Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Enid" from 22.11.2009

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2009


BBC 4's series of occasional twentieth century biopics continues with three plays depicting the lives of "women we loved." The sequence began with a portrait of children's author Enid Blyton who by her death in 1968 had sold 600 million books world-wide.

There will follow lives of film and theatre star Gracie Fields and prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Each story promises to cast a different light on the burdens of fame in the time before the cheap celebrity of Heat magazine and reality TV in the jungle.

"Enid" is very much a vehicle for it's lustrous star Helena Bonham Carter who plays the role with elan. Her fastidious eye for detail is matched by impeccable production values reflected by every aspect of the production from casting to locations, set and costume design to writing. The sense of period and atmosphere of the piece is consistently precise and authentic.

As a child I dipped an occasional toe into her books. "Noddy" was aimed at too young an age group for me which left the "Famous Five" and "Secret Seven."

My parents and teachers never directed my reading or influenced my taste. I just went to the public library and selected whatever I fancied. For me the Secret Seven were too frantic and left me cold. The Famous Five however seemed more credible and accessible even though their middle class existence and endless summers of bicycle picnics, breathless adventures in remote coves and sumptuous teas was a million miles away from my suburban life. On the whole I preferred Richmal Crompton's Just William series which were not so formulaic, were better written and more entertaining.

This play set out to explain the events of Enid Blyton's life and their practical consequences in what amounted to a study in cause and effect.

We see Blyton as the beloved daughter of a successful cutlery salesman, Thomas Carey Blyton. Her previously secure bourgeois world was turned upside down when her adored, adoring and adulterous father left the family home. The shock of this event apparently impacted upon Enid's gynecological development. It also prompted her to retreat to a secure private world of her writing which was repetitive, simple, familiar and reassuring.

The devastating loss of her father impacted on every aspect of Enid life. She blamed her mother entirely and appeared to cease any emotional development altogether. From this period, Enid devoted herself ruthlessly to the promotion of her writing and the calculated "Blyton brand," even down to her distinctive signature.

Enid Blyton the author was a mass of contradictions. She seemed forever a child and thought and wrote as a child yet had a chillingly modern grasp of the need to preserve brand integrity even when this involved distorting the truth. The airbrushed version of the famous Enid Blyton beloved of children everywhere and her devoted daughters bore little resemblance to the underlying reality.

The play places much emphasis of the dysfunctional relationship of Blyton with her daughters Gillian and Imogen. Self-obsessed and dismissive, Enid is seen to lack a genuine maternal instinct and to be irritated and offended when her children cried or disappointed her in any way. There are particularly affecting scenes when Enid offers kindness and warm hospitality to visiting young fans whilst her own daughters sit upstairs with their nurse excluded from the fun.

Both daughters are eventually sent away to school to be brought out for staged publicity shots of the happy Blyton family when needed for publicity.

Enid was similarly unkind toward her first husband, publisher Hugh Pollock who had been useful in establishing her career but was destined to alcoholism and depression and to be divorced after fifteen years. Enid's manipulative side is shown in her insistence that he admit to adultery to preserve her crucial reputation. This was agreed to on the condition that he was allowed unrestricted access to his daughters after the divorce. Enid did not keep her part of the bargain and also used her power as an important writer to insist that her publisher husband was subsequently dismissed and blackballed. He was effectively ruined.

Enid's initially adulterous relationship with amiable Kenneth Darrell Walters moved seamlessly onto marriage and cohabitation following the divorce from Pollock. He seemed a compliant and fatherly figure - perhaps reminding Enid of her own father . He did little to impede her workaholic ways and overweening ambition and life fell into its required pattern of the advancement of Enid's career with the girls safely away at school and any danger to the Blyton brand carefully expunged.

We see Enid miscarry a baby in her late forties and seek immediate solace in the creation and promotion of her wildly successful Noddy character. Tellingly, in one scene Enid tenderly arranges a model of Noddy prominently in front of and obscuring a picture of her daughters from whom she was clearly growing yet more distant.

The overall impression created by Helena Bonham Carter was of something of a monster. Her passions appeared only truly roused when venting anger at accusations that she did not write her books or expressing frustration at the BBC for failing to take her work sufficiently seriously.

In the latter stages of he play, we see the first signs of the memory loss and detachment that heralded her early descent into dementia. Given the havoc she thoughtlessly created for others, this sad and isolated fate almost seems her just dessert.

Looking for positives, one could not help but admire Enid Blyton's single-minded belief in her own talent and tenacity in promoting her work on what became a global level. Her ruthless business acumen and awareness of the importance of marketing were well-ahead of her time.

Neither this industriousness or the shock of the desertion of her beloved father, however, excuses her apparently cold and spiteful attitude toward her daughters and first husband and a willingness to distort the truth to promote her product and image.

We are left with a woman irreparably damaged by the loss of her womanising father who immediately ceased developing physically and emotionally. This cost her immediate family huge pain and seemed to give her the capacity to produce a body of escapist writing which packaged up for young children a prim, twee world that was cosy and reassuring but fundamentally unreal and false.

Perhaps the output of a woman self-evidently emotionally underdeveloped, if not retarded, and arguably a vindictive egoist, didn't actually harm any of her young readers beyond depicting an unreal middle class world where children had adventures during long hot summers by the seaside, where the only working class were criminals and there was always lashings of ginger beer for tea. More by luck than judgment I think.

In any event "Enid" was  thought-provoking and well-constructed. Its star was entrancing. 


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