I love it when a party plan comes together

Ellen's son and his birthday cake

Ellen's son and his birthday cake - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

IN MY meagre experience as a hostess, I have discovered that throwing a party for adults is a lot easier than holding one for kids.

As long as you have plenty of drink, some decent nibbles and a bit of music, adults are happy.

They don’t need games, prizes, goody bags or entertainers, and they don’t (usually) throw temper tantrums.

In general, an event for grown-ups is also a damn sight cheaper than catering for 30 children.

Past celebrations for my kids have included bouncy castles, face painting, a clown and renting a very expensive play gym – where the birthday girl came down with a vomiting bug in the middle of the trampolining session.

Every year I vow that the next event will be smaller, less extravagant, with fewer guests and not so much sugar.

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But invariably I panic when faced with the prospect of food and fun for so many, and the planning gets out of hand.

Before I know it I have booked a hall or community centre for £50, hired a magician for £150, ordered a cake for £30 and filled party bags with £60 worth of plastic tat.

With my son’s third birthday looming, I decided it was high time I reined in my enthusiasm and set myself a strict budget.

The first thing to do was to bake my own cake.

I turned to a favourite childhood cookbook but, not to do things by halves, I chose the most complicated cake – a pirate galleon.

The recipe called for a Victoria sandwich rectangle which could be cut up and precariously balanced to create a stern and bow.

The whole thing was to be slathered in buttercream and piped with various icing shades.

Finally the ship was to be completed with ice cream wafers for decking, liquorice sweets for cannons, rice paper for sails and a sweet cigarette for a bowsprit.

Yes, a sweet cigarette. Remember those?

You might do if, like me, you grew up in the 1980s or before, when pre-schoolers could pretend to smoke with a red-tipped candy stick and nobody batted an eyelid.

A lot has changed – and not just in the world of confectionery – in the last 30 years.

When I was a kid, the biggest mystery in the world was who shot JR. We watched programmes on the box (now the flatscreen, of course) and at midnight there was nothing on at all except for the test card girl with a clown and a blackboard. We played with Cabbage Patch Dolls and Transformers and listened to cassettes on tape decks. Men rolled their jacket sleeves up and girls were deemed very cool if they wore banana clips, leg warmers and Pixie boots.

And as for birthday parties, the standard template in the 1980s was to invite a number of friends to your house after school to play pass the parcel and musical chairs.

Birthday tea was a selection of buffet finger food, to include sausage rolls, crisps and fizzy pop.

And once the guests had eaten their fill of savoury goodies, the cake would be wheeled out for all to look at in wonder.

Happy Birthday was sung, jelly and ice cream scoffed and everyone left with a piece of cake in a napkin and a polite “Thank you for having me”.

Simple, cheap and not too much fuss. A far cry from parties of today, it would seem.

In the last five years of being a parent, my children have been invited to increasingly elaborate events for their peers. Some of these have been themed parties – a masquerade ball, a Hawaiian luau and a pampered princess parade. My daughter came home from the latter wearing bright red nail polish, false eyelashes and sporting six temporary tattoos.

Then there was the party we went to for a four-year-old who insisted on a Buzz Lightyear cake which set his mother back an incredible £250.

And yet another where the goody bags included better gifts than the ones we had taken as a present for the birthday girl.

You think that is bad? Think again.

I’ve actually heard of parties held to celebrate a child’s half birthday.

When we were living in London, I once heard a mother in the playground explaining why her spoilt brat was having his second celebration of the year.

“His birthday falls in winter,” she said. “So we thought it was only fair he got to experience a summer party too.”

I later heard (from a friend whose child was deemed worthy of an invite) that the same mother included a waiver form inside her party summons.

This is the icing on the most grandiose birthday cake of all, of course, and is becoming more popular in the UK, thanks to the growing trend for people to sue each other for every conceivable accident and injury.

The waiver, a legal document drawn up by a lawyer, is intended to cover the hostess for any potential dangers that may lurk at the party – be that a bouncy castle, an undercooked burger or the naked flame of a cake candle.

All I can say is that at my son’s party there will be no such disclaimer.

And forget frivolities: I am aiming for it to be more akin to my own childhood parties.

We will play traditional games, eat large quantities of jelly and enjoy the pirate galleon cake I’ve spent the last two days baking.

It may not be the most expensive party, with the most fanciful entertainment and the most exotic food, but it’s bound to be a lot of fun.

If it all goes horribly wrong, I might get sued for tripping up a toddler as I teach him to moonwalk.

But hopefully it will be a roaring success. If so, I will be clutching my hands together like the A-Team’s Hannibal and saying “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.