Malory Towers, Wise Children, and adapting Enid Blyton

“It’s quite the thing,” said my father to somebody on the phone, “There’s an attempted drowning.”

He was talking about Malory Towers by Wise Children, a play I’d taken my parents to see earlier in the week. The appendix incident doesn’t actually appear; problematic as it is to keep painting your heroine as some sort of violent warrior princess type, but other incidents of this sort do. One, not carried out by Darrell, is invented for the stage and remarkable in its blunt ferocity. It was, as I realised later, a particularly Blytonian thing to do.

First Term At Malory Towers by Enid Blyton cover
“the one with the attempted drowning”

The thing about adaptation is that you adapt. It’s a tautological sentiment I know, but it’s one that I keep coming back to. Emma Rice takes much of her action from First Term At Malory Towers (1946) but embraces incidents from across the series and characters who arrive much later in the books arrive within minutes. But there is only an hour and forty minutes to play with, plus a quite delightful interval; only so much can happen and Rice’s intent is clear. This is a story not of singular female strength but collective. Girl power. Family. Sisters. Support. It’s an interesting angle to take in a series that is so moralistic and convinced of its own righteousness that sometimes it forgets quite what that righteousness is. I think here, in particular, of Amanda Chartelow – a character who drove the vast amount of the Malory Towers themed article I just sent off to a journal. She is celebrated and censured in equal manner, an early rebel-girl in a world where rebellion was not easily nor comfortably allowed.

The Wise Children production is remarkable in many senses not only in the fact that it exists and that it allows these moments of independence, but also in how it speaks to an intensely wide audience. The liberties that Rice takes with the source texts, the elasticity she finds in it and exploits is well deserved and well used. Certain characters are provided with a roundness that Blyton was not able to find at the time, and certain characters are given a softness, a truth, that Blyton perhaps could not see. But then again, perhaps this is the privilege of hindsight and the liberty of being where we are in the world as women, third, fourth, post-feminist wave riders that we are.

The girls are all new to the school in the play, save one, and there’s a moment of pure delight when those familiar uniforms appear on stage. It’s confidently done – there’s a little moment of stage-craft right at the beginning of the play that was pure brilliance – and the actors eat the roles up. Francesca Mills who played ‘sensible, stolid’ Sally Hope was a particular delight, managing to bring the righteousness of Sally to the fore whilst always, subtly, managing to play with that. Sally is a little bit, how to say, dull in the books. Here she’s the exact opposite and yet, somehow, intensely true to life.

Truth, again, is something I keep coming back to. For Kierkegaard, subjectivity was truth and I think it’s a relevant thing to remember at this point. Enid Blyton is a fought-over author and ‘true’ readings of her work are difficult to find, subsumed as they in the discourse about her. Many of these fights are legitimate, earned, valuable things and I do not discount the necessity of them nor do I discount the relevance of them. I think it’s a privilege to live in a time where we have the ability to both have and vocalise those discussions and they are important discussions to have. I also think it’s important to question why many of those discussions happen solely about Enid Blyton and to, perhaps wonder, if some of that centring is because she is a woman writing children’s fiction. To paraphrase Taylor Swift’s The Man: were she a man, then she’d be the man.

(Kierkegaard, Taylor Swift and Enid Blyton! What a Friday!).

Malory Towers is on tour until 5th October 2019, and here’s the remaining tour dates.

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2 comments

  1. I’m seeing this in Manchester on the 24th. Some friends are going in York this weekend, so I’m waiting for detailed reports 🙂 . I feel really sorry for Amanda. If she’d been at the Chalet School, she’d have had to lie flat on her back for a year but would then have recovered and gone on to be an Olympic swimmer anyway, with a few back twinges to remind her of her Wicked Ways, but Enid Blyton likes permanent punishment! The same with the girl – Mavis? – who wanted to be an opera singer but whose voice was permanently damaged.

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