Back for more jolly japes: the return of the Famous Five
Their names have been changed - and that's not the end of it. Disney is planning to give Enid Blyton's adventurous quintet a 21st-century makeover in a new television cartoon series. Cahal Milmo reports
Tuesday 05 December 2006
Julian pulled his hoodie over his baseball cap so his face would be hidden from the CCTV cameras and adjusted the straps on his new Nike Air Pro trainers. While Timmy, the pedigree pitbull, strained on his leash, Julian said to Anne, Dick and George: "Right, let's get down to the out-of-town shopping centre and fit up some smack dealers. Then we can come home and have lots of yummy frozen deep-pan pizzas with lashings of Pepsi Max."
It is a contemporary vision of the Famous Five that would have Enid Blyton revolving in her grave - not to mention generating apoplexy among the fans and enthusiasts who act as the guardians of the integrity of the prodigious author's most famous creation alongside Noddy.
Disney is unlikely to be too concerned. The idea of the quintessentially English, privately educated quartet and their faithful hound tearing around a shopping mall to ensnare drug dealers could be a step too far even for the studio chiefs of Hollywood.
But a thoroughly modern make-over for the Famous Five was unveiled by Disney yesterday as it announced a cartoon version of the books, which were first published to entertain well-bred Britons at the height of the Second World War.
The American conglomerate, which is working with Chorion, the British company that owns the film and television rights to the Blyton oeuvre, vowed yesterday to "remain faithful to the spirit" of the Famous Five stories.
In a statement, Disney said: "Capturing the themes of mystery and adventure ... the Five embark on a series of thrilling adventures, relying on their own resources to solve whatever baffling mysteries they encounter." But, to the sound of disquiet from Blyton purists, the company confirmed that its cartoon would be set in the modern day, with plots and a vocabulary to match.
Gone will be "gosh", "golly" and "jolly nice", replaced - potentially - by the likes of "cool", "awesome" and "boss". The idea of "lashings of ginger beer", the Famous Five "catchphrase" which does not appear in any of the books, to wash down high tea is likely to be replaced by more 21st-century fare and, instead of having a ball of string and a rubber band for "tools", the Five will be able to use technology to ensnare villains.
The Five will even have different names because they are the children of the original characters. Instead, they will be called Cole, Dylan, Jo and Allie.
The 26-episode series - five more than the 21 Famous Five books written by Ms Blyton - will show next year on the UK Disney Channel. The animation will be completed by a French studio working with American and British writers.
Chorion, which has made millions from its remodelling of Noddy into a computer-generated animation, insisted it would be a sensitive custodian of the Blyton tradition. Nicholas James, its chief executive, said: "Old and new fans alike will be delighted by this interpretation of the classic series of books. It remains true to the spirit of the original series with a contemporary take which I'm certain young viewers today will embrace."
Debate about the literary integrity of Ms Blyton's creations - and the class-ridden and occasionally xenophobic world they inhabit - have raged since shortly after the siblings - Dick, Julian and Anne - first hoved into view along with George, the tomboy, and her dog, Timmy.
The first Famous Five book, Five on a Treasure Island, was published in 1942 at the height of Ms Blyton's voluminous creative output, which at times saw her producing 10,000 words a day.
The books concentrate on the holiday time adventures of the children while staying with George's parents, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin, in an area infested with secret passages and smugglers' tunnels.
A further 20 Famous Five stories followed the first until the final instalment, Five are Together Again, in 1963. They remain hugely popular, selling 1.4 million copies annually worldwide, including some 450,000 in the UK.
It is precisely this enduring attraction of a writer considered outmoded by some as early as the 1950s - including in one famous case Ms Blyton's own publisher - that has made her work the subject of a five decade-long tussle between traditionalists seeking to preserve the original texts, and entrepreneurial reformers, bringing new versions of her characters to new generations.
The potential rewards are vast. Chorion paid the BBC £6m for the rights to Noddy less than a decade ago and took a risk by funding a new computer- generated version of the little man with a bell on his blue hat. So far, Noddy is estimated to have made Chorion £120m.
The Disney Famous Five cartoons, which will be sold in America, Europe and Commonwealth countries, will be the third television version of the Famous Five after an ITV adaptation in 1978, also in contemporary settings, and a 1996 Anglo-German serial set in 1950s.
Such is the popularity of the Famous Five in Germany and France that at least a dozen "new" books have been written in the countries by different writers to satisfy demand. Unsurprisingly amid such myriad choice, the Blyton purists are determined not to take the latest remodelling lying down, cucumber sandwiches or not.
