As a little girl, I was obsessed with Malory Towers. When I was 6 or 7, one of my primary school teachers even complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like “a miniature Enid Blyton”. I only wish I did – I could use the zillions of pounds she must have earned in royalties! I tried to write a pantomime like Darrell Rivers did – with the parts going to my dolls and teddy bears. I told my sister that we were going to have a midnight feast and we had to nick food from our tea. You get the idea. Then, as I got older, I began to find aspects of the books more and more unpleasant. The bullying, the malice, the snobbery. Let’s face it, as a swotty fat kid with a Northern accent, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at the place. Alicia and Betty would have made mincemeat of me! But I’ve still got that childhood affection for the books, for the midnight feasts and the seawater swimming pool and the tricks played on teachers, and I booked to see this stage adaptation pretty much as soon as tickets went on sale. And it was a really nice interpretation of the books – not exactly faithful to them, and with some elements that verged on being spoof-like, but with added depth given to the problem characters to explain their unpleasant behaviour, and an overall emphasis, on friendship, pulling together, and becoming the sort of kind, strong women whom Miss Grayling talked about in her legendary welcome speeches.
It started with a group of girls in a modern school, and my heart sank … but that was only some silly intro bit that’d been added for no good reason, and it didn’t last long! Soon, we were off to Malory Towers. No midnight feasts, and only one trick, but we did get the swimming pool – thanks to the clever use of graphics and other special effects, which formed a big part of the performance. There’s obviously only so much that you can show on stage, especially in a production that’s only aimed at relatively small theatres, but the graphics were very effective in showing things that couldn’t have been included otherwise.
Only seven characters featured – Darrell, Sally, Gwendoline Mary, Alicia, Bill, Mary-Lou and Irene. If I’d had to pick seven of the girls to include, I’d probably have gone for exactly the same seven (ignoring the fact that Bill didn’t actually appear until the third year, and this was meant to be the first term of the first year), but I did wonder how it was going to work without Miss Grayling, Miss Potts, Mam’zelle et al. However, in the end I didn’t really miss them that much – and Miss Grayling did feature when needed, as a silhouette and a disembodied voice! Headmistresses in school stories are always terribly wise and inspirational – I was fully expecting some sort of inspirational speech on my own first day at secondary school, and was rather put out when all we heard about were timetables and lockers and dinner queues – and we needed her words to remind us what Malory Towers was supposed to be about, but the emphasis was on the girls and the bonding between them.
It was a musical, but the music wasn’t really that memorable: it was all about the storyline. As far as that storyline went, several storylines, from different books, had been combined, so it wasn’t for the purists. There was also a clifftop rescue scene which had more echoes of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, and a Shakespearean play storyline which had more echoes of Kingscote than of Darrell & co’s pantomime. Even aspects of the characters had been merged: Bill was an “Honourable”, whereas in the books that was Clarissa. However, the general themes were there, and much of the story hinged on the iconic scene in which Gwendoline holds Mary-Lou under the water in the swimming pool and furious Darrell slaps her. That scene’s been taken out of some modern reprints, which rather annoys me. It’s meant to be violent. The whole point of it is that slapping people isn’t acceptable. And it’s much more dramatic than the storyline in which Darrell’s framed for breaking a pen, which is what causes most of the first term’s trouble in the book.
As far as the portrayal of the characters went … well, for a kick-off, most of them didn’t have posh voices, so maybe yours truly would actually have been OK in this version of Malory Towers! Well, if the other girls could have got past the fat and swotty stuff! And the only two who were really true to how they were in the books were hot-tempered but good-hearted Darrell and timid Mary-Lou. They were all a bit caricatured – but it has to be said that Enid Blyton’s characters can be rather one-dimensional, certainly when compared to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s or Antonia Forest’s. But this adaptation did give more depth to the two problem girls – Alicia and Gwendoline Mary. Alicia, rather than being malicious and, it has to be said, rather a bitch, was shown as playing the part of class comedian to try to cover up her academic failings. That was venturing a long way from the books, in which Alicia was very clever, but it fitted with the purpose of the show, which had everyone coming together at the end to support each other.
