Enid Blyton Day: 15th May, 2010
Ticket sales may have been slow for the 2009 Enid Blyton Day, but this year — the seventeenth Day — it was a completely different story. For the first time since the event has been held at Loddon Hall, tickets sold out three and a half weeks beforehand and this led to the unfortunate position of having to turn disappointed Blytonites away.
Although South East England saw heavy rain in the days leading up to Saturday 15th May and, indeed, in the days following, the Great Day itself was warm with sunny spells. The sky may not have been quite the colour of cornflowers but there were expanses of forget-me-not blue amid scudding white clouds. Ample blue to make pairs of trousers for several sailors, and the rain stayed away. Twyford always looks lovely in May and as I walked from the station to Loddon Hall, eager for adventure, I passed wisteria-covered houses, horse-chestnut trees bearing their candles, sweet-scented lilacs and drifts of bluebells by the wayside.
A record 185 people turned up, with 16 "no shows." As John Lynch (Lucky Star) commented, "Over the years the event has become almost like a family gathering. There were so many familiar faces to greet and catch up with and lots of new ones too." People I met for the first time included Hans-Christian (Dick Kirrin) and Diana Grimm (DarkQueenDiana) from Germany, Andrea Blatter (Timmy 254) from Switzerland, Sue Webster, Su Rayton (Shadow), Adrian Wright, Cliff Watkins and sisters Debbie, Leila (Kiki's New Mam) and Sophie. It was brilliant to meet them and to catch up with old friends (too many to mention by name, and besides I don't want to risk offending anyone by inadvertently leaving them off the list!) I was thrilled to chat to Julie Davis as well, who played Jo the gypsy girl in the 1970s Southern TV version of Five Fall into Adventure, and her sister Denise. As well as Blyton fans from Germany and Switzerland, we had people from Portugal, Holland, the USA and Sri Lanka.
Some had had quite an eventful journey to Loddon Hall. Petermax said, "I was somewhat late arriving due to a capsized boat on the M3 (yes, really!) Little did I know that was only the beginning of my troubles." When the Day finished he discovered that his car had "rendered itself inoperable by means of a seized ignition lock," resulting in his having to call for breakdown assistance and miss the post-Day picnic. Things didn't go smoothly for Zoe (George@Kirrin) either: "I Got Into a Fix at the start of the day, with the sat nav not playing I thought we would Get Into Trouble but after a few reboots it started to work, I picked up my brother Guy and, Together Again, we set off for Warwick where we would collect Philip and all head off, hoping to Fall Into Adventure in Berkshire."
It was just before twelve o' clock that Norman Wright took to the stage to welcome everyone and introduce the speakers. First we were addressed briefly by Enid Blyton's daughter Imogen Smallwood who was appealing for a new Treasurer for the Enid Blyton Trust for Children, the old Treasurer having retired. The Trust is run by Imogen and her daughter Sophie and was set up in 1982 to help fund activities and schemes for children, in memory of Enid's own involvement with charities. Valuable work and I hope that Imogen has been able to find someone for the post.
Sophie Smallwood was up on the stage next as it happened, talking about the book Noddy and the Farmyard Muddle which she wrote to commemorate Noddy's 60th anniversary in November 2009. She spoke of her passion for hens and told us about a cockerel named Charlie which the family had when she was a child, who was a real character. On being asked to write the new Noddy book, she made up her mind from the start that it would include hens and was also determined to bring Bumpy Dog into the story. The story quickly evolved to include other farmyard animals and a birthday party. As in the original Noddy books, the growth of Toyland and its characters was organic with new characters being introduced according to the demands of the plot. Sophie completed Chapter 1 in October 2008 and wrote the rest one weekend, while staying with illustrator Robert Tyndall. As she worked on the story she became particularly fond of the woolly pigs and has since heard of some real-life woolly pigs which are considered by some to be a delicacy! Petermax was impressed that Sophie's speech was "aided by the novel concept of live video feed of artist Robert Tyndall in action." While Sophie talked we were able to watch Robert sketching some of the characters from Noddy and the Farmyard Muddle, such as the bull, and it was great to see them "coming to life" as he added more details.
