Interview with Marlene Johnson, Head of Enid Blyton Estate by Heather Wells

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    H: You/Hachette must have been very thrilled to acquire the rights to the Enid Blyton Estate (excluding Noddy) and that was in 2012. What does this personally mean to you as the MD of Hachette’s children’s books?

    M: Well I have to say it was a commercial purchase but also for me it was an emotional one. When I heard that it was on the market, I immediately said to my boss, “We really must acquire it,” not only for Hachette, but also for Britain. I couldn’t bear the thought of another great British author or British invention falling into foreign hands, quite frankly. And so for me, that was as important as whether or not it was a good deal. I mean, the fact that it has been a good deal, obviously, is sort of the icing on the cake, but you know I think it’s very, very important that not everything is the same in Britain.

    H: Yes, that’s a good point. I like the way you distinguish both sides of that. And obviously Neal Street Productions – fantastic film company – they’re taking it on, and I imagine it’s going to be quite a challenge. What kind of things do you see as being a real challenge with your knowledge of the books?

    M: Well, I was listening, I don’t know if you’ve heard the interview on Radio Four the other morning…. CGI now overcomes most of the challenges that would have existed. So, I think because technology has moved forward, I think that the producers are going to have a field day actually. I think that they’re going to have a ball. And in fact the interest that actually arose immediately after the interviews is amazing, with people just saying, “oh you know I remember those books from my childhood, I couldn’t wait to read them to my own children.” No, we’re talking about directors and producers who’ve lived and breathed it themselves. I think we’re going to have something pretty amazing here, actually.

    H: Absolutely, you’re right, the digital and advances are just going to be amazing.

    M: It’s CGI, they can mix, they can actually mix live action, can’t they? And animation.

    H: Exactly, and I’ll definitely check out the interview on Radio 4. How much involvement does the publisher have with the film itself?

    M: With the film itself?

    H: Yes. Do you have any meetings where you can input on behalf of the Enid Blyton Estate?

    M: Well contractually. What they have to do is actually make it in keeping with the spirit of the books. We have other books that have been made in films, and filmmaking is a very collaborative process. They do tend to collaborate with publishers, but I would say more collaborative amongst themselves. They’ll bring in a team of people who will try and write the books, try and make something spark, keep them together for a few months, if it doesn’t work, they disband that group and create another one. So I don’t think we’ll have as much as we would probably like, but if Neal Street are anything like DreamWorks, which is the other film company we’ve got experience of, it’s actually about carrying you with them, and I can imagine that Neal Street will want to carry us with them.

    H: Great. I’ve actually got a copy that my colleague has brought in – it’s the most beautiful copy of The Enchanted Wood, which she read when she was a child, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. And it’s in all its glory with all of these wonderful, wonderful illustrations. I must admit, I was more of a Famous Five girl when I was younger, but did you read this book when you were child, or, I don’t know if you have children yourself, do you read that to them?

    M: It’s to my nephews and nieces actually, reading it to them. Because again, I was a Famous Five girl. And everyone, you know the whole thing with Enid Blyton, if you mention her name, then people will tell you who their favourite characters were or what their favourite series was.

    H: Which brings me on – do you have a favourite character? From any of the Enid Blyton stories I guess.

    M: Well, I just love, I love Saucepan Man. I think he’s very funny, he bumbles about, he’s always clattering, he can’t see things properly, he always misunderstands. He’s the perfect character for comic relief actually, I think he’s quite hilarious. And then I love Jane Washalot, the way she swishes the water.

    H: I know, aren’t they just great characters with great names?!

    M: I’m excited to see what happens with this film. I think we’ve all got it in our mind’s eye.

    H: Enid Blyton has being criticized for various things, as being racist, as not being necessarily affectionate to children. Do you think that there are parts of this book, or anything that might be un-PC or anything that would obviously have to change for the film that couldn’t be represented?

    M: Well actually, nothing that springs to mind actually. Because it is, I know lots of books are set in lands of make believe, but I think this actually can be followed quite faithfully. I think that books are written in their time, and I think we must all accept that. And when publishers edit them to make them more relevant, I think that should be accepted too. It’s about sensitively updating I think, rather than completely changing the flavour, but I think Blyton’s longevity is a testament to an absolutely wonderful storyteller. Par excellence. And thanks to the estate papers, it is very, very clear that she was a very cool businesswoman who knew precisely what she was doing. She would hire her illustrators, she knew exactly the person she wanted to go after. And she had publishers who published, they weren’t going to take her work and distort it in any way. I think she was probably the first visionary publisher actually, from what I can see.

