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Daisy Hay on Pamela Brown, Newton Whittaker

Castles in the Air

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What do an incarcerated minister, an old dressing-up box and a tin of blue paint have in common? They are all central to the plot of The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown, a magical children’s book, first published in 1941, about a group of friends who take over a disused mission hall and transform it into a theatre.

I have adored The Swish of the Curtain since I first read it aged 12, and I’m far from being the novel’s only fan. In 2007 Radio 4 broadcast a celebratory documentary on it, featuring contributions from Victoria Wood, Jacqueline Wilson, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Jenny Eclair and – rather surprisingly – David Bellamy, all of whom credited it with changing their lives. I’m not sure Swish changed my life, but it certainly taught me a thing or two about friendship, hard work and ambition – as well as a few handy tips about how to mend a leaky roof, repair a cassock and paint a theatre door blue.

The Swish of the Curtain follows the fortunes of seven children as they embark on an unexpected theatrical adventure. One day, while meandering through the slums of Fenchester (based on Brown’s home town of Colchester), the children discover an empty chapel, which has fallen into disrepair following the imprisonment for fraud of its rheumatics-curing minister. With the help of a benign local vicar, the children take over the chapel and turn it into their very own theatre, complete with rudimentary lighting, makeshift dressing-rooms, a rattling stage curtain and a brilliantly blue front door, from which the theatre and the children’s amateur theatrical company derive their names. The novel charts the adventures of the Blue Door Theatre Company as they put on plays and are taken under the wing of a munificent Bishop (the Church of England comes out well in The Swish of the Curtain), who takes them to Stratford-upon-Avon and helps persuade their parents to let them train as profe

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What do an incarcerated minister, an old dressing-up box and a tin of blue paint have in common? They are all central to the plot of The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown, a magical children’s book, first published in 1941, about a group of friends who take over a disused mission hall and transform it into a theatre.

