Monday, July 8, 2013

Betina at Ballet School

 Tammy  6 Feb 1971 - 24 July 1971

I think it's probably a law that every British girls' comic has to have a ballet story. They are certainly ubiquitous prior to the 1970's. Tammy's initial contribution to the genre sets out one of the major differences between its style and what had gone before: typically, girl's comics had been about middle and upper class girls, often at boarding schools. In Tammy, these girls were the villains. It's class warfare all the way as Tammy's working class heroines, without class privilege or financial support, and armed only with talent and determination, undeterred by the entrenched cliquishness and spiteful jealousy, invade and conquer story lines previously open only to the posh girls.

Betina Brooks is the working class daughter of a charwoman, and she is obsessed with ballet, even though everything she has learned has come out of books because her family is too poor for her to ever have had proper lessons, or, presumably, been able to actually afford to go see a real ballet.

As the story opens, Betina is excited because she has an audition for a ballet scholarship. But she's nervous and screws up her routine. By a massive coincidence one of the members of the scholarship board is her mother's employer Miss Knight, who just happened to catch Betina dancing for fun in the previous scene, and so knows what she is capable of, and she personally sponsors Betina for the scholarship, and in fact takes her for an audition at the "best school in the country"[1], the famous Vronskya Ballet School.

Betina dances for Madam Vronskya and her "assistant" Miss Swindon.  Madam sees great promise and immediately accepts her, but later Betina overhears Miss Swindon scolding her for accepting "a common urchin" into the school.

Despite these portents, Betina is delighted to arrive at the school and dance in a real studio with a proper barre and mirrors. Her enthusiasm isn't even dampened by the catty remarks of her snobby classmates. But then it all goes horribly wrong. First Madam keeps singling her out for making mistakes when she's sure she is getting it right, and then she claims that Betina is not the same girl they saw at the audition, and she must have hired a professional dancer to cheat her way into the school. Miss Swindon later tells her that Miss Knight has been informed and Betina will be sent home.

Left alone in the hall where a pair of Pavlova's[2] ballet shoes are on display in a helpfully unlocked case, Betina takes the only opportunity she will have to dance in them. Madam catches her, but instead of reprimanding her, she bursts into tears and apologises to Betina before rushing away.

Later Miss Swindon returns to tell Betina that Miss Knight has suffered a stroke and is critically ill in hospital, and was unable to give any instructions regarding Betina. She says that Madam Vronskya has offered to keep Betina at the school as a cleaner.

Why does Miss Swindon accede to this plan of Madam's to keep Betina at the school? There's no specific reason given in the story, and Miss Swindon has been against her from the word go, so why keep her around? Given what we later find out about her, my guess is that it's a scam. Betina is on a scholarship (or is being paid for by the currently unconscious Miss Knight; it's not clear), so presumably the fund that finances it will continue to keep paying out her fees so long as Betina is still there (and Miss Knight is unable to do anything about it). Keeping her there as a skivvy means that she doesn't get to bring the snobby tone of the school down by being a student, while still providing a nice little revenue stream, and supplying some light housework on top. Or it could just be the attraction of Putting the Riffraff in Her Place and keeping her there for all to see.

As an aside to those who may be more familiar with the current, decompressed style of comics storytelling, I thought I'd mention that we are at this point barely six pages into the story. By comparison, it took the current Ultimate Spider-Man more than ten times as many pages to get as far as putting the costume on. You can see why most serials only ran three pages per issue.

The other servants [3] don't take kindly to Betina, believing the lie about her cheating to get in, but just as Betina is getting really depressed Madam shows up and tells her to meet her secretly after supper.

Madam begins giving Betina secret ballet lessons in the attic of the disused coach house. Some of the pupils start to accept Betina after the particularly mean Lucilla plays a prank with the Pavlova shoes and Betina gets blamed. However, the secret classes don't last long, as without warning or explanation Betina is kicked out of the school.

Returning home to her mother, Betina later reads in a newspaper that Madam Vronskya has left the school to teach abroad. Betina writes to one of her newfound friends at the school, Diana, who turns out to be a bit of a sleuth as she is able to supply Betina with the address that the taxi took Madam to; not the airport, but the slum end of a nearby town. Betina tracks her down and she explains what's been going on.

It seems Madam Vronskya is a fake. Her real name is Doris Kent, and she'd never been a ballerina, but she was a great teacher. So when Miss Swindon asked her to pretend to be a famous Russian dancer [4] and official face of the school, she accepted in order to be able to train "the great dancers of tomorrow". But she hadn't realised she'd mostly get spoilt brats with no talent and little interest. And after Miss Swindon refused to let her teach the one pupil she'd had with any actual talent (Betina, of course), they had a great row and she walked out.

Betina takes Madam back home with her, but things are barely settled again before Miss Swindon shows up looking for her. Apparently she doesn't have Diana's detective skills. The replacement ballet teacher is hopeless and she wants Madam to return. Madam agrees, but only on condition that Betina is reinstated, and so finally Betina is a pupil at the ballet school again.

You'd think the story would now settle into a more typical school-style episodic storyline, and it does start that way, with Lucilla and friends causing trouble and Betina dealing with the consequences, but with each twist and turn the plot builds, working from a straightforward prank to steal Betina's ballet shoes leading all the way up to where only them putting on a production of Petrushka, filmed for a TV documentary, can possibly save the school.