    H: I guess the bit that I find really, really interesting is the language updates that have happened to the Famous Five books. The example of, an obvious one, of changing ‘mother” and “father” to “mum” and “dad” for more modern day readers. Is that something that’s done for the parents because they might not buy books because they’re using old-fashioned language? Like “she must be jolly lonely all the time,” rather than “she must be lonely.” How important do you think these changes are to the language, and do you think that anything is lost in that?

    M: We are very, very clear. We keep two versions in print. We have the original versions which happen to be updated, and then we have the more contemporary versions, which have. They’re updated so that children understand what they’re reading. We change references from things like “pullover” to “jumper.” And as you say, “mother and father” to “mum and dad.” It certainly doesn’t change the meaning of the story, it’s just little bits of dialogue. The story really does ring true, but for those wonderful Blyton enthusiasts, the original texts are also available. And she’ll remember that, so people can chose.

    H: That pleases me to know that the original is there if people want to buy that, but also if they want to have the more updated version, then there’s that option. And I think that’s something that actually represents publishing today. That you do have to welcome these changes, and you do have to more forwards, and be looking towards the future, and children of our day and age but equally to respect, in many ways, the original. So I just wondering if you, working in children’s publishing, whether there was a children’s writer, other than Enid Blyton, that you think is of the same calibre or who has that wonderful imaginative world for children and for adults, as well really?

    M: Well I think that sadly the only true challenger to Enid Blyton, with reputation and with self to match on the younger end, is Roald Dahl. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but his characters, Matilda, the Oompa Loompas…

    H: And when you think about those films, they stay with you, don’t they? Matilda I’m thinking of, and that chocolate cake you see in that scene! You never really forget Mrs. Trunchball…

    M: No you don’t, do you?! They’re just quite wonderful. I don’t know if there’s any current writers doing it. I’ll give a plug to another one of our authors, Cressida de Camel who has written How to Train Your Dragon. She has the most wonderful characters in her books. Stoic the Vast, the father, and Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who feels he will never stand up to or meet his expectations… Toothless, the alter ego, this little dragon… I think she’s a wonderful storyteller. I think it will be very, very interesting to see what she does afterward because she’s got a wonderful imagination. I think that more often than not though the characters are pretty real, aren’t they today? Not many imaginary writers going on.

    H: Yes. That’s true as well.

    M: Roald Dahl is the other one, isn’t he?

    H: Yes, with those wonderful illustrations too!

    H: Neal Street Productions –they’ve given us Call the Midwife and The Hollow Crown. I loved The Hollow Crown; I thought that was one of the best things I’ve seen on TV. This is truly a great opportunity and we can expect great things. Do you know any details or are you not allowed to give any? Such as the release date?

    M: I’m afraid I actually don’t have any details. I’m sure that Neal Street in time will start revealing what they’re doing. At the moment, they quite rightly are keeping everything close to their chests. The reaction has been really quite wonderful. I mean Sam Mendes has got the stage production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory under his belt. He’s just done James Bond. Actually Neal Street is another wonderful example of real Britishness, and a great British production company doing films on a great British export. The films that are really making it at the moment, the top twenty films of all time, are actually family films. For example, Alice and Wonderland, Toy Story, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings – now they’re a mix of CGI live action, so I actually think they’re just going to do the most amazing job. I can’t wait actually, I have to say.

    H: Me too, me too! It’s very exciting. It’ll be the perfect Christmas themed thing to watch, wouldn’t it really?

    M: It will! So, I don’t have any details, but I am sure they’re going to do something amazing. They don’t do a lot of films, but what they do do are crème-de-la-crème.

    H: Yes absolutely. We’ll keep our eyes peeled.

    As The London Magazine, which has been going since 1732, everything for us is really built on our reputation and producing high quality writers and writing over and over again. That’s what we do, we work towards keeping that reputation and keeping that history going. I just thought that because of the prestige that Enid Blyton has, people are so well connected with what she does, and they don’t necessarily have to have read the books even, because it’s worked into our culture. So if they haven’t read the books, people would probably still go and see the film, just purely because of how good quality you could expect it to be. So what do you think this tells us about the importance of reputation and how this is affected over time?

