Thursday, 5 June 2014

For some folk, fairy tales are Grimm!

       Terrific fun, of course, but children’s plays – especially pantomime – can be a perilous occupation. Not only do scripts have to be side-achingly funny, but politically correct, issue aware and socially on message into the bargain. 
       And there’s another factor we writers need to contend with – choosing a theme that won’t give children nightmares.
       According to a recent survey by US TV channel Watch, one in five parents have turned their backs on traditional fairy tales, considering the yarns too frightening for young children. Whether anyone asked their offspring what they thought is open to question – after due consideration, I tend to think not, as most kids I know love nothing better than a good scare!
      Some of the adults interviewed also find many fairy stories either reactionary, unrealistic or immoral (Hansel & Gretel and Rapunzel involve kidnapping, for instance.) Parents also seem to think fictional characters should set a good example to children, something apparently lacking from the thieving Goldilocks and Jack, the notorious beanstalk burglar. There's disapproval too of Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty due to their obvious stereotyping of the female gender. As a result, a whole generation of under-fives are now being reared on modern alternatives such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Mr Men and The Gruffalo.
       Of course, many of the original tales dreamed up by Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and others were actually quite horrific - no doubt they could give your average video nasty a run for its money! Take the Ugly Sisters, for example; in the original version, they mutilated their own feet to fit into Cinders' dainty glass slipper. Snow White involves a rather nasty account of attempted child murder - by a family member at that! And what the Big Bad Wolf did to poor old grandma doesn't even bear contemplating!
       Even so, it's thought that fairy stories help children deal with real-life fears. Psychologists such as Bruce Bettelheim believe they provide coping mechanisms for youngsters, enabling them to chart their way through difficult situations in an increasingly hostile, adult-controlled world.
       In his book, Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bettelheim argues: "Fairy tales are loved by the child…..because — despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific context — these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.”
       Children can also learn to identify human traits and frailties. Take any well-known folk tale and it's easy to parallel even the most exaggerated characters with flesh and blood people.
       Like Mum, for instance. When in conflict with her child, a mother who's normally cast as the good fairy is, to the child's mind, quickly transformed into the wicked witch; Daddy becomes the wise old Wizard, the fearless woodcutter rescuing Little Red Riding Hood from the slavering jaws of the wolf, or (my favourite) the eternal magic money-tree! And I'll give you three guesses who Justin Bieber represents. My own handsome prince has just got his bus pass, which just goes to show not all fairy tales end happily ever after! Meanwhile, a host of walk-ons in these fantasies i.e. ogres, beasts and pixies substitute for teachers, siblings and various friends or rivals.
       Personally, I find echoes of old fairy tales in almost every book I read, in films, in plays and even video games. It's said there are only 6 (or is it 8?) basic plots for which every writer has a different way of telling, each unique in its own way.
       And without such tales, there wouldn't be pantomimes - putting me out of a job for a start! Which reminds me, it's time to get on with my next pantomime script!

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