I’m in two minds about this, although generally I’m feeling pretty positive about it. It’s very entertaining – I’ve been binge-watching it! – and there are superb performances all round from a main cast of just 14 people (eight second-formers, one sixth-former, three teachers, a matron, and an odd job boy who has a very Warringtonian accent for someone supposed to be from Cornwall). Nearly all the main storylines from Second Form at Malory Towers are in, although not all the characters are there, and it does a good job of getting across the iconic Malory Towers issues of Darrell’s battles to control her temper and the importance of honesty and standing by your friends. It also makes some interesting points about the effects of tricks, which usually just seem funny in the books, and it’s added some depth to the characters of the staff and also the eternally-maligned Gwendoline.
On the other hand, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin – some of it’s a long way from what Enid Blyton wrote. In the Malory Towers books, anyway – some of it seems to have been copied and pasted across from Five on a Treasure Island! The main plots from Second Form at Malory Towers are included, as I’ve said, although they’ve been altered to fit the small cast size – Belinda’s artistic talents have been transferred to Mary-Lou, and Daphne’s plot of stealing and then redemption by rescuing Mary-Lou has been transferred to Gwendoline, although sadly Mam’zelle Dupont doesn’t feature at all. The other main plot from the book, Ellen, desperate to impress as she’s there on a scholarship, overworking, is included, with the “right” character. But, instead of Miss Parker, we’ve got Mr Parker, whereas there were definitely no male form teachers at the “real” Malory Towers. And a lot of extra plots have just been made up. However, to be fair, it would have been difficult to fill 6 hours of TV time with the contents of what’s quite a short book. They didn’t really miss anything out, apart from the feud between the two Mam’zelles, so I can see that they had to get some extra material from somewhere.
The location is absolutely gorgeous, incidentally! It’s the Hartland Abbey estate in Devon. Whilst the Chalet School had lakes and mountains, and Malory Towers had a seawater swimming school, my secondary school had a “scenic” view of the busiest bus route in Europe, and, whilst I think it was a nice building once, it was destroyed during the Manchester Blitz and rebuilt rather haphazardly. OK, there was a bit of woodland at the back, but we weren’t supposed to go there because it was a hangout for flashers. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lovely school, but scenic it was not! In this series, Malory Towers has not only a seawater swimming pool but extensive grounds and (er, despite being so near the sea) a stream. I would have so loved that 🙂 . And the room where they had the quiz – that was one of the made-up plots, but I rather liked the idea of the girls beating a team from a boys’ school in a quiz – was stunning.
But we’re told in this series that the school building is dilapidated, that Miss Grayling’s running out of money – I don’t think the books specify who owns the school, but I think most readers would assume that the school’s run by a trust and Miss Grayling is only employed as a headmistress – and then someone’s going to invest, but they’re secretly plotting to pull the building down. It’s a classic soap opera plot – Emmerdale are currently running something very similar, and Coronation Street also did something similar fairly recently – but what on earth is it doing in a TV adaptation of Malory Towers?! It just doesn’t fit. I don’t mind the storylines about school plays and outbreaks of measles, because they’re classic school story stuff, and, as I’ve said, I rather liked the quiz – even in my day, the boys from our brother school could be horribly chauvinistic!! – but the school takeover plot feels out of place. And the buried treasure plot’s straight out of Five on a Treasure Island, and seems even cornier here than it did there!
Also, what’s going on with Sally wanting to be “form representative” instead of “head of form”, because she wants to represent all the girls? Would anyone have said that at a boarding school in the 1940s? Sally does generally come across much as she does in the books, though, as do Darrell, Mary-Lou and Irene. And Miss Grayling. Matron’s got a bigger role than she has in the books, and been made into a bit more of a comedy character, but I think that’s partly because Mam’zelle Dupont’s missing and the two characters have to some extent been merged. A back story about Gwendoline having a difficult home life was brought in in the first series and continued here, which I quite like because there’s just no sympathy either for or from Gwendoline in the books. And Alicia, often described as “malicious” in the books, has been toned down a fair bit – although we do see her being very selfish, and how Darrell and Sally try to cope with that. Er, and she suddenly seems to be a champion ice-skater – where on earth did that come from?! Great performances from all the young actresses, though, and a star turn from Ashley McGuire as Matron!
The way in which Alicia’s tricks are handled is quite interesting. We haven’t got Mam’zelle Dupont playing “treeks” back, although we do see Mam’zelle Rougier having a bit of a joke on the girls, but it does make the point that school pranks can get out of hand and aren’t always that funny. I think a lot of us read these books at a very early age and thought that all the tricks were wonderful, and we thought that some of the pranks played at our own schools were wonderful too – unless you were the unfortunate kid who sat on chewing gum, had graffiti written on your locker or whatever. But, when you’re a bit older and possibly a teensy bit wiser, you realise that they actually aren’t very funny for the victim! Er, and that sounds really prissy, doesn’t it?! But still.
Part of that is that kids sometimes forget that teachers are actually human, and this has shown more about the teachers than the books do. Blyton’s Miss Grayling was all-wise and all serene: she’d never have had money worries! In this adaptation, we see her struggling with problems, we already know from the first series that she lost her fiance in the Great War, and we learn about her family. And we also see that Mr Parker (er, not that he was in the books) was given a rough time in his previous job, and the girls understanding the school’s importance to Matron. We even see Mr Parker’s girlfriend, whereas there was never the slightest suggestion in the books that teachers might have personal lives! It works well, but it’s very Elinor M Brent-Dyer, not very Enid Blyton.
I can see why purists have got concerns about it, but, all in all, it’s very enjoyable. The Malory Towers books aren’t the best school stories ever written, but they’re probably the best-known. Ask people who aren’t devotees of school stories what they know about them, and they’ll talk about Malory Towers. Jolly hockey sticks, lacrosse (oh, and that’s another thing – as the school’s only got 9 pupils in this, we don’t see any sports matches!) and, of course, midnight feasts. Maybe this TV adaptation and the recent stage musical’ll keep the popularity of “Girls’ Own” school stories marching on into another generation. Let’s hope so 🙂 .