Fancy Free! (1981)

Sample images

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Published: 28 March 1981 – 30 May 1981 (10 episodes)

Artist: Phil Townsend

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: none known

Plot

Fancy Cole is the most difficult pupil in her school. She is slovenly, unmanageable, uncooperative, and a bully. What Fancy wants more than anything else is freedom – which she thinks just means doing anything she likes – so she hates school authority and rebels against it in any way she can. As for bullying, well, when you’re free you make your own rules. To underline her point about freedom she turns all the school pets loose in class to give them freedom, much to the consternation of the teacher and classmates.

When we see Fancy’s home life, however, she becomes a more sympathetic character. We begin to understand why Fancy is the way she is and we suspect that what Fancy really wants is someone to care about her. Her home is a tip and neither of them clean it up. Goodness knows what the bacteria count is like. Her mother, though not downright cruel or abusive as some parents/guardians are in girls’ stories, does not show Fancy any love or caring. In fact, Mum cares far more for bingo than she does for Fancy. They just argue all the time. It seems Fancy’s home life has been that way for years; when she was younger she used to pretend she was switched by the fairies and did not really belong to that family at all. As for the father, he has been absent for twelve years for some unknown reason. Fancy yearns for him and wants to know more about him, but doesn’t even know what he looks like.

Mum steals the money Dad sent for Fancy’s birthday for her bingo. This is the last straw for Fancy. She runs away, determined to find somewhere where she can enjoy freedom. On the moor, however, she meets Ben Harrington, who cares for the wildlife on the moor and has converted an old double decker bus into a hospital for them. Fancy becomes fascinated with Ben and caring for wildlife and wants to learn all about it. They are particularly concerned with a sick purple heron, and Ben can’t quite figure out what’s wrong. Ben agrees to teach her, but there is one condition – she must stop running away from whatever she is running from. Eventually Fancy agrees to do so, figuring that what she does with Ben will make it all worthwhile.

Ben also keeps telling Fancy that her views on freedom – being able to do anything she likes – are unrealistic. Nobody, not even wildlife, is completely free, for there are always restraints and regulations in one form or other. Ben has views on his own freedom too, which seem to be a bit touchy. For example, he can’t stand the word “prison”. He doesn’t like snoopers either and initially drew a gun on Fancy because he thought she was snooping.

Fancy is now reconsidering her bullying as she does not want Ben hearing bad things about her. However, she finds herself hauled up before the headmistress for the school pets she let loose and bullying a girl out of dinner money. Fortunately the headmistress is now dealing with a more thoughtful Fancy. Fancy says her action with the school pets was not the best thing for them, which she realised during her encounter with Ben. She also promises to repay the girl’s dinner money. The girl’s mother says it must be repaid by Monday or it’s the police. The headmistress gives Fancy three Saturday detentions, which will cut into her time for seeing Ben.

When Fancy finally gets to Ben, she finds a strange man asking questions about the place, but she tells him nothing. Ben gets extremely agitated when he hears about the man snooping. Following this, Fancy realises there is more to Ben than meets the eye. However, when Ben gets all strict about conditions needing to be met if Fancy is to continue with him, Fancy leaves in a huff, saying Ben’s just one more stuffy grown up who cramps her freedom.

Fancy arrives home in such a rage that she picks a fight with her mother and starts smashing wall ornaments. When Mum tries to stop Fancy, she says she had the same thing from her father and doesn’t want it with her. At this, Fancy really demands to know just what it is about her father.

Mum explains the father was a good-for-nothing who ended up in prison. She refuses to say what the charge was, though she does say the father pleaded innocent but neither she nor the jury believed him. He then escaped from prison and has not been seen since, much less bothered with his wife or child (then how did he send birthday money for Fancy, as mentioned in part 1?). Mum says that if she knew where he was she would turn him in. Clearly, she is very bitter and angry towards him and blames him for the life she leads with Fancy.

After this, Fancy becomes less centred on herself as she wants to go back and help the birds. She cleans up the broken ornaments and then goes back to Ben to apologise (for the first time in her life, she wants to apologise to someone). She never helps around the house at home, but is really enjoying cleaning up at Ben’s. While working, Fancy mentions the story of her father, and Ben hints he may know something. However, Fancy doesn’t know enough details for them to really make a headstart and Ben still seems a bit evasive on the matter anyway. Meantime, they turn their attention back to the purple heron. Fancy is really honoured when Ben trusts it to her care. He also gives her ten pounds as a payment. So Fancy can now repay the dinner money she stole with her bullying.

