Hachette UK acts up over ‘Five Go’ theatre comedy show

If you’ve stepped foot into a bookshop within the last year or so, chances are you’ve seen the ‘grown-up’ parodies of Enid Blyton’s well-known Famous Five series adorning the shelves. Ever since Hachette UK acquired the rights to the books through Enid Blyton Entertainment, titles such as Five on Brexit Island and Five Give Up The Booze have proven to be extremely popular sellers.

Now, in a bid to protect the Famous Five trademark, Hachette is attempting to assert its authority on a comedy group and their Blyton-inspired theatre sketch show, ‘Five Go Off on One!’. The show, which sees the group take to the stage to ‘lovingly ridicule’ a selection of children’s books over the course of an hour, was first brought to Hachette’s attention when it appeared in the programme for last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at which point the company quickly fired off a legal warning. It argued that the show’s title would be “likely to mislead customers into believing [it] is endorsed by Enid Blyton Entertainment”.

In response to these initial threats, the group offered to change the name of their production to ‘The Reasonably Well Known Five: An Unofficial, Unlicensed and Unrestrained Parody’ — what else would you expect from a comedy group? — but this still didn’t satisfy Hachette. They sent another letter demanding that the word ‘Five’ be replaced entirely, due to the trademark it held for the Famous Five phrase.

Eventually, with the potential of significant financial costs hanging over their heads, the group reluctantly changed the show’s name to ‘Four Go Off on One! A Jolly Good Romp Through Childhood’, dropping ‘Timmy the dog’ from its sketches as an unfortunate result.

Despite giving in to the pressure put on them by Hachette, many experts have questioned the strength of the company’s legal argument. Discussing the warning letter in a Chortle article, intellectual property lawyer James Mitchell, of JP Mitchell Solicitors in Hampton, Middlesex, said: “Hachette are claiming ‘Famous Five’ as a trademark, but unless I’m missing something, there’s not enough overlap with that and the title Five Go Off on One to warrant a claim. The letter is flimsy at best…if I was their lawyer I would respond by tearing it to bits and suggest that if Hachette sent another we would take action for unjustified threat.”

The show’s creator Robert Eyres, who also happens to hold a law degree, weighed in on the issue, saying: “I can’t help but think Hachette would have let this go were they not currently putting a lot of marketing effort behind their own series of Famous Five parodies.”

In response to the story, a spokeswoman for Hachette told Chortle: “We have no intention of preventing the performance of a genuine parody and have demonstrated with our Famous Five parodies that we can take and make a joke. However, we own the trade mark [sic] ‘The Famous Five’ and we need to ensure that it is protected, that the phrased ‘Five’ is not used in a misleading way to create a link with our brand and that its use does not conflict with any licenses we have already issued. The copyright laws relating to parodies do not apply to trade marks.”

For now, the show shall go on — albeit under a rather different name — as both parties determine the best course of action. Either the performance continues under the current name without disruption from Hachette, or Eyres and the rest of his group decide they have a chance to take on the company with a case of their own.