Things do settle down a bit after that as the final one of the three story arcs starts moving, with Miss Swindon, having finally accepted that Betina has talent, determines to make money out of her by having her enter lots of ballet competitions and win prizes [5].

Meahwhile Betina makes a friend of  Sophia, a new pupil who is a Russian princess. But it's okay, despite being technically aristocracy, she comes from a poor, single-parent family and is positively the opposite of snobbish, preferring to go for a picnic in a rag and bone lorry [6] with Betina and her mum than lunch at the country club with the posh girls.

In fact it's while the two are dancing on the river bank to entertain their companions that they are spotted by the director of a modern dance company, the Ballet Workshop, who invites them to come join them. Betina is very tempted, seeing it as the opportunity to continue her studies with people who actually liked her, as well as escaping the pressure she is under to win one competition after another with hardly a break between to recover. But ultimately she refuses out of loyalty to Madam.

Visiting the workshop a few days later, she joins in a practice and they again invite her to join, inviting her to bring Sophia and Madam Vronskya with her. When Miss Swindon finds out, the prospect of losing the only real talent the school has to boast sends her over the edge and with Lucilla's help she fakes a burglary, framing Betina for it, and then uses the threat of going to the police to blackmail Betina into stealing a copy of a new score the Ballet Workshop are working on, to use it to put on a production, claiming it as her own work, which she believes will make her famous.

How she thinks she'll get away with this, when it's so well known as a Ballet Workshop production that she herself found out about it from reading about it in the newspaper, or how long the faked burglary threat is going to hold up when her blatant theft, blackmail, and plagiarism are exposed, I have no idea. I think by this point she has actually had some sort of psychological break and is no longer at home to mister logic.

 Inevitably, Betina being the heroine she is, she dances the ballet but then cannot bear to allow Miss Swindon to take the credit, and confesses all. A woman in the audience supports her, turning out to be a dancer from the Ballet Workshop. Miss Swindon plays her final card, denouncing Betina as a thief, but by this point even Lucilla has had too much (or knows when it's time to switch sides) and admits she helped Miss Swindon frame Betina.

Miss Swindon is last seen slinking away, presumably before the police get wind of all the illegal things she'd been up to. Madam, Sophia, and Betina all go join the Ballet Workshop and everyone lives happily ever after.

Wait, no.

Nobody goes off to join the Ballet Workshop. Madam is somehow given sole charge of the school, Betina gets a job offer with a professional ballet company out of the blue, and Sophia doesn't appear in this episode at all. Because there's going to be a sequel about what happens to Betina next. And it wouldn't do for her to have that much friendship and support available for Betina and the Haunted Ballet.

I like this story. I even find I enjoy it more rereading it and taking the structure to bits and poking about in it. It plays with a number of conventions of the school/ballet story, using them to create something a bit more consequential. The casual pranks and small adventures that would fill a single episode of a typical story of this type and then be forgotten are used as building blocks of much bigger stories, with consequences coming back to bite you in the ass in ways unseen in the likes of Bunty. I'll even forgive the obviously last minute changes to the ending that don't fit the set up, since they are obviously done to accommodate the late commissioning of a sequel. Which we'll get to in due course.

I also like the art by Dudley Wynne. It's not as gorgeous the art in Courier Carol, but it also doesn't feel like it's constantly fighting the exposition for breathing space. I don't know a lot about real ballet, so I couldn't say how accurately it's portrayed, but it looks right, and there's a real sense of how much Betina enjoys her dancing. It's the single most basic story point: Betina loves to dance. So it's vitally important that the story conveys this, and with Wynne's art you aren't just told it, you can see the emotion all right there on the page.

1) Later episodes contradict this markedly, with plot points about the school failing because it is unable to attract new pupils. But perhaps Miss Knight only knows it by reputation..
2) Anna Pavlova, Russian ballerina who Madam Vronskya claims was her teacher. Since Pavlova died in 1931, Madam would have to be at least 60 years old in 1971, so it does work. Though whether her worn out, sixty-plus year old ballet shoes would be any good for dancing in is another matter (working ballerinas get through a pair in a month).
3) Who mysteriously disappear from the series as soon as Betina is reinstated as a pupil. Staff cutbacks, perhaps. No wonder they were reduced to tricking pupils into becoming unpaid skivvies. Seems odd now to see housekeeping staff referred to as "servants".
4)  A famous Russian dancer that nobody had ever heard of. Unless she means she has stolen the identity of an actual Russian dancer.
5) There are always competitions available to the talented teenage girl in British comics. Particularly if she happens to be in desperate need of ready cash for some important reason.
6) Rag and bone men were an established stereotype of poverty in British popular culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and continue to appear even in comics as modern as Tammy in the 1970's, despite the real thing having virtually disappeared by the 1950's.

1 comment:

  1. Class warfare erupted again in Tammy's 1981 ballet story, Rosie at the Royalty. This is a sequel to the 1980 Rosie of Ragged Row.

    Rosie Fields is the daughter of a rag-and-bone man (yes, that again) who, in her first story, gets on the first rung towards being a top ballerina with the aid of a magic music box. In the sequel Rosie has lost the power of the music box and is on her own as she gets accepted for a ballet academy. But it's all class warfare as pupils and headmistress look down on her because of her background. It continues to the end, at their graduation performance. No ballet company will accept Rosie, despite her being the star of the show. Her background is still against her. But then something does turn up for Rosie, and she is determined to show the lot of them.