Friday, 15 February 2019

The Swish of the Curtain

When I was a little girl, I was the kind of child who, when asked to sing a song by my relatives, would open my mouth and let rip, only stopping when the cake was being offered around. I have always loved performing. My teachers at school used to refer to it as 'showing off' and they weren't wrong. I've never been  nervous under the gaze of an audience, and  I think the sound of applause is the best sound in the world.  I went some way to fulfilling my ambition of a career on the stage, only setting this aside when I realised that there was no hope of any employment in the situation I found myself in in 1967 when I married.  I became a teacher of French instead but of course teaching is a performance art. You have to keep your pupils' attention on you at all times. You have  to engage them and get them on your side. It's a bit like being a stand-up comic. But it's very, very hard work and I was not a bit sorry to leave the profession and turn my hand to writing.

Three things had an enormous influence on my in my desire to be a star when I grew up. Th first of these was the movies. I went to the cinema about twice a week during my tv-less childhood and games with my friends involved pretending to "be" Jane Powell, or Anne Miller or Kathryn Grayson or any number of others. I saw Valerie Hobson (aka Mrs John Profumo) on the London stage in The King and I and that began a love affair with the theatre. In 1956, I saw Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. I went to the London production of West Side Story in its first week. And so on...

All of this is to emphasise that I was the Ideal Reader for Pamela Brown's series of books about the denizens of the Blue Door Theatre. I first read The Swish of the Curtain in 1954 when I was 10, and Pamela Brown's books pleased me enormously. I'm very grateful to Pushkin Books, first of all for reissuin these novels, and secondly for sending them to me for review.

The first thing that strikes me, reading the first volume again (I haven't got to the second and third books yet but I will!) is the liberal scattering of adverbs in the text. The book was published first in 1941 and people spoke 'breathlessly' and capered 'wildly.' An editor today would probably strike out a lot of these adverbs and would definitely frown at 'capered'.

So young readers should be warned: this is an old-fashioned book. It's none the worse for that, in my opinion. Today's readers will be deeply envious of the freedom their long- ago counterparts enjoyed. When the Halfords (Nigel, Vicky and Percy known as Bulldog) move in next door to the Darwins (Jeremy, Sandra, Lynette and Madelaine) we have a perfect cast to take part in many adventures. The book begins with a performance and some of the names of the adults are designed specifically for comedy: Mrs Potter-Smith, Miss Thropple, Augustus Wheeley and so on.

The children come across a deserted old chapel in the town and thanks to the kindness of the Vicar and his delightful wife, they're allowed to clean it up and paint the doors and window frames and all by themselves set it up as the Blue Door Theatre. Just as adults loved the fantasy element of the bonkbusters so popular in the Eighties, stagestruck children of my generations couldn't imagine anything more delightful than being able to put on plays and performances in our very own theatre. The whole set up was my idea of utter bliss.

The best thing about The Swish of the Curtain is the detail we're allowed to  see about putting on a show. Everything: costumes, props, the scripts, rehearsals, publicity is discussed  by the children, who grow up through the books. A lot of the  dialogue is humorous. The children are individuals and we  sympathise with every one of them and cross our fingers that they'll succeed and fulfil their ambitions.  The nitty gritty of the theatre is spread out before us and reading this book is the next best thing to putting on a show oneself. I still love it and would recommend it to anyone who has a child who fancies themselves a star. 


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