The Swish of the Curtain: Pamela Brown

★★★★

The Blue Door: Book I

Pamela Brown was fourteen when she wrote this, her first novel, although it wasn’t published until 1941, when she was a venerable sixteen. It was the first of a series and became a beloved children’s classic, cited as a favourite by Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins among others. And it’s no accident that it appeals particularly to actors, because the Blue Door series follows the fortunes of a very special theatre company, set up by a particularly ambitious and determined group of children. It all begins when a new family moves into the Corner House in Fenchester. Across the road, two sets of siblings keep a watchful eye out: Sandra Fayne and her little sister Maddy from one side of the fence; Lyn Darwin and her brother Jeremy from the other. Soon it transpires that there are no fewer than three new children at the Corner House. The stage is set – literally – for a wonderful summer adventure that promises to become something much, much bigger.

The four Fenchester natives take the new arrivals under their wing. Before long Nigel, Vicky and Percy (known as Bulldog) are swooping around on their bicycles with the Faynes and the Darwins, climbing the cliffs, eating ice-cream, exploring the town and making grand plans for the future. But even adventures wear thin after a while, and the children are left wondering what to do with themselves. When they stumble across an disused chapel with a blue door in a Fenchester street, an idea occurs to them. Why not transform it into a theatre and put on a play? Each of them is theatrically gifted in some way: Sandra with her gift for whipping up costumes; Lyn’s acting; Vicky’s dancing; Bulldog’s clowning; and so forth. It’s a stroke of genius. As they begin to put together a programme for a variety show, to raise money for the local church, they suddenly begin to realise that maybe those grand plans for the future aren’t so impossible after all. When the Blue Door Theatre Company finds a patron in the Bishop of Fenchester himself, the children dare to hope. What if their dream of life on the stage really could come true?

This is a warm, cosy, thoroughly vintage story of self-discovery and a fight against the odds – to prove to disapproving parents that ‘the stage’ can be something magical and wonderful. One has to suspend disbelief to some extent, as the children manage to do up the chapel with their own hands, tackling electrical circuits, roofing tiles, painting and decorating with equal facility (the curriculum was obviously more rounded in those days). Of course, they also write their own material. But that’s the point of these classic stories, isn’t it? Adults, even the kindliest ones like the Bishop, stay at arm’s length. The children are the driving force of the plot, their passion and talent bringing their wonderful dream to life. If only all grown-ups could share the Bishop’s insight and see what a rosy future the Blue Door Theatre Company has! But unfortunately the children have to win over their parents – who have their eyes set on conventional, non-scandalous professions – not to mention their nemesis, the domineering Mrs Potter-Smith.

I can imagine that these stories would still turn young heads nowadays, especially if readers already have a passion for acting or performing. It’s hard to judge a suitable age bracket: I suppose from eight to thirteen might be about right. The fact that Brown wrote this at fourteen is just incredible: sure, there are moments of naivete, but no more so than in works written for children by grown-ups. I have review copies of the next two books all lined up, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the children cope as their destinies pull them apart – some to stage school in London, others remaining behind in Fenchester – and what the future holds for the Blue Door and all who sail in her.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review. If anyone has a better photograph of Pamela Brown, I’d love to know!

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