Advent Calendar / Book of the Smallfilm

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden

 

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Illustrations by Joanna Jamieson from Puffin 1971 edition

 

On Christmas morning the Plantaganets woke to hear real carol singers in the street outside. “Peace and goodwill among men,” sang the carol singers. “And among dolls,” said Mr Plantaganet. “I hope among dolls.

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Unfortunately for Mr Plantaganet, an abused doll with a crudely drawn pencil moustache on his upper lip, things are about to get a whole lot worse. 

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Christmas starts well in the Dolls’ House which he shares with his hodgepodge family; wife Birdie, a cheap celluloid cracker doll; Apple their lively adopted son; Darner the cotton reel dog, and Tottie, a perennially youthful antique peg dolly.

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The dolls are given ‘the kind of Christmas tree you have on Christmas cakes’, by their benefactors Charlotte and Emily Dane, along with a selection of thoughtful presents, including a post office for the man of the house to play postmaster in.

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Unfortunately there is something evil lurking in another present that makes Darner’s wool stand on end and causes Tottie to drop her pudding basin. Out comes a new member of the dolls’ house, Marchpane, a chi-chi bone china doll with a black soul that infects the Plantaganet house like woodworm.

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Marchpane bewitches Emily, the elder of the two girls, and as Christmas night approaches she evicts Mr Plantaganet and Birdie from their pink bedroom, installing the new Mistress in their place. The odd couple move into a makeshift cotton reel box bed in the attic where they try to adjust to their reduced position in the house.

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‘Of course’ said Birdie, ‘she couldn’t sleep in a cotton reel box could she?’ ‘Yes said Mr Plantaganet. ‘When I first saw her I thought she was a Christmas tree fairy.’ ‘Did you?’ asked Birdie and for the first time, her voice sounded wistful. ‘I suppose – I am never – anything like a Christmas fairy?’

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There is far worse in store for Mr Plantaganet and Birdie, a truly shocking culmination to an often very dark tale. It’s a moment that’s been seared into my memory since I first saw it in the Smallfilms adaptation from the early 80s.

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Tottie: The Story of a Dolls’ House was the evil sibling to Oliver Postgate’s beloved Bagpuss, a story that also used the idea of toys coming to life and humans appearing only in old fashioned looking photographs.

 

Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ house is one of the most emotionally taxing stories I have read for children. It’s comparable to Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams in the way it plumbs the psychological depths of young children.

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Not a feel good Christmas read by any means, but quite accurate in how it reflects the heightened emotional state felt by children at this time of year.

‘How odd,’ thought Tottie, ‘How lovely and how odd.’

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The Dolls’ House is published by Pan Macmillan (with new illustrations). The Art of Smallfilms is published by Four Corners.

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