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Solo Looks Back

2 Remembering the Famous Five

What do you get when you mix a pile of tongue and lettuce sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, potted meat and ripe tomatoes with a great big fruit cake, freshly baked buns and tinned pears? No, not indigestion. The Famous Five of course. Rather! And don’t forget to wash the whole lot down with lashings of ginger beer. Racist, sexist, downright elitist, you can’t fault author and creator Enid Blyton for at least giving us a vivid insight into the strange dining habits of middle class children in 1940s and ’50s England.
The Famous Five series of children’s books made its debut in 1942 with Five on a Treasure Island. Five Go Adventuring Again followed in 1943 and while Blyton apparently originally only intended writing about eight of the books, she kept going until 1963 when Five Are Together Again completed the 21 in the series.
So who exactly were the Five? Well, they were a bunch of four children – siblings Julian, Dick and Anne and their cousin Georgina (known as George because she wanted to be a boy) – and a mongrel dog called Timmy, who, as a group, seemed to have an uncanny ability to fall upon adventures wherever they went. And these children went places, whether it was by foot, in a caravan, on bike or by boat. While all four attended boarding school, they spent most of their holidays in the seaside town of Kirrin with George’s parents, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin – the latter being a mad scientist who couldn’t even remember to turn up for his meals. So every vacation that the children spent together, they invariably found themselves stumbling on some mystery, which would involve studying maps, looking for secret panels and passages and hunting for treasure. Lighthouses played quite a major role too as did ‘spook trains’, kidnappers and smugglers. And then of course there were the picnics. If there was ever to be a sixth character in the Famous Five, it would surely have to be food.
While Blyton’s series has brought joy to many over the years, the books have also been harshly criticised by some who see the writing as sexist and racist. And there can be no denying this. These are books where the girls do the cleaning and the washing up while the boys do the practical, macho stuff like climbing down the local well shaft in search of the hidden cave where the golden nuggets are stashed. Or something like that. And apart from the sexism, the books are riddled with a blatant snobbery where ‘circus folk’ are deemed to be less than desirable and the family cook is way down the social status scale, no matter how good a chef/baker she is. Neither is there any attempt to disguise the moral highground tone and any character who is less than perfect gets their ‘corners rubbed off them’ by the Five. Indeed of the four children, tomboy George is possibly the most believable as she at least has an edge compared to saintly Julian who is a 12-year-old acting like he’s about 60.
The sometimes ridiculous tone and setting of the books has been a source of amusement for years – the Five were responsible for inspiring the comic strip Five Go Mad in Dorset and Five Go Mad On Mescalin, where the characters express sympathies with Nazi Germany and opposition to gays, immigrants and Jews.
In 1978 the Famous Five was made into a television series of 26 episodes, almost all of which were filmed in the New Forest and parts of Dorset and Devon. Wobbly sets and dodgy sound aside, it made enough of an impact that almost all 20-somethings and 30-somethings remember it fondly. Another series was made in 1996, where Aunt Fanny became Aunt Frances – for politeness purposes. Meanwhile, the Famous Five lives on in Noughties. A new animated TV series began airing this year: Famous 5: On the Case is set in modern times and features the children of the original Famous Five. And before you ask – yes, one of the kids is George’s daughter, so she jolly well didn’t go on to have a sex change.

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