Unfortunately Mum finds the money and takes it to the police, thinking Fancy stole it (though it is implied that Mum takes it to bingo instead!). It turns out Mum isn’t too far wrong, as a check of the serial numbers confirms that the money came from a bank robbery years ago – and this is what Fancy’s father was jailed for! Fancy manages to talk her way out of it with the police and shift suspicion to her mother. So while Mum is now down at the police station facing awkward questions, Fancy goes to see Ben about the money.

It was a bad miscalculation on Ben’s part – he thought it wouldn’t matter as so much time had passed since the crime. Fancy now realises that Ben is an escaped convict. Ben is getting worried that the police might come, so he takes off and leaves Fancy in charge of the birds. Fancy is honoured, because nobody has ever trusted her so much before, and nobody ever needed her so much before either. She wants to stay there forever and never go back.

However, this has made Fancy absent from school and the headmistress and Mum call the police in. Mum finds the police asking her some hard questions about how she has treated Fancy and they say they will be keeping an eye on her after that stolen money. Before long, Fancy sees a police copter flying around. The weather turns against the police chopper, but it also causes Ben to have an accident. Ben decides to struggle back to the bus, deciding his place is with the birds, and never mind the police. He makes it back but he is dying. Still, he arrives in time to see the purple heron return to the wild.

Just before Ben dies, he says the money was stolen, but not by him – it was planted to frame him after the bank robbery. They then discuss the possibility that Ben is Fancy’s father. Their surnames don’t match, but Mum could have changed her name, and everything else seems to fit. So they decide it’s feasible and Fancy says she would like it that way anyway. Ben then dies and Fancy vows to carry on his work as the bird girl.

Thoughts

One of the definite strengths of this story is how Fancy’s behaviour is rooted in realism. All too often the reason why so many kids are problem is kids stems from the parenting they have received and their home lives. In this case it is Fancy being raised by a solo mother because the father is absent, and the mother is completely uncaring. The conditions under which they live make things worse. They live in squalor and there are constant money and even food shortages because Mum squanders money on bingo and uses Fancy to get welfare. There is no evidence of Mum having a job or bothering with one.

Of course Fancy is just as much the architect of her own misfortunes with her own selfishness and bad attitudes, particularly her bullying and her naïve notions of what freedom is. She does not understand that if she wasn’t so difficult at school it would be so much better for her and she’d have some friends. But the real root of it all definitely comes from the mother. Fortunately Fancy is not beyond redemption. Once she finds her vocation in caring for the birds and deciding the moors are made for her, that’s it. She wants to change and be different in future. Of course her bad temper still erupts with Ben and Mum, but there is no going back to her bullying ways. Under all that difficult behaviour lies a heroine with a lot of courage and balls. Nobody is going to push this protagonist around – she’s going to stand up for herself and the birds. And she always wants to be free. However, she is still being unrealistic in wanting to care for the birds and never return home. By law she is still a minor and needs a guardian and has to attend school. Hopefully they came to some sort of arrangement where Fancy could still care for the birds while still a minor.

Mum is clearly consumed with bitterness towards the father and blaming him for how she and Fancy have ended up. But just how much is the father at fault? Before Mum reveals the father was jailed and then escaped, both we and Fancy get a strong impression that old trout drove him off. The story cries out to have the full story of just how the father ended up in prison so readers would be able to judge how much blame the mother and father should take for everything. We only have the mother’s side of things, but she is hardly an objective observer, and she did not give the full details on what happened. After all, suppose the father’s claims of innocence were genuine? On the other hand, it could well be that the father was indeed a less than admirable character. Or he could have just made a mistake and got mixed up in something he shouldn’t have. Or he could have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. We just don’t know because we don’t have the full story.

There are a couple of oddities that need to be explained. If the father was absent and had no contact with his family, how did he manage to send Fancy birthday money in part one of the story? How did Ben come to be in possession of the money that was used to frame him after the robbery? And just who framed him with the stolen money after the robbery anyway? Was it the real criminals or the police?

Assuming the father and Ben were the same person, he definitely is a far better person than Mum gives him credit for. It could well be that he started off less so, but became a changed person when he started caring for the wild birds on the moor – just like his daughter. Or perhaps he was the kinder of the two parents who chose to use his time in hiding to care for wild birds in lieu of his family.

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12 thoughts on “Fancy Free! (1981)

  1. Thanks for this. It’s not one of my favourite stories (though Townsend’s art is always lovely of course) but it’s got a certain something. You’re right about the oddities of the story – the money from her father not fitting with Ben possibly being her father. I don’t remember this being a story that caught my fancy(!) much at the time.

    It makes me think of “A Boy Like Bobby” which is quite similar in tone.

    1. I think the only explanation that fits is that Ben is not the father; he got tangled up in the same crime as the father and escaped with him.

  2. How would the question of whether or not Ben is Fancy’s father go as a debate or point of discussion?

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