Published: Tammy 14 December 1974 to 15 March 1975
Artist: John Armstrong
Translations/Reprints: None known
Kim and Ann Rudge are fraternal twin sisters who are a complete contrast: Ann is studious and academically brilliant, while Kim is sporty and a brilliant gymnast. Ann gets jealous of Kim because she thinks Kim’s sportiness is making her the favourite daughter with their parents. She doesn’t listen to her parents assurances that they are just as proud of her. As the story develops, Ann’s increasingly sour attitude because of her jealousy and imagining her parents playing favourites leads to increasing tension in the household and even physical fights with Kim.
Kim is dissatisfied with her gymnastics training because the school coach does not really have the drive to bring out the best in them. Later, Kim and her friends are surprised to see a formidable old woman at Plotter Street Mansion giving a gypsy girl gymnastics training. (The spelling of the woman’s name is not consistent and she is by turn referred to as Mrs Speers, Mrs Spears, Miss Speers and Miss Spears, but we’ll stick to Mrs Speers.) Mrs Speers is a dragon and a hard case coach all right, but she brings out the best more than the school coach. When Mrs Speers sees them spying, she orders her goon Tug to set the dogs on them. Kim finds the whole thing pretty weird, especially as nobody was known to live at that place.
Kim does not realise the gypsy girl was really Ann in disguise. She is taking secret gymnastics lessons to prove herself to her parents and win as much respect as Kim.
As training progresses, Ann learns what a ruthless taskmaster Mrs Speers is. For example, when Ann sprains her ankle while training, Mrs Speers has it treated but shows no sympathy whatsoever and even says she never wants to see her again. But it turns out to be a test of determination and Ann passes it by going back to her to see if she can get lessons again. Mrs Speers also makes a huge deal out of keeping things absolutely secret and takes privacy to extremes of the fierce guard dogs. Ann suspects Mrs Speers has something to hide but does not pursue it.
A competition is coming up and Ann wants to enter so she can beat Kim, but Mrs Speers forbids it, saying Ann’s not ready. This has Ann going home in a huff, which leads to rows with her family and fights with Kim. Back at the mansion, Mrs Speers reveals she planned it that way all along: she is fanning the flames of resentment in Kim as part of her own ambitions.
Next day, Mrs Speers allows Ann to enter the competition after all, but she must win or she’s through with her. Kim’s friends don’t like the way Ann is bundled into Mrs Speers’ car and call the police. A general description alert goes out and Mum is notified, but the police don’t treat it all that seriously.
Ann beats Kim in the competition but is disqualified on a technicality because she has no birth certificate to prove her age, so Kim wins. Ann is puzzled as to why Mrs Speers didn’t think of that herself (more of her tactics, we suspect), but Mrs Speers is true to her word and says she’s through with Ann.
Of course Ann is crushed and disappointed, and this leads to a row in the car when Dad collects them. This gets Dad angry, which nearly results in an accident. Dad blows his top and shouts at Ann over it, and she runs away in tears to Mrs Speers. Mrs Speers agrees to let her stay over.
Then Ann finds old newspaper clippings and discovers Mrs Speers’ secret: in her youth Mrs Speers was a top gymnast and won medals, but then she started using her gymnastics skills for crime and she has a criminal record. Tug was all part of it too and proud of it. They intend Ann to do the same, and that was what Mrs Speers was training her up for all along. They now hold Ann prisoner in the mansion. Meanwhile, Ann’s family report her missing and soon discover she has been kidnapped somehow.
To get Ann to comply, Mrs Speers and Tug threaten her family, and keep her locked up without food unless she trains. She has to sleep in the day and train by night. Then Ann sees a television broadcast where Ann disowns her in a television interview. She doesn’t realise Mrs Speers forced Kim to do it. As Mrs Speers planned, this embitters Ann, and she is willing to vent her hatred against the world as a willing accomplice for Mrs Speers.
Mrs Speers’ blackmail of Kim continues at a competition where she competes against Ann, who is in the gypsy disguise once more. Kim is forced to duck out and let Ann win. This time Kim does see through the gypsy disguise, but again she is forced to pretend to disown Ann, which further embitters her. Ann begins to tread down a genuine crime mindset of crime and even thinks Mrs Speers genuinely has her interests at heart. She now commits one robbery.
Satisfied Ann is now a willing accomplice, Mrs Speers eases her restrictions and gives her a reward: a beautiful room. But when Ann finds the windows sealed, she realises she is still a prisoner. She begins to have second thoughts about everything, see through Mrs Speers’ tactics, and suspect Kim’s conduct is forced. Sensing this, Mrs Speers blackmails Kim into pulling the same trick again. This time it’s in a face-to-face meeting between Ann and Kim, where Kim is forced to lead Ann to believe she blinded her in that road accident. Ann falls for it although she saw nothing wrong with Kim’s sight on TV or at the gymnastics competition.
