Malory Towers review: A delightful adaptation of Blyton’s books
Brendon Connelly | On 03, May 2020
The new CBBC adaptation of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers is a sensitive and deft adaptation that squeezes a lot of juice from the original books. Even still, despite the boost in pacing, the honing of characters and drama and an increase in genuine warmth, Malory Towers might just seem too parochial for some. This writer – who admittedly has an inexplicable weakness for boarding school stories – was usually rather engrossed and found the series quite delightful.
The story starts when 12-year-old Darrell Rivers is packed off on the train for her first term at the titular boarding school. We can look closely at this opening scene for great examples of how – admittedly with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of heavy lifting already done by the books – screenwriters Rachel Flowerday and Sasha Hails have tidied up Blyton’s beginning. Not only does the TV adaptation bring together a few flowing scene-lets from the prose into one, tight sequence at the train station, it injects just enough urgency and excitement, starting literally with the blow of a train’s whistle and a last call for passengers.
Unlike in the book, Darrell’s with her whole family at the station, presenting a clear reminder of everything she’s about to leave behind. This even includes her sister Felicity, who, while absent entirely from this section of the book, goes on to board at Malory Towers herself and was the central character in a series of sequel novels.
The opening scene also demonstrates how this show makes the very most out of Blyton’s best material. Darrell’s exchange with her parents cuts right to the heart of what these stories are about – especially in this new incarnation. “Darling, you’re going to get a lot from this school,” says her mother, before her father adds: “Make sure you put a lot back.”
This whole message was delivered by Darrell’s father in the book, where he qualified that Darrell would get a lot from Malory Towers “because it’s a good school”. There’s less judgment in this version, which also gives Darrell’s mother more weight as a moral guide. It’s a beautiful, gentle bit of adaptation, symptomatic of the care taken throughout these screenplays. Better still, there’s a new callback to this moment later on that, just for a moment, looks like it might be too on-the-nose before bringing a tear to your eye.
The remainder of the series details Darrell’s new friendships and rivalries at boarding school, and charts her growth as well as – very importantly – her mistakes, both new and old, and the atonement she must make for them. The books already felt quite episodic and soapy, but the show makes the most of both qualities, and does a great job of in delivering complete episodes that have defined emotional stakes of their own alongside an unobtrusive series arc.
Because Blyton was writing in the 1940s, it might be easy to assume the books were cosy, but a lot of creaky old attitudes were baked-in and, camouflaged by the broader cultural context, can sometimes go unchallenged. Thankfully, this new adaptation is far warmer and more universally affirming, while never feeling like a radical overhaul.
It’s easy to spot a number of additions and alterations, whether that’s the more realistically diverse cast of girls in the North Tower or an exchange about how women are able to do equal work to men. These nips and tucks are all very welcome; they do a lot to ensure this new Malory Towers offers genuine messages of positivity and empowerment that the original books fell just a little short of.
The glamour and excitement of the series’ wish-fulfilment world have been amplified visually too, with great locations in Canada and Cornwall employed to create a striking boarding school and surrounds. When the girls go swimming, for example, the rocky coast is quite beautiful on screen, with vivid colour work and a glowing, cinematic look. Many of the episodes were directed by Bruce MacDonald, one of the most prolific filmmakers in Canada – who also shot several episodes of Creeped Out for CBBC, as well as making numerous bona fide cult movies, such as Pontypool and Hard Core Logo. He makes it look easy, in fact, capturing a smooth, cogent style for Malory Towers with lots of style but not a bit of fuss.
There’s a lightness and sweetness to Malory Towers, and its retro-tropes will understandably be hard for some to swallow, but there’s nothing conservative or arrested about this new adaptation – and this writer was certainly glad of its welcoming, generous and friendly company.
Malory Towers is available on BBC iPlayer.