The experience of watching the TV incarnation of Lizzie Dripping, following its 2017 DVD release, resulted in possibly the broadest gap between my expectations of a previously unseen TV programme and the nature of the show itself. What I imagined: a goofy, knockabout comedy in which a young girl befriends a funny witch, pitched somewhere between Catweazle and Rentaghost. What I watched: a beautifully melancholy meditation on the passing of childhood, and an anxious teenager’s fear of the future. This book, an adaptation of the series (or possibly vice-versa: the publications and broadcasts were pretty much concurrent, and the chronology is a little confusing) develops the latter themes in delightfully downbeat style.
Lizzie is an imaginative, rather wistful girl whose name, we swiftly discover, is actually Penelope Arbuckle – “Lizzie Dripping” being a common, affectionate Nottinghamshire nickname for a girl who is “dreamy and daring at the same time”. Her home village, Little Hemlock, is caught on that very 1970s cusp between traditional rural life and encroaching modernity, evoked perfectly by her father’s recent career switch from traditional blacksmithery to modern plumbing. This telling leap from shodding carthorses to installing central heating almost epitomises Lizzie’s worried state-of-mind: she finds the changes in both family and village life, and her own increasing maturity, to be the source of simmering anxiety, and turns to a mysteriously-materialising witch for respite and advice.
Yes, indeed – a bona fide witch, who literally appears from nowhere in the autumnal village churchyard, and whose relationship with Lizzie is mercurial to say the least. She is by no means malevolent, but neither is she entirely friendly, and the spells she casts at Lizzie’s behest have frequently unexpected consequences. Her nature is left deliciously ambiguous – there is no evidence that the witch doesn’t exist in physical form, but the fact that she interacts with Lizzie alone throughout the course of these stories suggests the real sadness at the heart of these tales: Lizzie has invented an imaginary, supernatural friend as a funny, whimsical coping mechanism, one last blast of childhood fun before the adult world sweeps her away forever.
The book draws together five loosely-linked short stories, most of which are infused with Lizzie’s reluctance to make the leap into adolescence. In ‘Lizzie Dripping and the Orphans’, she is overwhelmed with sadness at the prospect of surrendering her battered toys (“the one-eared rabbit called Loppy… the beautiful tin teapot with painted sunflowers”) for a local jumble sale, torn between losing the precious memories attached to them all, and helping the “ragged orphans” who run barefoot through her nightmares.
‘Lizzie Dripping’s Black Sunday’ sees her charged with the responsibility of looking after baby brother Toby; the “little fat lamb”, as their mother affectionately nicknames him. Dreamily pushing around him around Little Hemlock in his pram, she ponders the nature of adulthood (“What if I was grown-up, and married, and Toby was mine?”) before leaving him alone, in a barn, impulsively deciding to join the village kids on an afternoon blackberrying expedition. The witch is nominated as unlikely child-minder (“If he was to yell, I could spell him off again”) as Lizzie unthinkingly abandons her grown-up responsibilities.
And in the following story, ‘Lizzie Dripping Runs Away’, she goes a step further: attempting to desert Little Hemlock herself on the advice of the internal monologue that peppers the book, an always-unspoken diatribe against the adults that she feels treat her unjustly. Including, sometimes, her own parents. “She doesn’t really love me at all, you can see that” thinks Lizzie, after a ticking-off from her mother. “Toby’s all she cares about. Wouldn’t care two pins if it was me that was lost.”
But it isn’t the people themselves that really concern Lizzie: it’s change. They are a loving family, in a beautiful village with a gentle, supportive community, but Lizzie is simply overwhelmed by the arrival of her baby brother, her parents subsequent shift in focus, and the responsibility that Toby’s presence has introduced into her own life. “This is my childhood,” she ponders, in ‘Black Sunday’. “And soon it won’t be my childhood any more.” And for a moment, the book tells us, “the world seemed unbearably empty and sad”. Lizzie, we are left to assume, conjures the witch from her overactive imagination as a desperate measure to stave off this emptiness, and the book and TV series alike capture this quintessentially teenage uncertainty with a sensitive and affecting lightness of touch.
Point of Order: Initially commissioned as a one-off Jackanory Playhouse drama broadcast on 15th December 1972, Lizzie Dripping returned to BBC1 for a a further four episodes in March 1973, and another five in February 1975. Six years before she joined Blue Peter as regular presenter, Tina Heath played the title role, and rather marvellous she is, too. The witch was played by Sonia Dresdel, who had been a hugely acclaimed stage actress in the 1940s, and all location work was filmed in Helen Cresswell’s home village of Eakring, Nottinghamshire.
Mustiness Report: A nicely mature 5/10. My copy is a 1979 hardback reprint, with pages the colour of straw and a nicely battered dust jacket. Also: the vintage BBC logo on the front cover makes my heart sing.