Not in front of the children

Enid Blyton's name is in lights in Regent Street this Christmas and she is about to launch a posthumous assault on America. But her private life has come back to haunt us.
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Drivers inching their way up London's Regent Street this month will note, above their heads, an odd sight. Slung across the noble thoroughfare, the Christmas lights this year do not feature sleighs or angels, stars or shepherds, nor characters from the latest Disney extravaganza (three years ago the Regent Street Association explained the presence of Aladdin, Jasmine and the Genie in the night sky by saying these flowers of Islamic culture were "Christmassy"), nor even a Baby Jesus in a manger. Instead, two images - of a simple neon crown and the signature of Enid Blyton - are all that express the festive season in the main children's shopping street of the metropolis.

Deconstructing the image takes no time: the crown is to suggest the queen of children's fiction, and the signature, with its tiny double-flourish, is to remind us that Enid Blyton plc is being celebrated here - but its chilly eminence above Hamleys and the Disney Shop seems rather appropriate, given what we now know about Ms Blyton and what is happening to her world- conquering shadow.

Most immediately, the centenary of her birth (11 August 1897, in East Dulwich) is about to be celebrated all over the book world. Not just with special editions of the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Malory Towers school books, but with a huge transatlantic marketing thrust. In February this year, Trocadero plc (owner of the entertainment complex at Piccadilly Circus) paid pounds 13m for the world rights to the Enid Blyton estate. They are even now setting about turning her name, her logo, and the huge treasure trove of more than 700 novels and 10,000 short stories into a merchandisable product. Stand by, next year, for a flood of must-have Blytoniana: a new television series of Famous Fives, two dozen episodes of The Castle of Adventure and its sister books newly televised for Channel Five, CD-Rom tie-ins, a line of Famous Five clothes, the launch of Noddy biscuits, the Big Ears battery.

As the Enid Blyton Association points out smugly in its corporate releases, the great Enid wrote no fewer than 58 different series involving a single character (like Noddy) or character-groups (like Josie, Click and Bun). Everywhere you look, exploitation is in the air. The climax of this strangely unattractive scurrying around will be the introduction of Noddy and his Toytown associates to America for, amazingly, the first time.

It is with splendid synchronicity, therefore, that the first television programme to capitalise on this new-found interest in Blyton is a record of her own, deeply unpleasant brand of exploitation - the exploiting of her husband, her family, her dog, and her own gnawingly unhappy childhood, all of them parleyed into a money-spinning empire of unreality.

Next Monday, Sally George's film on Enid Blyton is broadcast as a part of Channel 4's controversial Secret Lives series. It's a richly damning piece of work with a simple thesis: Enid Blyton was a flint-hearted, selfish, ambitious and vindictive woman who confined her maternal feelings and dreams of happiness to her 700-odd books and found her own children at best a nuisance and an interruption to her career.

The film deploys the testimony of her daughters, Gillian and Imogen, whose differing accounts of life with their famous Mamma are movingly paralleled. Gillian, broad-faced and optimistic, chats happily about her mother's stimulating walks and blackberrying in country lanes; Imogen, by contrast, her face drawn and pursed with disappointment, radiates neglect like a bad fairy. To her, Blyton was a "grand lady" of the house and she didn't know her; it was a shock to discover that she was her mother as well. When her parents split up, she said, "it was nothing to do with me at all. It could have been happening to the neighbours."

She explains the confusion of seeing, in Sunny Stories, Blyton's chatty address to her young readers, saying that "Gillian and Imogen" had read her new book and loved it. "I hadn't read it," says Imogen. "I didn't know anything about it. But I knew there were two Imogens, and I didn't like the other one."

These could be written off as mere domestic squabbles. But the film penetrates a lot more murky territory. The more Enid's reputation as the impresario of family sunshine was spreading its rays over the reading world, the more, it seems, she was embroiled in psycho-sexual disorders. Physically and psychologically atrophied by her father's departure when she was 13, she left home at 19, never contacted her parents again, moved in on a married publisher, Hugh Pollock (confiding to her diary, five days after meeting him, "He is going to fall in love with me if he hasn't already. I want him for mine"), persuaded him to divorce his wife. It was Hugh who turned the aspirant children's writer into the global phenomenon (10,000 words a day; at its height, her annual turnover was the equivalent of pounds 2m). But when they divorced, she refused to let him see his daughters ever again - he wasn't allowed to attend Gillian's wedding - and had him removed from the publishing firm to which he had introduced her.

More extraordinary are the revelations, from Hugh's third wife, that the creator of Noddy and the Five Finder-Outers enjoyed drunken games of strip-tennis with friends at her house, Green Hedges; and from the gardener's daughter that, while she wrote winsome tales about her dog Bobs, she refused to let him see a vet and he died in agony. (The fictional Bobs enjoyed carefree doggy adventures for another 15 years.) She became sweatily close to a former midwife, Dorothy, who developed a lesbian fixation on her; they spent unfeasible amounts of time locked in the bathroom together.

What else? She wrote poison pen letters, changed her daughters' names by deed poll, airbrushed her first husband out of the family, and, when a little five-year-old in next-door's garden disturbed her by singing in the twilight, she complained to her mother, then wrote a nasty story about "Lucy Loudvoice ..."

These revelations do not bother the Enid Blyton Association: "We would see this programme as an opportunistic attempt to repackage a tired character assassination," a spokesman says. "We believe the programme will neither diminish the genuine celebration of Enid Blyton's centenary, nor reduce the pleasure that millions of children worldwide continue to reap from her works."

There is a spectacular irony here. For the rebirth of Blyton as a selling proposition represents a quantum shift from the attitudes of the Sixties, when librarians and bookshop owners simply refused to stock her anodyne tales, deeming them too complacently middle-class, too casually racist and sexist (especially the larcenous golliwogs and hopelessly weedy little girls), too unimaginative, too out of touch with real life.

In America, the problem has been one of language and the Englishness of the characters' attitudes. Kids from Detroit and Pittsburgh, it seems, just couldn't relate to pre-teen adventurers saying "Golly" and "Gosh" and "Rats, you crumpet" before returning home, tired but happy, to cream teas with strawberry jam.

Now all the marketing chat is about the "values" that Ms Blyton supposedly represents. They will make some changes to the books' vocabulary and "style" without diluting the plots or, indeed relocating them to Harlem. But the "values" - of safe and secure domestic backgrounds, non-life-threatening adventures, bovine policemen and unimaginative criminals - are now considered just what's needed for young readers in the late Nineties. For parents and teachers, she may prove to be the perfect corrective to current tastes for horror and grotesquerie. "She's made for America," says David Lane of Trocadero. "Blyton is exciting, yet safe and clean, with no sex and no gratuitous violence."

In other words, political correctness, which once damned Enid Blyton's books to oblivion, may now see her reputation rise higher than ever, in her centenary year. How piquant that we should have the Secret Lives film to remind us on what a gilded stage of family dysfunction those drivelling fantasies were constructedn