Essays: Noddy and the lunch-breaks |
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Noddy and the lunch-breaks

ON several occasions last week the tube attempted to analyse the complex personality of the creative artist. It came closest to doing this satisfactorily with a Success Story (BBC1) about Enid Blyton. The approach was statistical. You needed pencil and paper to get the most out of it.

Miss Blyton, we were informed, wrote 600 books in 44 years. While the programme’s participants went on to discuss the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Auto-Erotic Eight, your reporter was busy with a long division sum which yielded, after a certain struggle, the answer 13.64. Call it 13½ books a year. Beat that, Balzac! The screen promptly presented my highly tuned mathematical mind with a further challenge: the 600 books had sold 85 million copies in 128 languages. That made it 141,666.7 copies per title — a figure which would be only an average since obviously some titles (‘Five Go To Pieces’) would do better than others (‘Seven Synthesise DNA’).

Also an average was the figure for copies sold per language: 664,062 precisely. This seemed low, but one could postulate with some confidence that sales in languages like English and Spanish would be massive. It must be the less populous tongues which were dragging the figure down. Try to name 28 languages, and then imagine the tight little groups of people who speak the remaining hundred. Single families In isolated hutments. Cliff-dwelling solitaries reading ‘Noddy Pfx Mwrkl Fsg.’

From 1948 to 1952 the Blyton output filled four columns of ‘Whitaker’s Cumulative Book List.’ That meant 261 books: more than one a week four years running. Even for her, this figure looked high. Perhaps some previously written books had been included. Her average output over a lifetime was more like one a month: 13.64 when divided by 12 comes out at 1.13. Still astonishing but at least conceivable.

A Blyton-junkie, helplessly addicted to the woman’s creations, gave a gripping stylistic analysis of a book called (I trust my notes are accurate) ‘Randiest Girl in the School.’ He is so familiar with Miss Blyton’s style he can tell where she broke off for lunch. An average of about a book a month (rough figures here — we’ll give it to the computer later on) means somewhere around 30 lunch-breaks per book, except for the big years 1948-52, when the figure must sink to approximately seven meals per title.

The picture conjured up was of a hunched crone maniacally covering paper while being fed through a hole in her cell door. But testimony was forthcoming to prove that it wasn’t like that. Some of the Blyton fans were engagingly keen, and even the detractors seemed to be thriving on their critical task. The women concerned — mothers and/or teachers — were all television naturals. Several of them had the right answer, which is that nobody can predict what will interest kids.

Nobody can predict what will interest adults, either. The arts are to a great extent matters of instinct, which is why the people who practise them, even though fastidiously intellectual in every other department, will always protect their right to make an unconscious move. I sleep most of the day, but gladly woke up to catch Alan Bennett being interviewed by Elaine Grand on Good Afternoon (Thames). Not only does Bennett strike me as one of the few British playwrights who can actually write, he fascinates me with his brave, doomed attempts to shake loose the labels plastered on his sensitive epidermis by ill-prepared journalists wielding Identikit vocabularies in which the phrase Beyond the Fringe and the word Satire exclude all other locutions. ‘I have a feeling that you are a very private person,’ ventured Miss Grand — a legitimate deduction, since Bennett was already trying to conceal from the public, by putting his hands across his eyes, his blatant realisation that there had to be less embarrassing ways of plugging ‘Habeas Corpus’ than this.

Miss Grand also had a feeling that Bennett had once appeared in ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and was therefore best to be described as a satirist. Feeble insistences by Bennett that his plays are something else than satirical were to no avail. I would have liked to step in at this point and inform Miss Grand that even in ‘Forty Years On,’ the Bennett play which adheres most closely to revue techniques, the lyrical intelligence deployed is not to be categorised under satire or any other branch of humour: the sensibility involved is poetic.

There is no way, of course, in which Bennett can say this for himself, and probably he hasn’t even thought about it. He must have long ago realised that to be understood by the media-men is not among an artist’s practicable expectations. It is a measure of the toxicity of the mental climate surrounding British theatre that Bennett is regarded as a lightweight whereas utterly humourless, talentless men are thought of as being serious. I have been doomed to spend a few evenings in the theatre of late (during one of which, unforgivably, I missed a BBC import called Really, Raquel, which I am reliably informed was a bummer of classic dimensions) and have been staggered all over again by the conceited posturings of men who presume to plumb the soul without being able to write a speakable line. Time will sort things out, but time takes ages.

Just such a fatalistic resignation is written in every wrinkle on the forehead of the art-prince Federico Fellini, whose Guido Anselmi in ‘8½’ surpasses even Mann’s Aschenbach as a characterisation of the creative memory. Fellini has been called vulgar by men whose lives are poisoned with vulgarity, flashy by men whose seriousness adds up to nothing. To be misunderstood on that scale you have to be a giant. Fellini is ready for anything. He was even ready for Philip Jenkinson, who went down to Cinecittá and interviewed him for BBC2.

Jenkinson knows an awful lot about movies but manfully succeeded in repressing his store of information, making his questions as fatuous as possible. Fellini, wearily replying, studied Jenkinson’s eager features with manifest regret at not having cast him in the barge sequence of ‘Giulietta degli Spiriti.’ The pearl dropped almost unnoticed. Jenkinson asked Fellini how much responsibility he took for what his films might be presumed to advocate, and he quietly replied that the artist’s only responsibility is for the vitality of what be does.

Graham Miles put Fast Eddie Charlton out of the final of Pot Black (BBC2): a dark week for the Aussies. On Sportsnight (BBC1) Prince Philip did a three-spot with Eric Morecambe and Jimmy Hill. On Jack Charlton — the Boss (BBC1) we saw Bobby’s big brother do a full-frontal solo.

The Observer, 5th May 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]