Entertainment & Arts

Malory Towers play: Why we give a fig for boarding school stories

Daniel Radcliffe and Enid Blyton Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Harry Potter (played on screen by Daniel Radcliffe) and Enid Blyton fuelled interest in boarding school life

For those of us who were enthralled by the adventures of Darrell and her friends at Enid Blyton's Malory Towers, we have jolly spiffing news.

The famous author's successful boarding school series is being made into a stage play by Emma Rice, no less.

The former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe will be taking her show on a tour of the UK this summer.

Rice calls Malory Towers her "happy Lord of the Flies", describing it as "joyfully radical to its bones".

So why the enduring appeal of boarding schools in film, fiction and theatre?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rice recently directed an adaptation of Angela Carter's novel Wise Children at the Old Vic

Anna Smith, film critic, broadcaster and host of the podcast Girls On Film, says it's partly down to the intense environment.

"Any story in a restricted setting - especially when everybody sleeps on site - has the opportunity for enhanced drama and tension, whether it's a school, a prison or a hotel.

"From midnight feasts to illicit hook-ups to smuggling to bullying, all these make for great drama."

And fictional boarding schools can provide an escape for young film-goers and readers, from Daisy Pulls It Off to Tom Brown's School Days and Goodbye Mr Chips.

'Rosy reality'

"It's only natural that children will fantasise about escape and (relatively) independent living, however happy their home lives. I suppose only children or those in fairly remote locations (as I was) might find the idea appeals more."

Not all boarding school experiences are as fun in real life as we might imagine them to be, and Smith suggests there's a nostalgic element that draws us in to the fantasy version of such institutions.

"It's probably more to do with the books we read when we were young, like Malory Towers, that presented a rosy version of reality. I wonder if Enid Blyton's kids had a better or worse time at boarding school than their counterparts on the page?"

(Blyton's daughters went to the boarding school that inspired Malory Towers, Benenden School, as did Princess Anne).

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Benenden School was the inspiration for Malory Towers

But Alex Antscherl, editorial director for Enid Blyton at Hachette Children's Group has a different views: "I don't think we're only enjoying boarding school stories for nostalgic reasons.

"There is something very attractive about the strength of friendships that can grow between children when they live together, especially if they must rely on each other when facing cruelty or disappointment or difficulty.

"What so many readers love about the Malory Towers books (and Enid Blyton's other boarding school series, St Clare's and The Naughtiest Girl) is how the pupils draw together into a closely knit, loving, self-governing community."

For Rice, focusing on the tale of a girls-only boarding school made her evaluate her own mother's experience of education and the underlying feminism in the storylines.

"I don't know how they [Rice's grandparents] managed it on a railway worker's pay, but my mother was sent to a remote grammar school in Dorset: Lord Digby's School for Girls.

"Whilst not a boarding school, Lord Digby's was an extraordinary place of learning that changed my mother's and, by extension, my own life."

She says her adaptation of Malory Towers "is dedicated to the generation of women who taught in schools" in the aftermath of World War Two (the first Malory Towers book was published in 1946).

"With lives shaped by the savagery of two wars, these teachers devoted themselves to the education and nurture of other women.

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Image caption Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a sequel which is also set at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry

"Malory Towers was written at the heart of this political revolution, and embodies a kindness, hope and love of life that knocks my socks off."

Indeed, the Malory Towers head teacher Miss Grayling once said she wanted the girls of Malory Towers to become "women the world can lean on".

But of course, it's not all revolution, lacrosse and penny sweets - there are darker tales about boarding schools in both book and on film, like Joan Lindsay's novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (also made into a film and TV series) and Roald Dahl's autobiographical Boy.

Smith explains: "There was a decent boarding school drama film called Cracks in 2009 by Jordan Scott, based on Sheila Kohler's novel, which takes a dim view of the institution and casts Eva Green as a sexually predatory school mistress marked by her own childhood.

"This explored how a sense of order can be both a comfort and a curse. The superior The Falling did this too, although the heroine was a day pupil."

But is there still scope for boarding school films in the modern world, post-Harry Potter?

'Class aspect'

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is certainly still doing a roaring trade in the West End and on Broadway.

JK Rowling's phenomenon is probably a law unto itself though, and Smith thinks the genre may have to evolve.

"We recently saw Slaughterhouse Rulez trying to blend sci-fi comedy with fish-out-of-water boarding school drama, so those stories are still being told.

"There's an obvious class aspect to boarding school, which this tries to address by having a working class hero. And in its own way, Harry Potter addresses that, too.

"I don't think really posh boarding school stories would play as well on film these days, which is why I would be interested to see how Malory Towers updates the story for the stage."

But Antscherl thinks there's still room for such stories today: "Boarding school gives a known framework for a story. It's a really good challenge to work out how characters will have their adventures and overcome jeopardy within the confines of that framework.

"And for readers, of course, it's very satisfying to see sympathetic characters emerge from cruelty and eventually escape it."

And Smith has one wish for Rice's upcoming project in association with Bristol Old Vic.

"Let's hope this Malory Towers has an LGBTQ+ storyline."

Malory Towers opens on 25 July at The Passenger Shed in Bristol before touring the UK.

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