How best-selling writer Enid Blyton created the model for children’s theater in Britain
Head to London’s West End and you’ll likely find all kinds of family-friendly plays, inspired by some of the most beloved children’s stories. There’s JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the adaptation of Neal Foster by David Walliams Gangsta Granny and Roald Dahl’s “anarchically cheerful, gleefully wicked and ingenious musical adaptation” of Tim Minchin Mathilde, as theater critic Lyn Gardner described it.
The popularity of children’s theater and for the adaptation of children’s books to the stage began in Britain with the works of successful children’s writer Enid Blyton (1897-1968) in the 1950s. Blyton had, like The New York Times reported, made itself “supreme above all authors” and was “a category of its own.” It was thanks to his longtime magazine Sunny stories, adventure series such as The Famous Five and The Seven Secrets and stories that take place in residential schools Malory towers and Saint Clare. It was not uncommon for bookstores to have a section dedicated to Enid Blyton as she regularly published 30 or more books a year – 39 in 1951 and 44 in 1952.
So it made sense to adapt her stories for the stage and she sometimes had two shows in London during the Christmas season: Noddy in the land of toys (1954-’59) and the thriller Famous Five Adventure (1955-1956).
The importance of Blyton’s literary achievements remains a litigation solution but in the 1950s she seemed mostly untouchable and conquered the West End as easily as she had in the world of children’s publishing.
This was particularly the case with Noddy in the land of toys (described as a “pantomime”), which opened on December 23, 1954. Besides the power of the name Blyton, the catchy tunes of Noddy, dazzling special effects (including a “real” train blowing steam on stage ) and the ease with which Blyton’s characters could be trapped in a familiar pantomime plot (the generally shy Noddy travels to the Enchanted Wood to capture evil goblins) helped make it a part of the West End.
Noddy on stage
Noddy, a nodding wooden boy who lives in Toyland, first appeared in the stories Noddy goes to toy land (1949) and Hooray for Little Noddy (1950) and became Blyton’s most famous character. There were 24 tales in the “Noddy Library” series, ending with Noddy and the plane (1963).
The success of the Noddy books was partly due to the colorful illustrations by the Dutch artist Eelco Martinus ten Harmsen. Designed for preschoolers, the characters in the books were in part intended to compete with Disney’s and were hugely popular in Britain. By 1962, 26 million copies of the books had been sold.
In 1954, when The Wood Boy made his stage debut, it was, unsurprisingly, a success.
Children at the performances reacted loudly and enthusiastically. They leaned dangerously on the balconies to get a better view and tried to grab the candy that had been thrown at them from the stage. It was often a pandemonium but for Blyton it didn’t matter: “the children sometimes took charge of the game and even delayed the action”, she reported proudly.
Noddy came at a point in the history of pantomime and children’s theater as it coincided with the celebrity cast taking off, much to the chagrin of traditionalists. “If this is how pantomime goes”, noticed a reviewer facing crooner Frankie Vaughan, “it will quickly become an annual parade of television artists going through their usual rhythms … [and] there will be no point in taking the children away â.
Blyton has been widely credited with returning pantomime to children. His pieces did not have “stars” but sold nonetheless.
Familiarity with the characters was part of Noddy’s appeal and later the famous adventure of the Five – in the same way Harry Potter and Mathilde draw audiences in 2021.
In 1954, people were worried about the decline in theater attendance (in part because of the threat posed by television) held on Noddy in the land of toys as proof that the way to ensure that children develop a lasting interest in theater, and thus ensure its survival, “is to offer them real plays of their own” (The scene, December 31, 1954). Even writer Kenneth Tynan – a formidable enemy of twee and stereotypical things – used his Observer column to compare favorably the “pleasant” production with the starry pantomimes elsewhere, full of “radio comedians … Dec. 26, 1954). As Tynan noted, Noddy in Toyland kept it simple.
Simplicity was of course part of the charm of Blyton’s work. The show was easier to follow than the other pantomimes. Fairies, elves, talking animals, humans and toys came together in a world that made sense to its young audience. But as critics have noted, there was a quality of myth to it all.
The show promised an exciting but easily understandable way of living beyond the everyday, which, even for young children who (one might assume) hadn’t lived long enough to become jaded, was appealing.
Blyton’s plays have been forgotten, but 70 years later, that’s still part of the appeal of such shows. In Blyton’s case, this is another example of his legacy – a legacy that lies awkwardly in the history of popular entertainment.
Andrew maunder is a Victorian Studies Reader at the University of Hertfordshire.
This article first appeared on The conversation.