Campaigners say they are concerned publishers will stop producing the original Famous Five books and concentrate on spin-offs from the new cartoon series. They cite the example of Noddy, where the original Blyton books have been largely superseded by books based on the 3D characters of the Chorion cartoon.
A website - gingerpop.co.uk - has been set up encouraging people to write letters of complaint and to foment activism such as entering fancy dress competitions dressed as the Five carrying "Save Us" placards. A spokesman said: "Once Noddy was rewritten for TV, Enid Blyton's Noddy books soon stopped being published. Will this become the fate of the Famous Five books too?
"Will the stories be the same if Aunty Fanny drives a 4x4, Joanna the cook is replaced with an au pair and the children are always losing their mobile phones?
"Intelligent children understand the concept of history and can appreciate that the Famous Five stories are of a time and place. This time is the middle of the last century and the place is rural England."
Fans of Blyton and the Famous Five point out that it is the vision of a wholesome, safe world in which adventures take place almost entirely without adult supervision that explains their appeal to a modern audience.
The sun nearly always shines, adventures take place outdoors, food is abundant - hard boiled eggs, sandwiches and ice-cream - and while there is bickering and schism, a happy consensus is established by the final page. It is ironic, therefore, that the Five were invented in one of the most turbulent and unpleasant phases of their creator's life.
Just three months after Five on a Treasure Island was published, Ms Blyton completed her divorce from her first husband, Hugh Pollock. It emerged recently that for at least a year earlier she had been having an affair with a distinguished London surgeon, Kenneth Darrell Waters. The couple married in October 1943 and Ms Blyton then refused permission for Mr Pollock to visit their two daughters, Gillian and Imogen.
In a recent interview, Gillian said her mother had been able to put such troubles behind her while writing: "She had an imagination that worked independently of her. She used to talk about her 'mind's eye' - she would sit and make her mind blank and the characters would walk through it. She could see them and even feel the texture of Timmy's hair."
It was a recipe for success beyond Ms Blyton's dreams - and enthusiasm. Gillian said that her mother had only wanted to write six Famous Five books but, under pressure from her publishers, Macmillan, and letters from readers, she carried on writing, not always with zeal.
Gillian said: " She told me she was getting a bit tired of some of her characters and in some cases a maximum of six titles was fine with her. The Famous Five was so popular she felt obliged to write 21 in the series. She was not excited by writing some of them."
But while the relative paucity of characterisation and description of landscape in the Famous Five did much to endear Ms Blyton to her child audience, there were other aspects of her writing that rattled adult readers. Over the years, plot lines which portrayed Romany gypsies as villains or made a clear division of domestic chores on gender lines between the girls and boys of the Five have fallen foul of revised attitudes.
In 1960, an internal assessment of The Mystery That Never Was, a Famous Five-style book by Ms Blyton submitted to her publisher, Macmillan, was scathing. Phyllis Hartnoll, a theatre critic and reader for the company, wrote: "There is a quaint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia in the author's attitude to her thieves; they are 'foreign' and this seems to be regarded as sufficient to explain their criminality. The characterisations are painfully thin and the plot does not stand up to examination."
With a total output of more than 700 books before her death in 1968, Ms Blyton was never going to be dissuaded by such criticism. She told her family that she was not bothered by accusations levelled against her, such as racism in the shape of golliwogs in Noddy, because her books were written for children.
Total sales of her works - more than 400 million - indicate many agree with her. This year she came 12th in a list of the most borrowed authors in British libraries in the past 20 years and the Famous Five series was voted the favourite children's books by adults.
But the need to mould the Famous Five to the attitudes of subsequent eras has never been far away. There was a short-lived campaign to ban some Blyton books from libraries and schools in the 1970s and in the 1980s a parody by the Comic Strip, Five Go Mad in Dorset, saw the characters express sympathy with Nazi Germany and deride the welfare state, homosexuals and immigrants.
The current publishers, Hodder, made a number of changes to the text this year to reflect changed uses of language. "I say" was replaced by "hey", "queer" with "odd" and "biscuits" with "cookies" - the latter to appeal to American readers.
But those who seek to defend Ms Blyton and her creations against the tide of modernity are likely to remain defiant. Tony Summerfield, organiser of the Enid Blyton Society, said: "I can see why anything offensive ought to be edited out. But I don't understand this need for everything to be updated in the manner that these cartoons are likely to do. It seems we will end up with a Scooby Doo version of the Famous Five. Nobody would dream of updating Treasure Island. Why must we do it with the Famous Five?"
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