Nervous road users beware. Enid Blyton's boy racer, Noddy, has been granted a new lease of life. An exhibition at London's Toy and Model Museum charts his progress from his creation 50 years ago to his unlikely elevation to modern-day superhero.
Once described by a less-than-impressed journalist as a "witless, spiritless, snivelling, sneaking doll", Noddy has never been a favourite with adults. But small children are usually more enthusiastic. A day out that offers a Noddy fun trail in the garden, a Toy Town train ride, some interactive CD-Roms, face painting, and a chance to help build a car in the Noddy workshop could hardly fail.
Four display cabinets contain fascinating archive material about the early history of this curious hero for our times. Drawn in watercolours by Dutch illustrator Harmsen van der Beek, Noddy began as a wooden toy with rigid arms and legs. But, as he become more humanised, elbows and knees started to appear, along with flatteringly large eyelashes.
As the soon-to-be star of 40 animated programmes aimed at the US market, he has also acquired a transatlantic accent, and in his ineffectual attempts to mend his car he now employs a wrench rather than a spanner; his friend, Big Ears, is re-christened White Beard, and PC Plod steps forward, notebook in hand, as Officer Plod.
Originally planned as a Disney-type character, Beek's Noddy was, in fact, drawn more in the tradition of central European fairytales. It has taken years, but he has finally become a cute all-American boy, whose smile radiates good humour of the mechanical "have a nice day" variety.
Backed by Trocadero, the London-based indoor entertainment complex, every effort has been made to maximise the modern Noddy's appeal and thus his profit potential. Early merchandising, which included Noddy slippers, mugs and egg cups, has been supplemented by a flood of new toys, games and videos. The books themselves include bath, board and activity editions.
Blyton would surely have approved, having taken a lively interest in merchandising herself and been unfailingly professional in all her business dealings. An original typescript of a Noddy story on view includes her instructions to the illustrator in the margin: "Dozen or so hats of all kinds in the road". The tone is terse and purposeful, in contrast to the gushy prose alongside. The Imperial typewriter she once perched on her knees is also on display. A Noddy story might take only two days to compose, compared with a Famous Five adventure, which might take four.
There are no golliwogs in Noddy stories anymore. Blyton herself began writing these out before her death in 1968, and this process continued into the 1980s when they finally disappeared altogether. As portrayed in the early books on display, these were often lively, good-humoured characters rather than the Noddy-muggers described since by some critics. But the gollies have now turned into goblins, just as old money has changed into decimal coins and old-fashioned petrol pumps have been transformed into their modern descendants.
Re-writing and re-illustrating Blyton never causes any of the fuss that would happen should anyone try to improve on the work of the more-respected Beatrix Potter. But it is Blyton herself who might well have the last laugh. The constant revision, and exhibitions such as this in her centenary year, means that Noddy and Co could be around for a long while yet.
* The London Toy and Model Museum, 21-23 Craven Hill, London W2. Tel: 0171 706 8000. The Noddy exhibition is open from Monday to Sunday, 9am to 5.30pm, until September 21, 1997. Admission: Pounds 4.95 adults (Pounds 3.95 concessions); Pounds 2.95 children (under-fours free); family ticket Pounds 13.50