of visiting them are of the formality of their dining & how well-behaved everyone was. The point was the children had to think & feel what they were told to. The act of behaving in a particular way & making out that everything was so nice extended to the fact that their mother never told them she had had part of a breast removed many years previously. The daughters only found this out after their eldest sister died of breast cancer. I can only imagine the guilt you would feel at this - because the daughters now have special health surveillance since they're at such high risk - & marvel at the mindset that wouldn't mention such a thing.
The point of this is that families can create their own culture where particular behaviours are acceptable. This is particularly evident in the act of playing at happy families. The script goes along the lines of 'our family is alright, we can do no wrong, our family cannot possibly be dysfunctional', & so on. Of course with this I'm leading into the Enid Blyton world-view. We know who *we* are, Johnny Foreigner is always going to be the baddy, everything's alright. This is of course completely wrong. The rhetoric of 'stranger danger' in the 1950s was even then based on an unreality : we are all, both children & adults, most likely to be abused, assaulted or murdered by someone we know, frequently a family member or other intimate. In the criticisms of Blyton's work over the decades, I feel this tends to be overlooked - this is a completely unrealistic presentation of who children are most likely to be at risk from.
I suspect my headmistress's reason for banning Blyton was in criticism of her literary quality. I'm interested, though, to discover that Blyton has had a renaissance of recent years:
'Children's laureate Michael Rosen says he read very little of her as a child but now appreciates her skill.
'"She was very clever at several veins of thought that appeal very much to children. They escape from their parents into a world where they can perform superhuman feats, or certainly beyond the capacity of children, in The Famous Five and Secret Seven.
'In her stories about girls, like Amelia Jane and Mallory Towers, she explores the rivalries and jealousies of children and the ways in which they can be quite unpleasant to each other, he says.
'"Thirdly, she was very good at capturing the fantasy world of Noddy and the Faraway Tree, very good at creating an unreal world of goblins and fairies."
'Some critics dislike the way she allows a narrator's voice to intervene to make a blunt, moral point like "That served him right" but Rosen thinks this can be reassuring.
'"That's where the real division about Enid Blyton lies. Some think it's a bossy voice but others say that's part of the appeal - hand-holding. She was trying to tell you who is good and who is bad."' (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7591648.stm)
Of course Rosen picks up on my point that Blyton does try to tell you who is good & bad, but has it completely wrong.
Another huge difference between Blyton's world & ours is the depiction of children being allowed to wander round completely without adult supervision, despite being in an environment completely populated by suspicious foreigners & sinister Communists, which should have immediately signalled danger to Aunt Fanny. Since it wasn't that long ago that you could legally leave school at the age of fourteen (I believe you havve to stay until you're 32 now), I think this may not have been that divorced from reality. Certainly in my teenage years, against protest from my mother, I used to ride round on my bike, exploring the local disused railway line & derelict industrial buildings. The bicycling bit may still be done, but a greater awareness of danger has led building sites to be sealed up tighter than...well, insert your own image here. Once again, a change in perception marks the change from Blyton's world.
Not having read many as a child the stories are coming as relatively new to me. I don't think they're any poorer than most Agatha Christie stories. I would put them on a par with some of the stories in the (now ridiculously collectable) more advanced Ladybird books - I remember one in particular about a mystery on an island.
And what stories they are! Coming to them as an adult it is strangely reassuring that you know what's going to happen in Blyton's synthetic world. It is refreshing that the characters - especially the baddies - are all so much larger-than-life, which somehow prevents them being threatening. In fact in terms of television I think I would have to compare the characterisation to some of the unreality of the later Avengers. That may sound like high praise for what is fairly ephemeral television, but it seems to be out of the same stable in depicting an unreal England that never really existed. I think it could probably be said of a lot of children's literature of the first half of the twentieth century - which has given me pause for thought on another possible 'source' for the world of The Avengers.
However The Avengers' use of unreality has created a timeless world, with knowing adult & sexual undertones at every point. Blyton's unreality is almost pre-Freudian, & given the pre-Freudian novel Fanny Hill, surely Dick & Fanny have not changed their common meanings in the English language? Once again her world is a world of acting in a particular way, which in the real world would have complicated psychological results. It seems her bossy voice telling people what was right & wrong was quite different from her own private life:
'Crowe says that during her first marriage, Blyton embarked on a string of affairs, including a suspected lesbian liaison. Yet Blyton could never forgive Pollock, who served with distinction in two world wars, for finding happiness of his own when their marriage ended.
'According to Crowe, Blyton's revenge was to stop him from seeing his daughters, Gillian and Imogen, and to prevent him from finding work in publishing. He went bankrupt and sank into depression and heavy drinking.' (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1410705/Adulteress-Enid-Blyton-ruined-her-ex-husband.html)
In this production there is a further element of sadness, which is that the actress who plays George took her own life.
I realise I'm seeing Blyton's world through adult eyes - & some very jaundiced adult eyes at that - & I don't have the answers to how to make children's literature vaguely realistic. At what age would children become aware of the elephant in the room that is George's desire to be a boy? At what age do children question enough to find the Famous Five ridiculous? At what age is it OK for adults to lose their sense of wonder & lose themselves in a pretend world of escapism?
I'll have to leave other people to these questions. There's a mysterious foreigner creeping through the secret passage & I need to go & set the dog on him.
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1 comment:

Patrick McNeill said...

You provide an interesting analysis of the Enid Blyton world. It seems to me that few of the questions you pose occur to the majority of child readers. I was an avid Blyton reader for years. I had a (girl) friend who had shelves of Blytons and she kindly lent me a volume, often after we had had a session playing the card game based on Far-a-way tree. I grew out of them eventually at about the age of twelve when I discovered Biggles by Captain W.E. Johns. I still think that the strong moral tone of Blyton's books served children well and it certainly rubbed off on me.