Great Lives: Enid Blyton – Radio 4 and The Tiger Who Came For Tea – Channel 4

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There was quite a contrast between these two Christmas Eve broadcasts, and not in the way I might have expected.  The tiger, who can be pretty scary, was just good fun in this lovely, cheerful interpretation of Judith Kerr’s books, with music by Robbie Williams, whereas the programme about Enid Blyton, who’s brought so much joy to so many children, was rather sad, focusing on her unhappy childhood and difficult relationship with her own family rather than on her books.

Like a lot of children, I grew up with Enid Blyton.  I was so obsessed with the Noddy books that I knew them off by heart.  I insisted on having them read to me for bedtime stories, and, if my tired mum or dad tried to miss a bit out, I’d howl with indignation.  I drove my dad mad to make up more stories about Amelia Jane, because there weren’t enough of them to suit me.  Nearly everyone in my class at primary school was into the Famous Five, the adventure and mystery books, and to some extent the Secret Seven, and the girls at least were very keen on the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books.  When someone scribbled on the walls of the boys’ toilets, we tried to look for clues, like the Five Find Outers would have done.  The culprit never was officially unmasked, but I have my suspicions as to whom it was!  And my sister and I solemnly collected bits of food from our tea, to have for midnight feasts … although, at that age, we never managed to stay up till midnight!

As far as the criticism which Enid Blyton now gets showered in … well, it never occurred to me, as a little kid, that the golliwogs were any sort of racist symbol, any more than it occurred to me that Aslan’s resurrection in the Narnia books was any sort of religious allegory.  I blithely assumed that, had I gone to Malory Towers, I’d have been best mates with Darrell and the rest of the in crowd, never stopping to think that they’d have made mincemeat of a fat swotty kid with a Northern accent. And I still don’t see why people think the books are sexist.  OK, Anne in the Famous Five books and Lucy-Ann in the Adventure books are rather wussy, but they’re only two characters.

I can understand a lot of the criticism of the books now, though, but I do feel that Enid Blyton gets a lot of criticism which other authors, apart from Laura Ingalls Wilder, don’t.  No-one complains that The Tiger Who Came To Tea is sexist because Mummy’s at home making cakes with Sophie whilst Daddy’s at work, or calls Shakespeare as a bigot because of his portrayals of Shylock and Fagin, Dickens a bigot because of his portrayal of Fagin, or Jane Austen as a snob because all her heroines are from posh backgrounds.

The programme was ambiguous about all that.  You can argue about it until the cows come home.  But it did talk a lot about the poor quality of her writing.  One of my primary school teachers once complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like Enid Blyton!  I only wish I did, given that she sold over 800 books.  Teachers had a real down on Enid Blyton in the early 1980s, and I think they always have done … rather paradoxically, given that most kids love the books.  The programme did claim that there wasn’t much competition in the children’s book market during Blyton’s heyday, and that that was why her books were so popular, but I thought that that was rather unfair.  Kids like the books because they’re exciting … and the books probably do have to be about the upper middle classes due to that, because only kids from well-to-do families are likely to go to boarding school or go away for the entire school summer holidays.

It also said a lot about her difficult family life – the breakdown of her first marriage after both she and her husband had affairs, the way she airbrushed her first husband, the father of her two children, out of her life, her difficult relationship with both her mother and her children, and the trauma she suffered when her father ran off with another woman when she was in her early teens.  Her mother, understandably in the society of the times, pretended that he was just working away, and it’s thought that that’s partly why Enid became  so involved in telling stories.  It even said that she had fertility problems because the trauma of her father leaving affected her physical development.  I’ve no idea if that’s medically possible or not, but that’s what it said.  And it does have to be said that she doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.

All rather miserable, really.  But it praised her business acumen, and pointed out that, as a woman in a man’s world, she had to be tough.  Even more importantly,  it acknowledged that her books have got so many kids into reading.  And she deserves respect for that, and that’s why hers was a great life.

It also talked about food!  There is so much food in her books … mostly published at a time when rationing was in force and children could only dream of all those enormous teas and picnics.  And, of course, food is key to The Tiger Who Came To Tea as well, although that was published long after rationing had ended.  The tiger is a bit scary, as I’ve said, because he eats them out of house and home and even uses all the water from the tank … but no-one wants scary stuff on Christmas Eve, and this production was all smiley and happy!  I wasn’t convinced about Mummy wearing a green dress, a blue cardigan and an orange coat all together, nor about Daddy going to work in checked trousers, but never mind!   Purists may have found some of the cartoon scenes a bit too modern, but I thought it was all good fun, and a perfect antidote to the doom and gloom that the soaps seem intent on serving up over the festive season.  It was a real treat.

So that was Christmas Eve, for supposed adults who still like children’s books!  If you’re reading this, thanks for doing so, and I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all the best for the new year xxx.