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How Enid Blyton created the template for children’s theatre in Britain

Writer : Andrew Maunder, Reader in Victorian Research, College of Hertfordshire

Head to London’s West Finish and you might be prone to discover all kinds of performs for households, impressed by a number of the most beloved youngsters tales. There may be JK Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Cursed Little one, Neal Foster’s adaptation of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny and Tim Minchin’s “anarchically joyous, gleefully nasty and ingenious musical adaptation” of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, as theatre critic Lyn Gardner described it.

The recognition of theatre for youngsters and for adapting youngsters’s books for the stage begins in Britain with the works of best-selling youngsters’s author Enid Blyton (1897-1968) within the 1950s. By this time Blyton had, as The New York Occasions reported, made herself “supreme above all authors” and was “a class all herself”. This was because of her long-running journal Sunny Tales, journey sequence corresponding to The Well-known 5 and The Secret Seven, and tales set within the boarding faculties Malory Towers and St Clare’s. It was common for bookshops to have a designated Enid Blyton part resulting from her recurrently publishing 30 or extra books a yr – 39 in 1951 and 44 in 1952.

It made sense, then, to adapt her tales for the stage and he or she generally had two reveals working in London in the course of the Christmas season: Noddy in Toyland (1954-59) and the thriller Well-known 5 Journey (1955; 1956). The significance of Blyton’s literary achievements stays a contentious situation however within the 1950s she principally appeared untouchable and conquered the West Finish as seamlessly as she had accomplished the world of kids’s publishing.

This was particularly so with Noddy in Toyland (described as a “pantomime”), which opened on December 23 1954. Together with the facility of Blyton’s identify, Noddy’s catchy tunes, dazzling particular results (together with a “actual” prepare puffing steam on stage) and the benefit with which Blyton’s characters might be shoe-horned into a well-recognized pantomime plot (the often timid Noddy travels to the Enchanted Wooden to seize some depraved goblins) helped make it a West Finish fixture.

Noddy on Stage

Noddy, a bit wood nodding boy who lives in Toyland, first appeared within the tales Noddy Goes to Toyland (1949) and Hurrah for Little Noddy (1950) and got here to be Blyton’s most well-known character. There have been 24 tales within the “Noddy Library” sequence, ending with Noddy and the Aeroplane (1963).

Enid Blyton with toys of characters from Noddy.
Noddy, the story of a wood boy residing in Toyland, was an enormous success for Blyton.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

The Noddy books’ success was due partly to the colorful illustrations by Dutch artist Eelco Martinus ten Harmsen. Designed for pre-school youngsters, the books’ characters had been partly meant to compete with these of Disney and had been an infinite hit in Britain. By 1962, 26 million copies of the books had been offered.

In 1954, When the wood boy made his stage debut it was, unsurprisingly, successful.

Youngsters at performances reacted noisily and excitedly. They leaned dangerously over the balconies to get a greater look and tried to seize the sweets thrown to them from the stage. It was typically pandemonium however to Blyton, this didn’t matter: “the kids took over the play at occasions and even held up the motion”, she reported proudly.

Noddy got here at a time within the historical past of pantomime and theatre for youngsters because it coincided with superstar casting taking off, a lot to the annoyance of traditionalists. “If that is the way in which pantomime goes’, remarked one reviewer confronted with the crooner Frankie Vaughan, “it should speedily grow to be a yearly parade of tv performers going via their common paces … [and] there might be little level in taking the kids alongside”.

Blyton was broadly credited with returning pantomime to youngsters. Her performs had no “stars” however offered out nonetheless.

The familiarity of the characters was a part of the enchantment of Noddy and later the Well-known 5 Journey – in a lot the identical manner that Harry Potter and Matilda draw audiences in 2021.

Essential plaudits

In 1954, individuals frightened about declining theatre attendances (partly due to the menace posed by tv) held up Noddy in Toyland as proof that the way in which to make youngsters develop a long-lasting curiosity in theatre, and thus guarantee its survival, “is to supply them actual performs of their very own” (The Stage, December 31 1954). Even author Kenneth Tynan – a fearsome enemy of issues twee and formulaic – used his Observer column to match the “pleasing” manufacturing favourably towards the star-studded pantomimes elsewhere, filled with “radio comedians…condemned to fidget uneasily in doublet and hose” (26 December 1954). As Tynan famous, Noddy in Toyland stored issues easy.

Programme featuring characters from the theatrical production of Noddy in Toyland.
Programme for Noddy in Toyland on the Stoll Theatre in London.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Simplicity was, in fact, a part of the attraction of Blyton’s work. The present was simpler to comply with than different pantomimes. Fairies, goblins, speaking animals, people and toys got here collectively in a world that made sense to its younger viewers. However as reviewers famous, there was a myth-like high quality to all of it. The present promised an thrilling however simply comprehensible way of life past the day-after-day, which even to younger youngsters who (one would possibly suppose) had not lived lengthy sufficient to grow to be jaded, was beguiling.

Blyton’s performs have been forgotten however 70 years on that is nonetheless a part of the enchantment of such reveals. In Blyton’s case, it’s one other occasion of her legacy – a legacy that sits awkwardly within the historical past of fashionable leisure.


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