Women We Loved: Enid (BBC Four, 2009)

Synopsis: Enid Blyton (Helena Bonham Carter) is a successful and prolific children’s author, married to publisher Hugh Pollock (Matthew Macfadyen), and mother to two daughters.  Just before the second world war breaks out, her marriage starts to fail, as Hugh drinks heavily and she devotes more and more time to her writing and her ‘friends’ – the children who love her books.  She embarks on an affair with surgeon Kenneth Darrell Waters (Denis Lawson) and forces Hugh to divorce her, then refuses him the promised access to their children and uses her clout with her publisher to see that he can no longer work in the industry.  Despite all this, the main source of discomfort to Enid is the persistent accusation from the press that she is not the sole author of her tremendous catalogue of authored works…  ENID

Blyton's first outing on television, 'Adventures of Noddy', was for independent, commercial television, which seems fitting for an independent, commercial author.

Blyton’s first outing on television, ‘Adventures of Noddy’, was for independent, commercial television, which seems fitting for an independent, commercial author.

I’m unsure how well-known it is that the BBC had a semi-official embargo on Enid Blyton, the prolific children’s author.  Her stories were never broadcast on BBC radio during her lifetime, and it was only with the arrival of ITV in 1955 that her stories made it to television The digitised BBC archive provides a fascinating selection of letters by and about Blyton, which reveal some comically condescending attitudes to a hugely popular storyteller. The view that Blyton was a second-rate writer, and that the popularity of her work was inexplicable became more or less official BBC policy, as is indicated in this memo by Jean Sutcliffe of the School’s broadcasting department, sent in 1954:

No writer of real merit could possibly go on believing that this mediocre material is of the highest quality and turn it out in such incredible quantities. Her capacity to do so amounts to genius and it is here that she has beaten everyone to a standstill. Anyone else would have died of boredom long ago.

Ouch.  Sutcliffe goes on to say that the trouble with Blyton isn’t necessarily the work itself, but that its popularity (or, tellingly for a BBC document of this time) its ‘commercial success’ is being mistakenly confused by parents for ‘quality’.

Helena Bonham Carter as Enid

“I am the guardian of our children’s morals. But how can I uphold this position if there is the merest hint that I am not what I seem?” How indeed?

Knowing this about the BBC’s attitude to Enid Blyton makes Enid a much more fascinating watch.  It feels a little like an ex post facto justification for the institutional shunning of the author.  It’s not just that Blyton’s work was second-rate, it seems Auntie was right to be suspicious – as Enid was truly awful as a human being as well.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC’s  Blyton ban is not mentioned or even alluded to in the drama.  Indeed, it opens with an image of Enid nestled behind a BBC radio microphone, being questioned on the “subterranean rumblings” that she does not write her own books.  Enid responds with haughty disgust, implying that a lack of public belief in her is tantamount to child cruelty, since she is the moral bedrock for her young readers. The very next image is a close-up of Enid applying lipstick.  What better symbol of (feminine) mendacity could there be than make up – literally concealing your ‘real’ face?  This first sequence can easily be read as the thesis statement for the programme, and, to some extent, the Women We Loved season, as a whole.  This woman really is not what she seems.

The film amounts to a character assassination of the author.  Enid, played with relish by Helena Bonham Carter, queen of the wild-eyed baddies, is cruel, selfish, childish and callous.  She puts her career before husband and children (gasp), but continues to portray herself publicly as perfect wife and mother.

Scene from Enid 2009

A Pathe newsreel used by Blyton as a PR exercise is re-constructed using the actors from Enid. The family happily play tiddlywinks on camera…

Scene from Enid 2009

… but when the camera stops rolling, mother and ‘father’ promptly get up for an evening out, leaving the children to clear up.

The film enjoys tearing apart the Enid Blyton PR machine, for instance, in a sequence which reconstructs the making of a Pathe Newsreel about the family, the voiceover of which ironically marks the distance between Enid’s self-created public image, as a driven career woman who nevertheless makes time to mother her children, and the reality that the children spend most of their time with nannies. There is here a clear delineation between the public face of Blyton (in grainy black and white), and the reality of her cold abandonment of her daughters.  Enid is, according to the film, a fundamentally dishonest person.

