Thursday, December 18, 2008

You Can (Sometimes) Go Back Again

It can be dangerous to revisit books or movies and TV we loved as a child; there is always the possibility that what seemed so very good back then will be revealed as pretty poor stuff. I can't remember the first time this happened to me, but I do remember that by age 16 or 17 I was afraid to reread any of the Katherine Mansfield stories I'd thought were so great at age 13.

This year I've had two good re-visits though. One book and one TV movie.

The Book

When I was in second grade I fell in very great like with the Five Dolls books by Helen Clare. My elementary school library had three of the five books: Five Dolls in the Snow, Five Dolls and the Duke, and Five Dolls and Their Friends. (The other two books are Five Dolls in a House and Five Dolls and the Monkey.) These books were about an English girl named Elizabeth Small, who had learned the trick of turning herself small so she could visit with the dolls who lived in her dollhouse. Each chapter of the books covered one visit.

I'm not entirely sure what about these books appealed to me so much back then; they are not great books and I did not mistake them as such even then. The dolls and the monkey were fun, as were the black-and-white illustrations, and it was all a bit silly--the dolls' behavior, I mean--and maybe that was enough. Or maybe it was the Englishness, that had me reading new words I'd never seen before--words like pillar box, tam-o-shanter, vicar, hundreds and thousands. Whatever it was, I checked these books out more than once. In fact, I wanted to own them so much that I thought about copying one of them, Five Dolls in the Snow, out longhand. (Cultural note to those under thirty-five or so: This was the late seventies, before the days when everyone had easy access to photocopy machines, not to mention home scanners and printers. In school our pre-copied worksheets or tests came in mimeographed form--purple ink on paper that would still be faintly damp from the machine and redolent of ink when we got them.) I decided that would take too long, though, and settled on copying out one chapter, the one where Elizabeth brought the dolls a truckload of groceries. (Foreign terms there included lorry and treacle.) I did not regret the time spent.

Off and on since the '90s I've tried to find copies of these books from online sellers. (Looking in my local libraries proved fruitless.) I looked under all the titles and under Helen Clare's other pseudonym of Pauline Clarke, and I could usually find some copies, but they were always priced outrageously. Seriously. Until last year I don't think I'd ever seen one under fifty dollars; they usually started higher than that and were frequently over a hundred dollars. Which seems pretty high for children's books that were printed in the USA in the late '60s by a non-obscure publisher (reprints of British books from the '50s and early '60s) and which are not particularly collectible. Especially considering they were often discarded library copies.

So, earlier this year when I finally found one of these listed as a good condition book with somewhat worn dust jacket for under twenty dollars, even after adding on the shipping, I didn't have to think too hard. I figured satisfying a long-felt nostalgic desire was worth that much.

And it was.

The book was Five Dolls and the Monkey, which I'd never read before. You can see the cover art here. I liked the cover as soon as I opened the package and when I opened the book I saw to my pleasure that there was a chapter called "Dressmaking". I read the whole book with pleasure. As an adult with many years of watching British TV shows and reading British books behind me, there was no novelty of terms to be had, but there was an almost eerie strangeness to the little scene where a butterfly--huge and strange to doll-sized Elizabeth--lands among the dolls in their garden. And the whole thing felt like revisiting one of the pleasanter bits of my childhood, except it was a book I hadn't actually had the opportunity to read then. I made up for that by rereading it a couple of times. I think I got my eighteen or so dollars worth of pleasure.

Since then I've found a cheaper still, ex-library copy of Five Dolls and the Duke, which was my least preferred of the three I read as a child. (I had some trouble visualizing part of the theater scene.) I think I was right then, and it is not as good as the others, but it was still nice. I would not mind having the rest of these books, or at least getting the opportunity to reread them some day. Or in the case of the first book, reading it for the first time; I'd especially like to know how Elizabeth's acquiring of the turning small trick was handled.

The TV Show

When I was, I think, fourteen, I turned on the PBS one evening to find something starting called Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and then Beatrice and Benedick together had me hooked within minutes, and I watched the whole thing with increasing pleasure. When the TV play was over, I went to bed and pulled out the complete volume of Shakespeare that had come from a box of old books my mother had bought me at a garage sale. (With its limp red cover, two columns of text on each page, thin paper, and annoying practice of abbreviating the names of the speaker it is, bizaarely perhaps, a volume I miss in my pruned down library.) I turned to MAAN and read it straight through before I went to sleep.

And that was the beginning of my love of Shakespeare.

It wasn't my introduction. I had seen Zeferelli's justly famous Romeo and Juliet when it was on television near Valentine's Day, even read the play, and had perhaps seen Laurence Olivier's As You Like It by this time. I may even have read a little more than R&J by then, but I don't remember. What I do remember is that that was the first time I fell in love with anything from Shakespeare, and it was the play that ensured I read all the rest (except Troilus and Cressida--I've never managed that) and watched as many live action and filmed versions of the plays as I could. I am not a scholar nor an actor or theater buff, just a lowly audience member and reader. In other words one of the people who help keep Shakepeare alive outside the literary journals (circulation 200) and give the actors someone to perform to. But back to the production in question.

In later years I carried the memory of this with me, but I did not know what production it was--the names of any of the actors or the director or anything. I thought it likely it was part of The Complete Shakespeare Plays, the BBC project (in conjunction with some American group) to film all of the plays, because the time period was right, but it could not be sure. For all that they were put on television for free viewing in the late '70s and early '80s, these plays have not been easy to get hold of since. In the late '90s the VHS were priced at $99 a piece, if you could run down the place to order them from; buying the whole set was something like $2500--a savings, but still expensive. Overpriced, I'd say, especially considering the quality was uneven over the series. For most people, if their library didn't have them, they weren't going to get to see them. But things have improved. They came out on DVD with some mini boxed collections of selected plays--not necessarily the most desirable choices, though--and a couple of years ago Netflix added a few of the more popular titles--the ones high school kids are likely to have to read for school--from the series. And now Netflix seems to have all the titles from this series and this year I have watched many of them I did not get to see on PBS or later from a library I had access to; watching the history cycles in order was especially nice.

A couple of weeks ago that series' MAAN came in the post and I watched it and it was the one I saw back then and, though I had feared it would be otherwise, I enjoyed it all over again. It was not new as it was then, but it had the pleasure of familiarity in the well-worn words and the pleasure of remembering the production as I saw it again. The Beatrice of Cherie Lunghi had a slight edge of bitterness that I was oblivious to when I was a girl (not unsupportable from the text), but all the actors were good, especially Robert Lindsay as Benedick. Okay, Graham Crowden's friar looks a bit crazy and it was hard for me not to think of him in Waiting for God when I saw him, but I'm not sure that actor can help looking a bit crazy in any part--something about his eyes; I had no such problem with Clive Dunn from Dad's Army as Dogberry's doddering assistant. Otherwise I just enjoyed my nostalgic trip ("Oh, there's the orange trees, oh there's Beatrice sneaking behind the trees, just like I remember, oh there's Benedick looking somewhat hangdog and foolish without his beard") and Robert Lindsay's Benedick and the beautifully made costumes. I even kept the disc another couple of days so I could watch it again, all cosy and warm in my chair, working on an afghan. Do I know how to have fun or do I know how to have fun?! The answer to that is yes. And you can have fun too if you add this to your Netflix queue.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I loved these books as a child. I have a copy of Five Dolls and the Monkey and to my dismay most of a whole chapter is missing! I am trying to find someone who has the book that could copy the missing pages for me.