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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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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