She is also a determined one:  her gynaecologist tells her she is unlikely to have children because of an underdeveloped uterus, she retorts, “If I want a child, I shall jolly well have one.” According to Blyton biographer Barbara Stoney, the stalled growth of Blyton’s reproductive organs at the age of 13, which coincided with her father absconding, can explain much about her perpetual adolescence.  This seems an oddly antique idea about the location of female agency and experience – it reminds me of the ‘wandering womb as the cause of hysteria‘ notion. Stoney argues that the combination of Blyton’s childish outlook on life combined with adult literacy skills allowed her to write so successfully for young readers.  The film takes this argument one step further, by implying that Enid actually uses her writing for a children as a crutch that allows her to escape from the realities of adult life.

Clouds and type

Point-of-view shot from Enid’s imagination – we ride with her on the ‘magic wishing chair’.

For example, after spotting her husband Hugh through a window drunkenly stumbling around the garden, Enid retreats to her desk to  compose lines from The Magic Wishing Chair.  As Bonham Carter’s voiceover reads lines from the story, the image consists of a gradual dissolve between the printed words on a page, and grainy, brilliant blue and white images of sky and clouds.  We move through these clouds in a first-person point of view shot, implying that we are in Enid’s imagination, where she is herself in the ‘wishing chair’, wishing, we assume, that she could be rid of Hugh.

Enid presents the version of Blyton famously described by her daughter Imogen Smallwood:

The truth is, Enid Blyton was ­arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct.

Enid’s other daughter, Gillian Baverstock, has given a wildly different account of her mother, that she was nurturing, fun to be with and hardworking.  I suppose, though, that ‘beloved children’s author was a bit of a shit’ makes for a more compelling story than ‘beloved children’s author was an angel on earth’.

Still, I found the film’s incessant desire to judge Enid on the grounds of being a cold, egotistical fantasist frustrating. Enid Blyton was a troubling figure for many reasons.  Her books were limited, repetitive and formulaic – hence the BBC ban.  She had no compunction about including awful gender, race, class stereotypes in her books, and normalised a very narrow, middle-class view of the world.  Criticisms of the author on these grounds – on grounds that actually have something to do with her public-facing career – seem to me to be more legitimate than ‘she was a bad mother who didn’t get along with her first husband’. By creating a pantomime villain of Enid in this way, the film dilutes its own critique.  As an intelligent reassessment of a prominent cultural figure, then, it fails, even where it succeeds brilliantly as a compelling maternal melodrama.

Enid is available on DVD.  If you’re in the UK, it is also frequently on the Sony Movie Channel.

Advertisements

What’s in a name?

Amy film Poster Asif Kapadia 2015

Poster for ‘Amy’ (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Full disclosure – this post was inspired by a film that I haven’t yet watched. I’m sure that  when I do finally see Asif Kapadia’s biographical documentary   (2015), I will find that it lives up to the hype.  After all, his careful dissection of Ayrton Senna beautifully wove together fragments of a career to build up a thrilling picture of the man.

But it’s precisely this comparison with Kapadia’s previous work that caught my attention, particularly as the poster proudly proclaims that the film comes ‘from the award winning team behind Senna.’  Here are two biographical documentaries about different subjects, one named after the subject’s surname, one after the first name.  Given that ‘Winehouse’ is a distinctive, memorable surname, and one that fit the tragic star so well, why opt for the much more anodyne, anonymous ‘Amy’?  (There is actually even another biographical documentary with the same name – by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, about Amy Johnson).  As if to underline this point, the tagline for the film is ‘The girl behind the name’.

Robbie Collin of the Telegraph sees the title as especially fitting, given the derivation of Amy from the French aimée, beloved,going on to outline how Winehouse’s desire to love and be loved would haunt her life and career.  I’ll be able to decide for myself how apt this description is to the film when I see it, but what strikes me is that he hasn’t considered that this naming convention and, indeed, that narrative line, seems so clichéd in terms of presentation of gender in biographical film and television. [Update: I have now seen Amy, and Collin’s interpretation strikes me as bizarre – he seems to have been watching a different film than I was.]

