Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go Mad in Dorset/on Mescalin

I’ve been watching one of the Children’s Film Foundation’s series of a Famous Five adventure, Five on a Treasure Island, which is the first one of the two films they did. I have posted before here about the 1970s redaction of the Famous Five, but hadn’t seen the 1950s CFF version before. It is played completely straight, and so to modern ears is absolutely hilarious. The bit where Uncle Quentin told George that she was quite as good as any boy had me rolling around laughing.
Anyway, it has turned my mind to these two parodies by The Comic Strip Presents, which because of the embargo on Enid Blyton in my school actually formed my introduction to the Famous Five. I must have been a revolting child, because I was almost certainly too young to see Five Go Mad in Dorset or Five Go Mad on Mescalin, and can’t for the life of me think how I persuaded my mother to let me, but I remember them as hugely enjoyable and very formative. As a child I think I would probably have identified most with their ridiculing of the children who are good, even though I was very good myself, although continually bursting to revolt. As an adult I identify most with the simple fact that the ‘baddies’ plainly have the most fun, the most sex, the most drugs, although of course they keep on ending up in prison, multiple times.
I suspect that in the 1980s these two parodies probably also picked up on something in the air at the time, since I remember Denise Dugan’s play Daisy Pulls It Off being hugely popular at the time. I wonder whether there was a nostalgia fashionable at the time for the gung-ho, empire-building genre of school literature current in a previous age. Strangely I feel Blyton herself probably came at the absolutely dying end of that age, and just as strangely remains popular to this day. I was very surprised in reading round the subject, to find a woman whose blog is all about living, dressing, eating, etc, in the style of the Famous Five!
The Comic Strip’s version of the Famous Five succeeds by uniting this nostalgia with a consciousness where the adult awareness of subtexts missed in Blyton’s original texts, is definitely present yet ignored to hilarious effect. Never in Blyton’s books does George actually get called a dyke, yet that is clearly the implication when you analyse George’s desire to be a boy. Of course I’m out of date and nowadays she is probably seen as a possible transsexual, although I haven’t actually seen this mentioned on t’internet. ‘I want to sleep with Dick,’ is a statement which can only bring a smile to anyone with a sexual understanding, and this parody brings the sexual tension and jealousy of the group to the surface. ‘I don’t mind being dominated, ‘ says Anne. Of course we all know that Anne likes to be the submissive little wifey, who is almost completely excluded from the Five’s adventures, but this makes it apparent in a way that we normally only experience as a subtext.
Would the Famous Five have irritated me intensely if I had had them as friends as a child? Probably. But only because of their complete innocence and presumption of correctness in all aspects of human life. Certainly the Comic Strip portray them as absolute prigs, and manages to make them even more annoying. Grammar school oiks, foreigners, homosexuals, Catholics, gypsies, single mothers, are all objects of their dislike. I feel one of the things the Comic Strip does here, which takes this show beyond the realm of mere entertainment, is to hold up a mirror to many of the attitudes which have actually formed our society. These attitudes were probably more prevalent in the age of Blyton, and certainly these are attitudes you can hear in all sorts of places if people think they’re not overheard. This must therefore make this uncomfortable viewing for those formed in these attitudes by literature such as, well, the children’s novels of Enid Blyton, and these parodies therefore parody our society as much as childrens’ books.
Of course the function of prejudice and discrimination is to place the object of hatred outside of ‘us’, however we define us. The Comic Strip turns this round marvellously by placing the ‘other’ actually inside the Famous Five’s family, in the shape of Uncle Quentin. ‘It’s no good, Uncle Quentin, you’re a queer and that’s the end of it.’ I love that Aunt Fanny is an unrelenting nymphomaniac and Uncle Quentin is a screaming homosexual. The Famous Five stick by their principles and happily shop Uncle Quentin to the police who congratulate them.
Five Go Mad on Mescalin advances this somewhat by making the Five more sex-aware than they are in the earlier one. ’Oh Timmy, you’re even more licky than last time,’ is probably the filthiest thing I have heard in my life when said by Dawn French. After being kidnapped and drugged, Dick is never quite the same again and has obviously been initiated into an adult world of…well, it isn’t quite stated what has happened to him but I think we can guess. Five Go Mad on Mescalin further undermines the Famous Five’s security in their world view by introducing an element of doubt into the Five themselves. It also brings out something which I’ve only realised after watching it in close succession to a ‘straight’ Famous Five depiction: the five have the world to themselves. Granted that the only other people they meet either in the canonical stories or in these parodies are either of criminal intent or just revolting, but the five don’t like anyone. Lucky the American boy has the sense to call the police when Uncle Quentin locks them up on Love Island, and they actually speak almost appreciatively of him.
My favourite thing about these two parodies? The fact that Uncle Quentin wears a cravat, the sign of a bounder if there ever was one.

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