It doesn’t quite work out as Mrs Speers planned though – Ann runs back to her in tears all right – but she refuses to have anything to do with her crimes. So Mrs Speers has Tug spirit Kim away to a hidey-hole in the countryside. But the police have been watching them since the robbery and they are soon arrested. Ann is happily reunited with her family and she sets out to become a top gymnast alongside her sister, but this time as herself.
In between the first Bella Barlow story (1974) and the second (1975) was this little-known John Armstrong gymnastics story to show that gymnastics in Tammy wasn’t all about Bella. The letters page was indicating popular demand for the return of Bella, and it could be “The Gypsy Gymnast” was riding on the wave of it. And take a close look at the poster on the left in Kim’s room, in panel 1, page 3, episode 1 (above). Is that Bella Barlow we see in that poster? The resemblance sure is striking. Did John Armstrong sneak her in there? Moreover, when the story finished, it was replaced by Bella herself. Coincidence or what? At any rate, “The Gypsy Gymnast” must have whetted readers’ appetites for more Bella.
The story does have its weaknesses, and among them: First, how exactly Ann met Mrs Speers or started the gypsy disguise is not explained or shown; Ann only says she met Mrs Speers by “sheer chance”. Second, Kim doesn’t even recognise her own sister in that gypsy disguise (until near the end of the story); it seems all Ann has to do is put on the gypsy headscarf while wearing a leotard and not even Kim realises who she’s competing against. Shades of Clark Kent! Third, what name is Ann using as a gypsy if she doesn’t want to be recognised as one of the Rudge sisters? Fourth, in the early episodes Ann wears that gypsy costume while training with Mrs Speers (later she wears a leotard but retains the headscarf). We have to wonder how on earth she can do gymnastics in that skirt. We’re just waiting to see it trip her up on that beam.
On the strengths, we have a very cunning woman who is trying to lure a girl away for her own gain. We have seen this in other stories such as “Jackie’s Two Lives” (Jinty) and “Swimmer Slave of Mrs Squall” (Tammy). In those cases the women were mentally disturbed, while Mrs Speers is a criminal who intends to snare Ann, little by little, until Ann is ready to carry on Mrs Speers’ legacy of crime. But Mrs Speers works in the same way as these mentally ill ladies: taking advantage of problem girls, gradually luring them away and holding them in their homes, using promises that only they can give them what’s lacking in their life, whether it’s riches or respect from their families.
Mrs Speers’ tactics are all the more clever by the fact that just what she is doing with Ann is not all that obvious at first. Only tiny things are allowed to filter through and make us suspicious. For example, it’s pretty weird, the way Mrs Speers keeps herself isolated in the mansion, is so insistent on privacy, keeps those guard dogs, and that Tug looks a real thug. Anyone with sense would keep well away from all that. Little by little, it is revealed Mrs Speers is playing games and tactics with Ann for her own ambitions, but for what purpose? Is it to strengthen Ann as a gymnast or is Mrs Speers up to something?
We certainly don’t like Mrs Speers’ hard training tactics although they are more effective than the school coach. Her methods aren’t as extreme, bizarre or cruel as some coaches in girls’ serials e.g. Tammy’s “The Chain Gang Champions”. But they are still relentless and show little sign of mercy. If Mrs Speers had a heart somewhere under all that hard exterior it could ultimately turn out well in the end. However, the story keeps giving us clear hints that she does not. This can only mean her training methods will ultimately lead to serious consequences for Ann.
When Mrs Speers’ true motives are revealed, it’s not all that easy for Ann to get away from her, and it’s not just the locked rooms. Mrs Speers is keeping Ann close to her psychologically with cunning head games to turn Ann into a criminal. It’s made all the easier by Ann being terrified, confused and mentally vulnerable, and being mistreated makes her even more so. Ann gets several opportunity to escape but she does not take them, which shows how much she is succumbing to Mrs Speers and unable to think straight. We get hints of possible Stockholm Syndrome kicking in as Ann is tricked into turning against her family and the world and genuinely begins to think Mrs Speers is the only one who cares about her. She begins to give way to the dark side, as we see when she enjoys committing the robbery, but then she begins to wise up to Mrs Speers.
The mess Ann gets herself into all begins with her feeling Kim is the favourite with the parents because Kim is sporty but she isn’t. “Favourites” leading to family problems and driving the protagonist to prove herself have appeared in many serials. In this case, though, it looks like Ann is only imagining it. She does not realise that it’s not favouritism that’s making her home life unhappy – it’s her sour, jealous attitude. It is this attitude that leaves her wide open to get into the clutches Mrs Speers. Yet despite herself, Mrs Speers does help to sort out Ann’s problems and start her on the road to top gymnastics.
The story wastes no opportunity to comment on the prejudice and stereotyping against gypsies, which Tammy has done in other serials, such as “Eva’s Evil Eye”. Ann finds the gypsy disguise is making her a target of prejudice. For example, at the competition she was disqualified from, people automatically assume she was disqualified because she was cheating, just because she’s a gypsy. All the more reason to shed that gypsy gear in the end, but Ann must have had a whole new appreciation for how real gypsies must suffer from discrimination after this.