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All jolly nice, and no spice

Bunty's boarding schools and jolly good sports could teach today's girls a thing or two, says Hester Lacey
MENTION RADDY, Simpy, Cotty and Fieldy to almost any female under the age of 50 and they are likely to know at once that these are the famous Four Marys, featured in every issue of Bunty magazine throughout the 40 years since its launch. Prize pupils at St Elmo's boarding school, the Four Marys are a carefully thought-out mix. Posh Lady Mary Radleigh is "the fairest complexioned of the four". Mary Simpson is the scholarship girl. Mary Cotter, a "cheery-looking, pixie-faced girl" is known for her "promising voice" and Mary Field's "neat, smooth hair had a coppery sheen".

When they made their first appearance, back in 1958, they wore smart uniforms and had a marcel-waved look about them; these days, they slop around in jeans, with shaggy Rachel cuts. And yet, the spirit of Bunty lives on. Circulation might have dropped to 65,000 from a heyday high of 800,000, and staid old favourites like the pen-pals club have been dropped in favour of a new horoscope column. But despite the encroachment of photo-stories and newer series like "The Comp", set in Redvale Comprehensive, St Elmo's is still a haven free of (yuck) boys, where what matters is sticking up for your friends, pegging away at your books and doing your best on the hockey field.

These Fifties values, all about being part of the team, knowing your place, and not blowing your own trumpet, are about as far from in-your- face, me-me-me Nineties Girl Power as it is possible to go. Yet they are still seductive, says Kate Saunders, writer, broadcaster and presenter of yesterday's Radio 4 documentary, On These Days, celebrating 40 years of Bunty. "Every woman has a fantasy boarding school in her head, a protected realm where girls are thrown together in an ideal, hermetically-sealed place where they are free from their parents." Even the stern mistresses are part of the attraction. "There is a very clear hierarchy, which is attractive to children, who don't think in terms of things being snobby or elitist, but find it comforting to know everyone's place."

The sheer glamour and romance of this world of trunks and crisp new uniforms and tennis racquets in presses goes some way to explaining the longevity of Bunty's appeal. "Bunty was aimed at girls with no chance of that kind of life - ponies and boarding schools and lacrosse would have been complete gibberish to the girls it was aimed at: lower-middle and upper-working- class," says Kate Saunders. "It was purely aspirational and terribly nostalgic, even at its peak - I remember reading it in the Sixties and Seventies and assuming it had been around forever."

The vital key to the success of Bunty World, she says, is that it is a no-boy-zone. "The emphasis is on achievement. When you are between the ages of eight and 12, you don't want all that nonsense - your world and hierarchy is one of women, and your deepest relationships are with your best friends. That is why St Elmo's and Malory Towers and all the other similar stories are so terribly appealing." Bunty, she believes, still manages to achieve its girls-only appeal, even in today's more up-to-date photo-stories. "The boys still aren't central figures - the emphasis is still on what girls talk about among themselves. Scratch the surface of New Bunty and you'll find Old Bunty underneath."

The novelist Amanda Craig, 38, author of Vicious Circle (Fourth Estate pounds 6.99) was a reader in the Sixties. "Bunty was very important, because I grew up abroad. I got it by airmail and it was this vision of what English girlhood should be like. There were lots of images of girls being very enterprising and fit - I remember Ginty the Gymnast, who was always duffing up baddies. There was none of this passive feminine thing." She was deeply disillusioned when, spurred on by the Four Marys, she insisted on going to boarding school herself. "There was one particularly sinister storyline about a girl who goes off to a school where the evil headmistress is hypnotising all the girls to make them do what she says. My school was more like that than the Four Marys. And when I got there I was horrified by all the other girls' magazines, with all these very passive girls fancying boys in discos."

Even today, the Marys have their fans. "I prefer 'The Comp', because it's probably more like the school I'll be going to. But I still like them. I think their school is probably more like the one my mum went to," says one 10-year-old reader.

From a similar stable, and equally well-loved, are the Enid Blyton school sagas. Blyton's books, although castigated by teachers for being undemanding and sloppily written, are thumping good reads, and are to be found in quantity on bookstore shelves (the Blyton oeuvre still shifts around 8 million volumes a year worldwide). Last October, there was outrage at plans to televise the Malory Towers series, but update it in the style of Beverly Hills 90210 with bitchiness, boyfriends and Liz Hurley in the key role as Miss Potts, firm but fair head of the first year.

Fans of the series see no reason to update the adventures of Darrell Rivers and her friends, who meet in the first year and stick together till the sixth form (when Darrell, natch, is made head girl). "I used to want to be Darrell," admits Alison Grace, 30. "She was fit, academic and had lots of friends. If you could have gone to boarding school as Darrell, you'd have had a fabulous time - all that camaraderie, honesty, no worrying about appealing to boys at the tender age of 12, just doing your best on the lacrosse field. If I ever have a daughter I'd like her to read it - it sounds naff, but I do like the morals behind it."

Eva Rice, 22-year-old theology graduate and daughter of Tim, identifies a strong feminist ethos at Malory Towers in her seminal Who's Who in Enid Blyton (Richard Cohen Books, pounds 12.99). As she points out, the girls have got plenty of character, and "pretty feather-heads" tend to get comprehensively squelched.

"My mother used to threaten to send me to boarding school when I was naughty," recalls Diana Gower, 27. "Little did she know that would just spur me on further, because I longed to go. Everyone who didn't go to one imagines that boarding school is the most fabulous place, where nothing happens but ragging teachers, going swimming and the ultimate, which is the Midnight Feast. Also, you get trunks and tuck boxes and kindly matrons and spunky girls. Who could resist?"

Alas, it seems that perhaps the modern girl may be able to resist. "I find them boring, I've never read more than a chapter or two. They are snobby books," says Ella Morgan, 12.

So, what future for the values of the Bunty generation? Although Bunty is hanging on grimly in a modern magazine market place awash with Girl Talk and Polly Pocket and Sugar and Barbie, it is the last relic of a once-proud stable of five similar titles. But editor Jim Davie remains optimistic. "The secret is good storytelling," he says. "Bunty has always been a story paper. They set very high standards in the Fifties and we have tried to keep up those standards. Even in the harder-edged stories, the girls stick together, friends are there forever and there is always a moral."

The Four Marys may have been relegated to the back of the paper, but at least they are still in the running. "The Marys have been repositioned because they have dropped slightly in popularity," says Mr Davie. "They are still very popular, but saving the school from closure and catching burglars are not typical experiences for the average schoolgirl. The Four Marys are a bit of a throwback, to be honest. It's not gritty and realistic, it's escapism. All the same, many girls do still dream of being the Fifth Mary."