The next speaker was voice artist Susan Sheridan. I was surprised to learn that she (together with Jimmy Hibbert) was the voice not only of Noddy, but of numerous other characters in the early 1990s Cosgrove Hall Noddy television series. Imogen Smallwood commented that the BBC hadn't taken much notice of Enid Blyton prior to that series. I must admit I've never watched it properly myself but I am familiar with the lively theme tune. Susan Sheridan put on different accents for the various characters, including Scottish, Irish and French. Not being very good at African or West Indian accents, she chose to voice Dinah Doll (who is black in modern Noddy stories) as "frightfully posh." One of her favourite characters was Mrs. Noah and she was pleased to see, on buying a copy of the very first Noddy book (Noddy Goes to Toyland) from a stall at the Enid Blyton Day, that Mrs. Noah had featured right from the beginning. She admitted to occasionally getting muddled and putting on the wrong voice for a character, but that didn't matter too much as she wasn't doing live radio or television! My daughter wasn't able to come to the Enid Blyton Day this year but she was a fan of The Animal Shelf as a youngster and would have recognised Susan Sheridan as the voice of Timothy, his toy giraffe Getup and his teddy bear Little Mut. Susan puts her ability to do child-like voices down to having retained a streak of immaturity — something which of course applies to all the best people! John Lynch described how "Susan Sheridan wowed the hall with her stunning array of voices and accents as well as a very funny Noddy episode of her own." Like Julie Heginbotham, I took note of the recipe Susan recommended for treating a lost voice — water with sea salt and a drop of tea-tree oil!
Next came lunch. I had brought a packed lunch but delicious smells wafted over from the dining area. Nanine (Nanny) from Holland gave an amusing account of how one of the caterers kept popping in and out of the main hall to impart information on lunch orders and (later on) Famous Five cream teas: "Announcements included notes from the kitchen-man. On hearing that it was his turn in the announcements the man came rushing out of the kitchen, shouted his thing into the hall and then returned quickly. That was a funny thing. Throughout the day the man kept appearing with his announcements, like a Jack-in-a-box, organizing everything for the distribution of the meals."
As well as eating and chatting, we had a chance to browse the bookstalls which were stocked with a wide range of Blyton books and other ephemera. I was pleased to pick up a set of sixteen random copies of Sunny Stories magazine — I own very few of those little magazines but I love the attractive covers in muted shades of red and blue, plus black and white. The script of the 1970s Southern TV Five Fall into Adventure was a must-buy, as were the two Bobs cartoon-strip booklets featuring stories about Gillian and Imogen and various pets that belonged to Enid Blyton. Artwork or prints by illustrators Val Biro and Robert Tyndall were on sale and Val was also sketching portraits. It was good to see some of the Stuart Tresilian artwork on display again (his stunning covers for three of the Adventure books — Island, Castle and Sea) as well as the manuscripts of two or three Enid Blyton books.
The talk in the afternoon by the "Famous Four" (Marcus Harris, Gary Russell, Julie Davis and Gail Renard) about the 1970s Southern TV Famous Five series, and their live audio commentary on Five Fall into Adventure, was terrific. Julie, who played Jo, said that she was in awe of the other child actors at first as Five Fall into Adventure was in the second series and she had watched the first series at home some months before, envying the cast and never dreaming that she'd be joining them! However, Gary (Dick) took her under his wing and she soon felt like part of the family. The child actors were staying in a farmhouse that year (Gatewood) and she recalled playing hide-and-seek in enormous cupboards and passageways, and a "winking game" (Wink Murder, perhaps?) She also loved the gooseberry pie served up by the cook, Celia. Julie had had roles in other television programmes and enjoyed playing strong and active characters like Jo, so she was in her element and didn't bat an eyelid when she was required to climb up the scaffolding at Lepe House and drop down from the roof and through an open window. She said that she took her acting seriously, so when she was told to "punch" Dick (Gary), that's exactly what she did! Marcus (Julian) remarked that he was jealous that she got to do that!! Gary mentioned that the "violent" scenes between Dick and Jo are some of the most watched clips on YouTube! Julie was about thirteen when she played the part of Jo and had to have her chest strapped, as did all the girls. I recall reading that the same thing was done to Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, as she was in her late teens when she played Dorothy. Julie still enjoys acting and works in the performing arts.
It was interesting to hear from scriptwriter Gail Renard (yes, the same Gail Renard who, as a teenager, spent time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their "bed-in" in Montreal!) She noted that there's a timeless quality about Enid Blyton's books which meant that putting 1940s-60s stories and characters into a late 1970s setting didn't really pose any problems. Being a scriptwriter, she got to stay at a posh hotel during filming while the child actors stayed at a different hotel (Series 1) or at Gatewood (Series 2). Once, Gail was asked to invite a cast member to a dinner and she chose Toddy (Timmy the dog!) Everyone was impressed with Toddy. As Julie said, he was a marvellous actor. If he had to look sick, he looked sick. And he never once forgot his lines! Gerry (Francis) said, "Watching the 1978 episode made me realise how well the adaptation was done. Not the same as the book, but it kept to the spirit and plotline very well and was extremely pacy and exciting."
Marcus pointed out that the children may have stayed in a different hotel from the adults but it was still 4 star and they dined on best steak every night and had the use of a swimming pool. Unfortunately, they proved to be rather noisy guests!