Put very simply, biopics about men are more often named for the surname (Senna), and those about women are given the first name (Amy).  Of course there are a few exceptions, but there are a whole host of examples of this across film and television biographical dramas. Here’s some recent (ish) ones –

Film poster lincoln

Film poster Diana

About men: Hawking (BBC2, 2004) Byron (BBC Two, 2003), Fleming: the Man Who Would be Bond (Sky Atlantic/BBC America, 2014), Hitchcock (Sascha Gervasi, 2012), Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012), Jobs (Joshua Michael Stern, 2013), Mr Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)

About women: Shirley (BBC Two, 2011), Hattie (BBC Four, 2011), Mo (Channel 4, 2010), Diana (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2013), The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Valée, 2011).

Are these naming conventions meaningful, or is it just an accident of marketing that the titles of female and male biopics tend to be different?  Film titles are, of course, essential to the selling of movies, and, in the case of biopics, name recognition is crucial to attract that pre-sold audience.  To me, then, this makes the first-name convention even stranger – Amy who?

There are a series of cultural associations I think that we can make between first name and surnames which map fairly closely to some of the traditional, essentialist gender differences that still mark the lives of men and women differently. I’ve divided these here into binaries that are too easy but are illustrative.

Surname / Full Name

First name only

Formal

Informal

Public

Private

Distance

Closeness

National/Global

Personal

Of course, scrutiny of the films and programmes themselves will show that the treatments of subjects are various and distinct, and of course, all biographical drama is in reality a complex negotiation between these binaries.

But titles do give a sense of expectation, and frame the treatment of a story in particular ways. Framing female stories as close, personal, private corresponds to the cultural positioning of female identity with the private sphere, in the realm of the personal rather than the public.  The use of the surname for male biopics seems to me to set the lives of famous men at a remove from the viewer, making them less personal and more about public impact and achievement.

The implication of this is that the onus in biopics about women is to reach behind the public person, to reveal how the woman ‘behind the name’ lived her life despite her fame, and the sacrifices she made to get there, rather than, necessarily, to examine the influence of this public figure on history, politics, culture or society, or to renew/critique their ongoing legacy.  The titles of these films/programmes, their naming conventions, convey in shorthand some of the distinctions that prevail between films about men and about women.

So, what is in a name?  Quite a lot, it seems, particularly if examining the difference between male and female subjects in biographical dramas.

The Women We Loved Season: Introduction

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this season, first broadcast on BBC Four in the winter of 2009.  It might seem a strange preoccupation: why would anyone be so fascinated by a series of relatively obscure, low-budget docudramas first shown on British TV several years ago?

66ff3885fdd9d12c347da41527e67ec4ea50bc28It was the season’s title that immediately caught my attention: who is included in the pantheon of treasured female public figures?  Who are these women we loved?  Who, indeed, is ‘we’?

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton was reportedly able to write between 6000 and 10 000 words a day. I wish I was that prolific.

The answer to the first two questions is this: Enid Blyton, Gracie Fields and Margot Fonteyn.  Women of particular influence in 20th century British popular culture, which provides an implied answer to the third question: ‘we’ are British people who recollect, or at least are somewhat familiar with the figures in question.

Gracie Fields

Gracie Fields was one of the most prominent figures of early 20th century British popular culture. During the 1930s, she was (allegedly) the highest paid film actress in the world.

These women are so different in terms of their cultural presence: one an author of simple, conservative, and increasingly controversial books for children, another a popular music hall singer and film star of the 1930s, and the other a prolific prima ballerina.  For me, this begged the question of what they have in common.

The answer, following a formula tried and successful for other BBC Four biopics, indeed, biopics more generally, is that their private lives were much more turbulent than their public image would suggest.  Each of the films in the season makes clear the difference between the women we ‘loved’, and the real people behind them.

