Like many kids of a certain age, in my younger years I found myself in possession of a couple of books from the popular ‘Noddy‘ series, penned by the late Enid Blyton…
I was at that age where you can look through a book and actually read the words, instead of needing the illustrations to piece the story together as best you can. It was at this stage- about 7 or 8- that I read through the old ‘Noddy’ titles in my collection (hand-me-downs from family friends, I assume) and I came away notably dissatisfied with the stories:
Why was Noddy the protagonist we were meant to side with? Why was a character like Tubby Bear (the son of Noddy’s next door neighbours) portrayed as one of the ‘bad’ characters? Sure, the Golliwogs and the Goblins stole things, but Tubby’s worst crime (to my knowledge) isn’t quite on the same level. While washing Noddy’s car, he fills the tank with ginger beer, mistaking it for petrol in the hope he could take it for a spin (and fair enough- what boy WOULDN’T try to drive a car, given the chance?)
Yet Noddy had few traits that made him especially likeable by comparison. Other leading characters in children’s literature are usually brave, noble, compassionate, wise, funny, or (at the very least) they’re relatable. If they’re kids, you’d like to hang out with them. Whereas Noddy is more like your friends’ annoying little brother: he spends half the time complaining about his misfortunes, convinced the world is against him somehow. He exemplifies all the traits of the textbook professional victim: Woe is me, life is unfair and it’s everybody else’s fault!
At the same time, ‘Mr Bean‘ was at the peak of its popularity. Every new episode screened on the ABC of a Thursday night. It wasn’t just the slapstick comedy I enjoyed, but what the show’s time slot represented. Friday afternoon was school sports and whether we stayed at school to play games or hopped on a coach to play tennis or go bowling, it was usually fun. So Rowan Atkinson plummeting from the heavens and face-planting that spot-lit London street with a comic Thump as the choir sang, also felt like the unofficial beginning of the weekend. Bean is childishly anarchistic, insensitive to the needs of others and comically- sometimes dangerously- selfish. But his actions usually have direct consequences. Sometimes he gets the upper hand, but typically it comes at the expense of people who deserve it: bratty kids, obnoxious adults who need taking down a peg or two, would-be thieves:
Whereas in the Toyland universe, time and again everything works out in Noddy’s favour. Despite his petulant whining, he is the hero of the story and rewarded simply for:
a) Being in the right place at the right time or
b) Knowing the right people to get him out of trouble
It usually comes down to one of these two things rather than him exhibiting any real character or virtue of note. His triumphs feel much more coincidental and contrived than deserved.
While I’d enjoyed Blyton’s ‘Famous Five‘ adventures, reading ‘Noddy‘ inspired me to write my own stories. But in my improved editions, Noddy would (to paraphrase the Joker many years later) get exactly what he deserved. In one of my first adaptations, he drove onto the railway line and got run over by a train.
But I quickly realised this was too simplistic. It basically had no plot except: Bad thing happens to a character I don’t like. The end. I needed to put more effort in, to really show why Noddy was such a prat and had nobody to blame but himself for his misfortunes.
So I needed to do more research. I wanted to make sure the stories were accurate enough in detail to be believable: What other characters could I include? Did Noddy’s car actually have a mind of its own or was it an inanimate object, confirming Noddy was an idiot for talking to it? Most households didn’t even have the internet, let alone the search engines we take for granted now. So research would need to be done the old fashioned way…
It just so happened that in my Year 3 class library, there were a few old ‘Noddy‘ books in the collection. But…as an 8 year old boy going on 9, being “cool” in the eyes of your peers is the most important thing in the world. Why the dilemma? Let me explain:
Things that were cool in Year 3, according to me:
- Slot-car sets
- Ayrton Senna (RIP)
- Motor racing
- My Indians baseball cap
- The Cruel Sea
- East 17
- Will Smith
- School discos where you got to dress up in your coolest weekend clothes
- Branded surf wear (Billabong, Rip Curl, Piping Hot etc).
- The Canberra Raiders (thank God I didn’t go further down that road. I’m certain I’d be a full-blown alcoholic by now…)
Things that were totally uncool in Year 3:
- My sister (actually, pretty much any kid under school age)
- Our school uniform (drab maroon and grey with legionnaire hats? Ugh.)
- Sonic the Hedgehog (this had nothing to do with Sonic and everything to do with a stupid girl in my class who was obsessed with Sonic, making Sonic uncool by association)
- Competitions where you could win a stack of cool prizes…for your school
- Girls in general (except the ones I thought were pretty, itself a source of cognitive dissonance)
- Stuff girls liked: skipping, silly hand-clapping games, Barbies, books about babysitting, horses and crushes on older boys etc.
- Barney the dinosaur
- The Power Rangers (despite being the franchise’s target audience, I thought it was too corny and cartoonishly stupid for a live-action series)
- Romantic movies/ TV shows/ songs and of course:
So if people saw me reading ‘Noddy‘ books it would look like I enjoyed them un-ironically. And that was definitely uncool. So I would have to be stealthy- like Glenn and I when we’d grab the cartoon coffee table book ‘99 1/2 Things To Do With Your Mother In Law‘ from the class library during class reading time and hide in the corner, turning the pages and furtively snickering at the rude illustrations inside. I should add that my awesome Year 3 teacher had no idea about the contents of this book until a girl in our class snitched- but more on her in a moment…
I barely knew what a mother in law was- or why they were so horrible- but cartoons like these were certainly hilarious to me- and to Glenn…
So during reading time, I would stealth these ‘Noddy‘ books and read them discreetly under the cover of my desk with the same guarded self-awareness I would’ve had leafing through magazines with titles like ‘Jugs‘ or ‘Spank‘. I committed key information to memory- other characters major and minor, storylines, buildings, forms of transport- anything that would make my adaptation more believable. My secret was safe…
Until one afternoon, where I got up out of my seat for some reason and foolishly left the book sitting on my plastic chair. This girl (the same one who’d snitched on Glenn and I) pointed at my chair and called out “Haha look- Ben’s reading Noddy!”