As for Gwendoline, in the books she was only redeemed towards the end of her final year, when her dad became ill. In this version, we were told that the reason she was so badly-behaved wasn’t that she was spoilt, as it was in the books, but that she had a troubled home life because her dad was suffering from shell-shock after the war. And her dad actually died – it was strongly suggested that he’d taken his own life – and the other girls rallied round her, and so she became part of the crowd. Again, it was a long way from the books, but it worked for the purposes of this show. It was also interesting to see the effects of the war on this generation of young people brought into the story. It was never mentioned in the books. It really did all get quite dark, partly with the suicide storyline and partly with Gwendoline half-smothering Mary-Lou with a pillow, driving her into running away. The books certainly weren’t all jolly hockey sticks, with some pretty nasty stuff going on, but this took things to a different level.
Sally’s story was changed as well – she was far more serious and bossy that she was in the books, and her issues were put down to, rather than jealousy of her new baby sister as they were in the books, being neglected by parents who weren’t really interested in her. Again, it all formed part of this idea of the girls needing each other, and realising that in the end. Irene didn’t really feature much, and had lost her scatterbrained nature and her interest in maths: she was the one character whom I felt could really have done with a bit more of a story and a bit more action.
And so to Bill, who’s had all the press coverage because the part’s being played by a non-binary actor. Some of this has been bigotry from the religious right and is therefore best ignored, but there’s also been some valid concern, from people who are not in the least bit transphobic, that the casting decision gives the impression that a cisgender female has to be into frilly pink girly stuff and that a tomboy can’t identify as being female. The issues of gender identity and sexuality weren’t actually referred to, but there was certainly something going on. Bill was referred to as a “knight in shining armour” for her part in the clifftop rescue, strode about in jodhpurs and riding boots, like a Jilly Cooper character, whilst all the others were in school uniform, and shared a “moment” with Sally when their parts in the Shakespearean play required them to kiss.
I personally have never seen Bill as being non-binary or transgender: whereas George (Georgina) of the Famous Five dislikes being seen as a girl and is pleased when people see her as a boy, there’s never any suggestion that Bill identifies as anything other than female. But, like many Girls’ Own fans, I see Bill as being gay, and imagine her ending up in a relationship with Clarissa Carter. There’s a lot of fanfic “shipping” the two of them – and quite a bit of it is by authors who are themselves gay and say that they identify with the characters and find it helpful that characters like them do exist in older books for children. I think we’re also meant to see Miss Potts as being a lesbian – she’s a rather clumsy stereotype, unlike Miss Wilmot and Miss Ferrars in the Chalet School books, but the point is that there are strong LGBT undertones in some Enid Blyton books, although it’s George rather than Bill who doesn’t want to be seen as a girl, and so there’s no “agenda” involved in portraying that in stage or film or TV adaptations. Children’s books of that period did not include openly gay characters – the first children’s book I read which did include an openly gay character was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and that wasn’t written until the 1980s – but there were definitely those aspects to Malory Towers and other Girls’ Own stories. Anyone claiming that it’s been made up for political correctness or to push an “agenda” or anything else really needs to have a good read of the books!
Nevertheless, as I said, this wasn’t for the purists, because storylines and characters had been changed; but the general themes, the positive themes, of Malory Towers and of Girls’ Own books in general were all there. Pull together, work with your friends, try to deal with any aspects of your own character – a bad temper, jealousy, bullying tendencies – which are problematic – and try to “learn to be good-hearted and kind, sensible and trustable, good, sound women the world can lean on”! It’s great to see Malory Towers back in the news, and it was great to see a lot of teenage girls there last night, and some younger children as well. I’d thought it was all going to be people aged 35 and over, but it looks as if the Girls’ Own baton is being carried on into another generation. Hooray!! Or, as Enid Blyton would have said, hurrah!