Sunday, 24 May 2020

Book to Screen: First Term at Malory Towers

When I was about eleven, I started adapting Enid Blyton's First Term at Malory Towers into script form, in a small Lion King notebook. It may have been around the same time that CITV broadcast an excellent adaptation (at least to my pre-adolescent eyes) of the Famous Five books. It was certainly an exercise in wish-fulfilment that I knew would never see the light of day, partly because I was a kid, but also because even at that age I knew there would be no home on kids' TV for a series with an all-female cast.

The Malory Towers books - especially the first one - opened up an entire world to me. I was not new to Enid Blyton's books - I was an enormous fan of her mysteries, especially the Famous Five - and I remember rummaging through the classroom book box for something by the author, and turning up triumphantly with Malory Towers. At first I was a little nonplussed, with a little confusion over the lead character's gender - I had only known Darrell as a boy's name at that point - and some bewilderment about how the brown tunic with orange trim could possibly constitute a "jolly nice" school uniform, but by the time I'd made it onto the train, I had put aside these nitpicks and become thoroughly engrossed in the story and the new-to-me setting of the Girl's Boarding School. Malory Towers came alive; I could picture the school, in its grey stately setting, built around a courtyard, with its salt-water swimming pool on the cliffs, and the dormitory towers.

That was at least 25 years ago, yet that series, especially the first book, became one of the stories that became inextricably entangled with my own childhood. It seems strange to lay a personal claim to a popular book by one of Britain's biggest-selling children's authors, but when I learned that the BBC had adapted it as a 13-part series, I felt weirdly proud and possessive. I approached it excitably - even getting up early on the day it arrived online, to watch an episode before work (my last day of work before we closed due to The Current Situation.)

Readers, it was simply marvellous!

I wasn't sure how much of Blyton's story was going to be used, and how much would be using her setting to tell original stories.  The story takes an episodic form - ideal for the genre, which takes place over the course of a school term - which blends scenes from the book with new material very well. Every scene I'd hoped for was there, in full and with very little meddling: the slap in the pool, the tricks, the mystery of Sally, and Mary-Lou's fountain pen. These scenes were adapted just as faithfully as my inner purist could ever have hoped, and so I don't mind in the least that additional material has been tidily slotted in alongside it. As well as the Blytonesque hijinks - midnight feasts, secret passages, a ghost story - the characters face things that maybe Blyton wouldn't have written about herself, but that ring true to the boarding school setting of the late 1940s, such as class and its expectations, and academic struggles. I think that it was a bold step to depict one of the bright heroines as having what would now be recognised as dyslexia: an important piece of representation for Malory Towers' young audience

The girls and mistresses were brought to life by a diverse cast who worked well together as a team. They embodied the classmates I've known for a quarter of a century - even the minor characters who even Blyton forgot about or replaced over the course of the series. (The only girl missing from the First Form North Tower dormitory is Violet, mentioned twice, whose defining trait is that she has exactly zero personality. Poor soul, I often wondered what became of her.) The only character I felt disappointed with was Matron (Ashley McGuire), reduced to a walking stereotype, a bullying, incompetent martinet. I've a suspicion that she was used to fill the gap left by Ma'm'zelle Dupont, Blyton's comedy French mistress whose main purpose was to be the butt of Alicia's pranks.

Ella Bright plays a spirited, well-rounded Darrell Rivers, a Darrell with a Past - an elaboration from the source material, but which is consistent with her character: she is the quintessential schoolgirl heroine, kind, fair, sporty and smart. (I just wish she had curly hair like the illustrations on my 1990s paperbacks.)

Meanwhile, Danya Grivers is every bit the spoilt, catty drama queen Gwendoline Mary Lacey - the perfect antagonist. Yet even she is shown a little more compassion, by the script and the characters, than Blyton ever afforded her. I never thought it fair that she was sneered at from her very first appearance. She's awful, but she was never given the chance to be otherwise. Here, at least, she is shown a little mercy and her character's vulnerability peeps through her spiteful exterior.

Then there's timid, sweet little Mary-Lou, jolly and scatterbrained musician Irene - as soon as they appeared, the friends who had been words on a page had faces of their own. Moody Sally, sensible Jean (albeit not Scottish) and stern Katherine, the head of form. Quiet, traditionally feminine Emily, who only really spends a couple of pages in the limelight on the page, has a subplot of her own, not from the book but that fits in seamlessly. A few lines and a North American (I think Canadian?) accent go a long way towards explaining hard-edged prankster Alicia, who rarely gets to see her family, even in the holidays, and who has huge hampers and gifts sent to her, perhaps as compensation, and remember that this is post-war Britain where rationing is stricter than it was even during the second world war.

Aside from the Matron quibble, I only have a few minor criticisms; occasionally some 21st-century-isms popped into the dialogue, such as Alicia saying "guys" or a couple of characters using the pinky-promise to swear everlasting friendship, which is a ubiquitous trope and yet I'm pretty sure has not been around as long as writers think it has. And I'd like to draw the distinction between anger, which can be used for good, and "temper" which is anger without self-control. Finally, there appear to be only about a dozen pupils and four members of staff in the whole school, and poor Pamela the head girl is also games coach and remedial tutor, and it leaves you wondering when on earth she has time to study her own lessons! But all in all, the first series of Malory Towers was simply smashing, and I'm really keen to see the rest of the books also adapted for the screen. I want to meet Bill, and Clarissa, and Mavis; I want to see the clifftop rescue, the midnight horse-ride, the Fifth Form pantomime.

I've waited 25 years for this, and now I want more.

3 comments:

  1. Hey I came to check out your post after you mentioned it in your comment over at mine! I'm so glad you enjoyed the series and that it lived up to your expectations! I was delighted by the diversity they brought to it, because it was so easy and natural to do, and long overdue.

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  2. I'm glad you liked it. I didn't get very far with it, I'm afraid - Matron put me off!

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