I have adored The Swish of the Curtain since I first read it aged 12, and I’m far from being the novel’s only fan. In 2007 Radio 4 broadcast a celebratory documentary on it, featuring contributions from Victoria Wood, Jacqueline Wilson, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Jenny Eclair and – rather surprisingly – David Bellamy, all of whom credited it with changing their lives. I’m not sure Swish changed my life, but it certainly taught me a thing or two about friendship, hard work and ambition – as well as a few handy tips about how to mend a leaky roof, repair a cassock and paint a theatre door blue. The Swish of the Curtain follows the fortunes of seven children as they embark on an unexpected theatrical adventure. One day, while meandering through the slums of Fenchester (based on Brown’s home town of Colchester), the children discover an empty chapel, which has fallen into disrepair following the imprisonment for fraud of its rheumatics-curing minister. With the help of a benign local vicar, the children take over the chapel and turn it into their very own theatre, complete with rudimentary lighting, makeshift dressing-rooms, a rattling stage curtain and a brilliantly blue front door, from which the theatre and the children’s amateur theatrical company derive their names. The novel charts the adventures of the Blue Door Theatre Company as they put on plays and are taken under the wing of a munificent Bishop (the Church of England comes out well in The Swish of the Curtain), who takes them to Stratford-upon-Avon and helps persuade their parents to let them train as professional actors. Like many great children’s books, The Swish of the Curtain has at its heart an autonomous space that the children make their own. In Swallows and Amazons this space is an island; in the William stories it is the Outlaws’ Den. Here, however, it is the theatre: a perfectly realized miniature which becomes the children’s kingdom. The theatre is the beating heart of Swish, and the novel’s magic derives in part from the precision with which it is described. Brown shows the steps by which the chapel becomes a theatre very clearly, through careful descriptions of chair mending, fence-creosoting, backdrop-painting and vigorous floor-scrubbing. The children think nothing of turning their hand to all these tasks and they are, in fact, impressively multi-talented. Between them they can design a lighting rig, compose a score, produce fabulous costumes, choreograph dances and paint marvellous scenery, and they are all proficient actors. Even Maddy, the 9-year-old baby of the group, can cry on demand, to the envy of her fellow thespians. Their productions are many and various and encompass a range of theatrical disciplines, including comedy, tragedy, ballet and pantomime, before culminating in a hard-hitting contemporary drama, written by the whole group. The children’s talent lends a fairy-tale element to The Swish of the Curtain, as does its cast of supporting characters. The vicar is a ‘kind fairy, in disguise’, who sorts out the theatre’s legalities and electricity bills in the twinkling of a clerical eye. Mrs Potter-Smith, meanwhile, is the nearest thing the story has to a wicked witch. The children’s only enemy, she drips sweet poison whenever she appears, and the dramatic efforts of her Ladies’ Institute, which invariably feature a guest performance by the vicar’s hapless curate, provide some great comic set-pieces. Despite her efforts, the children triumph, and the ending is as magical as any lover of fairy-tales could wish. Central to the novel’s charm, however, is that it is very firm about one thing: talent will only get you so far. The children work incredibly hard in order to achieve their dreams, and Brown brilliantly evokes their backstage labours as well as their public triumphs. Lines have to be learned late into the night, the theatre has to be scrubbed and painted in the evenings and at weekends. Some of the children are better actors than others, and the latter have to come to terms with their own limitations. All have to work week after week in order to achieve their separate ambitions. Bulldog, for example, wants more than anything to make the rickety stage curtain ‘swish’ like the curtain of a real theatre. He trawls the public library for books on the subject, and has to put up with multiple failures before he arrives at a design that works. The moment when the curtain behaves as it should is therefore all the more sweet, particularly as it happens just as the others are beginning to realize that dreams alone may not be enough to turn them into professional actors. That they succeed in making their ‘castles in the air’ into reality is as much atribute to effective collaboration and project management as it is to intrinsic talent. When I first read Swish, I found the children’s ability to turn fantasy into reality through solid hard work as magical as anything else in the novel, since my own theatrical endeavours never got me beyond some preliminary bossing of my younger sister and the odd programme design. Rereading the novel now, it is evident that it is very much of its time. Appropriately for a book written during the hungry ’30s and published during the Blitz, it represents a triumph of imagination over austerity, of make-do-and-mend over big budgets and lavish props. But this also makes it feel surprisingly contemporary. While it might at first appear to be a book about a group of children discovering the limelight, in fact it couldn’t be less X-Factor or more Big Society. Everything is done on a shoestring, and the children’s ambitions are not selfish. They want to become professional actors so they can return to Fenchester and give the town that has helped them a proper theatre, with its own resident company. All of them are thoroughly community-minded, and are loyal both to each other and their town. At one point the Bishop praises them for ‘the cultivation of talents for reasons which are not egotistical’, and this is an ethos which runs through the novel. The story also has a nicely feminist bite to it. Although the girls are a credit to their domestic-science teachers, and are dab hands at cooking, sewing and cleaning, they are every bit as ambitious as their brothers, and in some cases considerably more talented. Lynette, in particular, has the makings of a very fine actress, and for her the experience of visiting Stratford with the Bishop is transformative. I have a particular affection for the Stratford scenes because of the impact they had on my own early experience of Shakespeare. Like the children, the first Shakespeare play I saw was Twelfth Night, and I too went to Stratford for the first time to see it (although not, alas, in the company of a benign Bishop). Because I’d read Swish, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek et al. felt like old friends, and I had an imaginative reference point for the significance of the experience. I didn’t want to be an actress when I was 12, but I was well on my way to wanting to be a writer, so I loved reading about the way the children wrote and developed their plays, and I charted my own reactions to literature alongside theirs. I’m not surprised that so many eminent people cite The Swish of the Curtain as the book that made them. It demonstrates that you can make your dreams come true, and that if you can make a curtain swish, you can do anything.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Daisy Hay 2012


About the contributor

Daisy Hay is the author of Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives and a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford.

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