The programmes provided BBC Four with a much needed ratings boost, and were critically successful (particularly Enid and Gracie!).  Praise was not universal, though.  My favourite review was by Paul Whitelaw, of The Scotsman, on Enid:

Despite boasting strong performances from some of Britain’s finest actors (and David Walliams), there is something unedifying about films in which dead celebrities are exposed as drink-sodden misery-guts with dysfunctional sex lives. It’s not that the truth should be ignored, it’s just that screenwriters are usually morbidly overeager to wallow in the sordid details, often at the expense of accuracy.

I like this description so much because it pithily boils down all of the common irritations around biopics : firstly that they are prurient and exploitative (or the opposite, that they constitute uncritical hagiography), secondly that they are hopelessly inaccurate.

I share Whitelaw’s concerns about the ‘character assassination’ on Blyton in Enid.  I have reservations too about Gracie, which to me verges on patronising in its portrayal of northern chirpiness, and about Margot, which sets its heroine out as an irrational fantasist.

margot fonteyn

Margot Fonteyn wrote in her autobiography  ‘Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.’

Why then, am I so interested in Women We Loved?  I’m interested in narrative and thematic overlaps in the films: a focus the tensions between being a woman in the public eye and being a wife and/or mother (Dennis Bingham has argued forcefully that these are present in all female-focused biopics), the determination to show how these women constructed themselves as public figures (through interviews, newsreels, performances and so on), the emphasis on the domestic life over and above the considerable career achievements of these women.

I think the pleasure and frustration I have found in unpicking these films has a lot to do with their contradictions – these are women we loved, but they are flawed women, selfish women, irrational women.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have loved them at all.

Why Real Lives on Screen?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

If Socrates is right about this (and far be it for me to disagree with him), he has provided the greatest possible justification for the art of biography.

Biography, of course, is all about the examination of lives.  It is the art of stitching together the facts of an individual’s life into a coherent and credible narrative.  At the same time, the biographer makes a pitch for the specialness of a person, and the extraordinariness of their existence.  A subject’s life is a micro history, a way of understanding the way things were in a certain place and time.  A tall order.

“‘Verbo caro factum est.’ said Ormerod Goode opaquely. ‘The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts.’ (A.S Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale)

Biography is a mistrusted art.  The worst of biography is prurient, exploitative grave-robbery.  It is dull sycophancy. It is composed, if not of bald-faced lies, then of euphemisms, twisted facts and half-truths.

Because the public exposure to a dramatised life is greater, and perhaps because the impact of watching a facsimile version of a famous person can be more intense than reading about them on the page, the criticisms levelled at screen biography tend to be amplified.  The squabbles between filmmakers and families of biographical subjects are great tabloid fodder.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (2003)

The family of Sylvia Plath publicly censured the filmmakers of Sylvia (2003).

But the criticisms of biography of all kind only serve to underline our fascination with the lives of important people, the private selves behind the public facades.  For the film and television industries, biopics are “pre-sold” materials for audiences not that into superheroes.  For film and television makers, biopics are an opportunity to use the film form to probe deeply into various kinds of human experience, or to use an individual life to explore a moment in time.  For performers, it is the opportunity to inhabit the spirit of subject, and try to emulate their behaviour and personality.  Or to win an Oscar.

Imitation Game poster

The Imitation Game (2014) – A recent, and pretty typical example of a British film Biopic

I’ve been interested screen biographies for some years now.  This stems from my work as a scholar of contemporary British cinema and television.  The biopic has been a key genre for UK film for decades, and has provided a large number of critical and commercial successes.  In some ways, it ticks all the cliched boxes for British film: heritage subject matter, refined acting skills on display, offering opportunities for aestheticised period detail, tasteful and middlebrow.

I’m interested in the stories within and behind these life stories on screen.  What version of this famous life is being portrayed, and why? How are their lives narrated?  How do performers attempt to capture their essence?  What devices are used to imply that this version of the life is authentic (or otherwise)?

In this blog, I’ll be analysing screen biographies, both for film and television, and writing about the issues and ideas I have come across in my efforts to understand them better.  Your comments, disagreements and own interpretations are more than welcome – I’m always on the lookout for new angles on biopics!