Gary talked about the "trendy" bikes the children rode in the series, which they were allowed to keep. I forget whether it was Gary or Marcus who said he used to ride his bike to school proudly, boasting to his classmates, "This is my Famous Five bike," only for them to reply, "So what?"
The four spoke about their favourite Famous Five stories. Gary and Marcus both enjoyed filming Five on a Hike Together as the adult characters were fun to work with and they enjoyed messing about on the lake. However, Marcus said that his favourite book to read was Five on Finnegan Farm (I think he meant Finniston!) because of the humorous characters. Julie loved Five Fall into Adventure as she had such a marvellous time playing Jo, while Gail's favourite was Five Go Off to Camp because of the "spook trains."
Andrea Blatter recalled that someone from the audience asked the cast if they liked dogs and what it was like to work with Toddy, who played Timmy: "Gary said he loves dogs. He grew up with dogs because his mother bred them. Julie never had a dog but she loved working with Toddy. Marcus has two dogs, a Viszla and a Border Collie if I recall correctly. They all loved Toddy (the kids, not Marcus' dogs)."
Andrea added that, while watching Five Fall into Adventure, "it felt as if we were all sitting in a big living room watching TV together. The cast seemed to have fun doing the audio commentary. Sometimes they almost forgot to comment because they were concentrating so much on what was happening on the screen."
I have to say it was a joy to listen and talk to all those involved with the 1970s Famous Five series. They were extremely generous with their time and were constantly chatting to fans, posing for photos and signing autographs. Gary wrote on the Enid Blyton Society forums, "Thank you everyone for being so welcoming and putting up with our inane drivel. Well, mine at least. Marcus, Julie and Gail were obviously on top form." Julie added, "Thank you for a wonderful day and glad to share the reunion with fantastic people... It was amazing to meet Gail, Marcus and Gary after a long time and we got on so well. The boys feed off each other which was fab (true professionals) and Gail is an inspiration to young writers." Gail said, "I want to thank each and every one of you who came to see us at the Enid Blyton Day. I'm sure Marcus, Gary, Julie and I had as much fun as you did, if not more! It's gratifying to see the series we did so long ago still appreciated. As you can see, our friendships have lasted too and after Saturday, I feel I've made a lot more. I'm looking forward to seeing you all again. Here's to Enid!"
Nigel Rowe (Moonraker) said that it was "good to have speakers who know how to speak in public. We have all witnessed the embarrassed, stilted, nervous speakers who stand on a stage and drone on monotonously! There was none of that at this year's Day." Nanine found herself musing on what Enid Blyton might have thought of it all: "I looked around me at everyone listening, and I wondered how Enid herself would have felt if she had been amongst us. Would she have liked such a day and attended it heartily, like her daughter does? Or would she have despised it because we are mostly adults? I think it would have been the first. Yes, we are adults, but we are the children of the days back then. And I think she would have liked it that we are still her fans. Also I think that she would have welcomed us doing so much in promoting her work, and keeping it alive."
John Lynch wrote on the forums of how the Day brought "good news galore. Gary Russell's book (Spies, Smugglers and Spook Trains) about the making of the 1970s Famous Five TV series continues to progress, the German release of the series on DVD may be expected in September and the Children's Film Foundation productions of Five on a Treasure Island (1957) and Five Have a Mystery to Solve (1964) will be released on DVD in September also." The Day brought good news for Sue Webster too (Famous Five fan and collector of badges) as she won a prize draw and was presented with a signed print of one of Robert Tyndall's Noddy illustrations.
As usual, those golden hours at Loddon Hall slipped away far too quickly and I have to agree with Petermax's remark: "What a day! Six hours passed in what seemed more like six minutes." I was unable to attend the picnic at Dinton Pastures this year but it sounds as though I missed a real feast and I was sorry not to sample Ilsa's (Daisy's) home-made treacle toffee or Pippa-Stef's home-made gingerbread. Nigel Rowe said that the humorous happenings at the picnic will remain forever etched on his mind: "Winding up Julie Heginbotham, remarking about Pippa-Stef's ton (quite literally!) of sandwiches — and they were great! — the Hindu in the Gents who couldn't work the hand-dryer, me leading a convoy of cars to the wrong locationů." Reading all that makes me wish I could have been a fly on the sandwiches!
Despite the fact that the Day was a sell out apparently, for the first time, the Society picked up no new subscribers. On top of that, some of the dealers admitted that they had sold so little that it might not be worth their while coming to another Enid Blyton Day. It is also becoming more and more difficult to find speakers each year which means that, sadly, the future of the annual gathering at Loddon Hall is uncertain.
Still, I have no wish to end on a sombre note as the Day was such a huge success in terms of entertainment, excitement and fellowship. I feel inclined to echo Gail Renard's words — "Here's to Enid!" I'm sure most of us had no idea when we devoured Enid Blyton's books as children that they would bring us lifelong fun and friendships.