    M: Well, I think very, very few writers, either adults or children’s writers, stand the test of time. I think all the publishers who have published Enid Blyton over the years, she has been published now for some seventy years, the publishers themselves have great longevity, but they have an enormous sense of rite and understanding and ownership. When we brought the estate, I decided that again, we are custodians of the great British treasure, and whilst publishers who have license driven from us know about publishing, we would only give approval to covers and art stuff and all that sort of thing if we believed that they were in keeping with the voice and with the spirit of Enid Blyton does. I think in the past, before we took it over, people have experimented. There was something like the Famous Five on the Cake, which was a bit of a disaster, and people went off on a tangent. There is an ownership and a belief that she was a great storyteller, she spoke to children in a way that they understood and how they saw the world. And I think all of Blyton’s publishers, she got very big publishers in both France and Germany and Scandinavia and India. They all believed that the essence of Blyton’s work has to be retained. The illustrations haven’t ever been outlandish. We actually re-released the Famous Five with contemporary covers. Those authors, led by Quintin Blake and Emma Tutinson Clark and Chris Rezale, they were so proud because of course this was part of their British heritage. So I think it’s having an empathy with what the author is doing, and a pride in being able to work with it, but at all times retaining the essence of the story and magic that they branched off of. It’s about keeping true, keeping true to what it’s about. It’s actually about jolly good adventure. Laughs. I think Enid Blyton was also amazing, I know that Helena Bonham Carter film did not portray her in a good light, but she was a businesswoman you know, right from the very, very beginning. She would introduce characters, Moon-face made an appearance in a book in 1936, in the Yellow Fairy book and then she brought him in in The Big Wave, surtitle The Enchanted Wood. So she cross-fertilized, she introduced characters, she properly got feedback from the children because she was interviewing them once a week. She got so much feedback directly from the children, directly from the users of her book. So what did it say? It says that she was a true professional, and she published completely to her market, and what her publishers have done is honoured that passion and dedication and not wavered from it. They have not wavered from it.

    H: I think we’re very, very lucky to have these treasures.

    M: They are national treasures, aren’t they?

    H: Yes absolutely. And to be a part of that as well, obviously from your side working at the publishers, it’s important and you’re doing what everybody wants, which is to keep that alive and to keep passing that on, because that’s essentially what these books deserve. They deserve to be passed on through to our generations, and it’s really exciting being a part of that. Obviously at TLM we don’t work with children’s literature, but we still strive to do something similar from our side.

    M: Yes there are far too many books published, as we know, today. Sadly, most of them sink without trace. Again, what I think’s very interesting with a lot of these new publications, Enid Blyton may slightly have gone out of flavour from time to time, I think there was a time in the ‘70s where everyone was having a pop at her, but the public always loved her, it was teachers who thought she wasn’t PC. The books have never, ever gone out of print, you know.

    H: Wow, that’s amazing, isn’t it?

    M: That is amazing, because I think if books do go out of print then usually you’ve just completely lost your audience. I think John Williams did his Stoner, that’s quite something too

    H: Oh that’s a wonderful book, isn’t it?

    M: It is a wonderful book!

    H: Once I read that, I just thought, “Gosh if he can write a book this good, I’ve got to read the other books,” and I’ve not actually done that yet, but that is a real find of a book. And it’s become popular again when it’s been out, when was it, the ‘60s, ‘70s it was published I think?

    M: Yeah I think it was the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Early ‘70s I think it was.

    H: But now it’s coming right back in. It’s so funny how these waves happen with these books.

    M: But that’s really unusual. I can’t think of many books that have done that. That have gone completely and then come back. I would recommend Butcher’s Crossing, you have to work a little bit to get through the first fifty pages, but once you’re through them, because you wonder what you’re reading. It’s a wonderful story of a boy coming of age, and how he does it by joining some buffalo hunters in the west.

    H: It’s another book to add to the long list of books to read, isn’t it!

    M: I know, I know. But the other thing with Blyton, they all said, “Oh one reason she went out of fashion is because it wasn’t good literature.” Actually, they’re stories, and it’s stories that prevail.

    H: Absolutely. Well, that rounds things up very nicely, hearing some kind of story from you and your perspective on this. I think I’m going to go read another story now from my friend’s book!

    Marlene Johnson