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Thursday, August 26, 2010 4:20 am
Reading the Screen: Christianna Brand
Posted by: David Pitt

nanny-picNanny McPhee Returns, the sequel to 2005′s Nanny McPhee, is in theaters. Emma Thompson, wearing some truly arresting makeup, stars as a sort of offbeat, uglified, funhouse-mirror-image of Mary Poppins who’s hired to care for a widower’s small army children.

You might not know this — it wasn’t widely advertised — but Nanny McPhee was loosely based on a trio of novels written by Christianna Brand: Nurse Matilda (1964), Nurse Matilda Goes to Town (’67), and Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital (’74).

Nanny McPhee Returns isn’t connected to Brand’s books, or to the 2005 movie. It’s a sort-of sequel, a movie that carries over a lead character but otherwise starts from scratch. Which is a bit of a shame, since there’s plenty of good material in Brand’s novels.

The Nurse Matilda novels are a lot of fun. Brand had, apparently, annurse-matilda-cover exceedingly impish wit, and the stories are full of mischief and magic and misbehavior. Also, to continue the alliteration, marvellously drawn illustrations and some major laughs.

The original novels were out of print for years, but they were reissued, individually and as an omnibus edition, to tie in with the ’05 movie. So they’re pretty easy to find, now. Good thing, too: for younger readers (say, eight to twelve years of age), they’ll be a real treat.

And here’s something for the grown-ups: the Inspector Cockrill mysteries, also written by Brand. There are, I think, seven of them, published in the 1940s and ’50s. Several of them were reprinted in the 1980s and ’90s, and you can find them in libraries or used bookstores.

The novels are very much in the Agatha Christie vein — a crime, a detective, an assortment of possible culprits — and Cockrill, of Scotland Yard, is a likable, determined detective. Brand has a light touch, too: these aren’t comedies, but don’t be surprised if you chortle from time to time.

green-for-dangerThe second book in the series, 1944′s Green for Danger, was made into a movie in 1946, with Alastair Sim as Cockrill. Which, if you’re anything like me, is enough reason for you to check it out. It’s available on DVD, as part of the wonderful Criterion Collection.


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