(The first time I saw the Judd Apatow classic ‘Superbad‘ was at the movies with an old friend. The flashback scene of Becca discovering the treasure trove of hilariously crude drawings in Seth’s ‘Ghostbusters‘ lunch box and shaming him in front of the entire class was somewhat triggering, to say the least. I totally got why Seth still hated Becca all these years later…)
What happened next was the whole class laughed at me. First this girl had got mine and Glenn’s favourite book removed from the class library- and now this. If I didn’t hate her before, I did now. (Many years later when she was much less of an evil brat and much more of a pleasant and surprisingly attractive young lady, I would ask her out- proof that time heals all wounds- but that’s another story)…
Despite that humiliation (being outed as a 3rd grade ‘Noddy‘ reader, not getting turned down by the teenage version of that girl because she was seeing somebody else) I at least had enough info up my sleeve. I went away and began writing my own editions of the ‘Noddy‘ stories.
So I wrote proper stories with a beginning, a plot and a satisfactory ending: Ones where he entered races in his car then (after winning) was busted for cheating and disqualified, punctuated with Shooter McGavin “That’s MY jacket!” style meltdowns or he’d get thrown into gaol for various misdemeanours. In a couple of instances I included myself as the completely sane, rational character who served to highlight Noddy’s flaws (of course I did, because I was cool and just like the real life version of me, the story inserts of me had no flaws). At last- here were the ‘Noddy‘ stories I thought should’ve been written!
And then there was Thomas…
Unlike ‘Noddy‘, I loved ‘Thomas The Tank Engine‘ as a kid. I had the storybooks, the videos, the die-cast models, the doona cover- just like any number of boys and girls who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, I was Thomas crazy. Skip forward to my early teens and my younger sister would watch the old Thomas videos. Sometimes I’d have friends over while my sister watched episodes in the background and this would cause my mates and I to joke about inserting more contemporary, adult plot lines into the stories. I’d then sit down at the old family Pentium 133 and write “edgy” Thomas episodes in Microsoft Word 95, to print out and share with my mates. Creating stories that made my friends laugh was like having an intimate unplugged jam session and getting applause when I finished playing. Creating stories that made the whole class laugh felt like I was a rock star on stage with a sea of people before me, and I had them all in the palm of my hand.
The Ego would observe this and go “Hey, this feels good…“
The Super Ego would go: “Enjoy this for what it is, don’t overdo it and look like you’re trying too hard…“
The Id went “Nah make ’em laugh even harder, turn it up to 11! Nobody will ever think you’re too quiet or shy ever again- you’ll be LEGENDARY, trust me bro!”
In my early years of adolescence, making people laugh was like an addiction…
How Fred Durst is feeling in this moment is how it felt reading my stories in front of class and making everyone laugh. Especially making the girls laugh, which had become a big deal by this stage for some reason…
Now at this time, there was a subculture known as gothics. They dressed in black, wore heavy makeup, were often heavily pierced, chain-smoked, drank instant coffee, listened to Marilyn Manson and were interested (to some degree) in the occult. They were derided by most people, and (going to a religious high school in a regional coastal area), were viewed as the most degenerate losers of all. So the first episode I wrote was about Diesel (the most ‘evil’ character on the Island of Sodor) going one step further and turning goth (Thomas finds Diesel with white makeup on to resemble the undead, black eyeshadow and lipstick and the number 666 spray painted on his sides).
Then the Fat Controller informs Thomas he has to take a train of concert goers to/ from the Marilyn Manson show on the Island Of Sodor that night. Off I went with this storyline, and I’m sure that shuffling noise I heard while typing was the Reverend W. Awdry turning in his grave. On the return journey, having dissed gothics, a portal to Hell opens up in front of Thomas and who should appear but Beelzebub himself, who threatens Thomas to stop judging the gothics for being “weird” or he will come for his soul.
Then there was the story about Gordon becoming a homie- another widely despised (or misunderstood, depending how you look at it) subculture, famously parodied by Sascha Baron Cohen’s Ali-G alter ego. Gordon starts wearing an Adidas stretch-fit cap backwards on his funnel, talking street and blasting gangster rap from his cabin- until Bertie Bus speeds past one day and a passenger opens fire on Gordon in a drive-by shooting. It was pizza cutter literature- all edge and no point- but it got a laugh out of my friends and I, the daring adolescents we were. We understood dark subject matter AND could use it to bastardise wholesome children’s entertainment. Take THAT, society!
So these were my earliest experiences of coming up with ideas from stimulus material (whether I enjoyed it or not) and feeling inspired enough to write the words I felt did it justice. The rest (as they say) is history…
(But I still maintain that books about babysitting, horses and crushes on older boys are total crap. I also don’t know of the existence of magazines titled ‘Jugs’ or ‘Spank’, even if both sound like publications Flasheart would read in a 90’s version of ‘Blackadder‘).
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