The Famous Five

Originally published in the Guardian

So the Famous Five are getting updated. Zenith Entertainment, who did a more traditional version of the Blyton classics a few years ago, want to do a contemporary Five for the new millennium. Same characters, but that’s about all. New stories, and presumably new haircuts, new shoes and, who knows, new body piercings as well. Alcopops instead of ginger beer? Drug dealers instead of smugglers? Five go Clubbing? Hasn’t it already been done by the Comic Strip?

But what for? The usual statement in Blyton’s favor is that she gets kids reading and she is, in fact, a reading course all on her own, from Noddy to the Secret Seven. Tens of thousands of us have learned to love reading with her help and still do so today, despite the fact that she is so desperately dated. Countless adults feel gratitude to her for that, and there’s no reason to suppose, judging by the shelf space she occupies, that tomorrow’s adults will feel any different. You can see why Zenith want to make her young again. How nice if the goose that lays the Golden egg could be made to live forever.

It’s a favorite game amongst writers and publishers to ponder what on earth it is that makes Blyton’s appeal so strong. It’s not easy to understand. The usual Eng. Lit. snobbery actually conceals a real failure of criticism to get to terms with the lasting appeal of this kind of book. The characters are cut outs, the plots predictable. Her prose style is utterly vile – sorry, but it’s true. She’s not even all that well loved; but she is so well read. We all read her and she’s inside us and will stay with us forever, however much we may wish we were filled instead with, say Joyce or the Book of Psalms.

The questions Zenith will be asking themselves are, what stays in, what goes out, what gets added on? How reproducible is it? On this point, things may well look bright for them. Very few people remember any details from Blyton. You never hear conversations of the … “Do you remember the bit where …?” kind. You’re more likely to remember the cover than any particular plot item. Maybe that’s part of the charm.

There are formulaic elements in her work that are certainly translatable. Get rid of the grown ups, line up a group of children of varying gender and ages to provide someone for everyone to relate to. Finally – and this is what makes Blyton the writer she is – every minute has a hook, and every hook makes a catch. Are the Five going to get to go on holiday after all? Whose face was that at the window of the deserted house? Is George going to get better in time for the outing? It might even be as simple as, what’s for tea? But there’s one hook swallowed and another baited every page. You forget them as soon as you’ve read them, but they keep the pages turning.

With a clever writer, all this can be done. Plot, place, even style can be changed. But period? There’s a vital element that lies right at the heart of her work that no amount of ingenuity will replace: nostalgia. Nostalgia is an odd word to use in regard to children, but nostalgic they certainly are, and sentimental. If they’re not, a page or two of Blyton will teach them how it’s done. Books like these were never contemporary. Over fifty years ago, George Orwell pointed out that the world of Jeeves and Wooster hadn’t actually existed for almost all of Wodehouse’s working life, if ever. The whole point about this type of fiction is that it occurs in the past. The future isn’t made of polished steel by accident, it’s like that because its scary. It’s full of strangers. You die in it. It has horrendous, life threatening illnesses and accidents, one of which you will not survive. The same is true of the present. Every breath is different, you never know if you’re going to finish it.

But the past is friendly. You’ve known it all your life. It’s so well upholstered, so comfortable, so easy. Even situations which drive most of us mad, like Boarding School and families, look rosy in hindsight. Ratty and Moley, Jennings and Derbyshire, Winker Watson, and of course Enid Blyton – none of them ever happened now. I suspect that the present will have the same effect on George and Ju and the rest as sunlight does on the vampire – they’ll suddenly start aging, turn to dust and die before our eyes. Zenith could try preserving her a little longer by pickling her not in the present but in the recent past. Nowhere too precise or local – somewhere in north London, perhaps, or the mid west, if they have an eye on the export market. Personally though, I hope they fail. It’s bad enough having the Blessed Enid staring out of yesterday at us from yards and yards of bookshop shelves without having her rise up from the dead to take over the present as well.

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