Why This Book Caused A Very English Outcry
First a bit of an explanation: Because I was born in 1953 I was a New Elizabethan, ie. born in the year of QEII’s coronation. My dates, therefore, match her reign, and I therefore have a fondness for Queen Elizabeth, despite only having ever seen her at the pictures. I mean she was at the pictures; I attended the Royal Command Performance one year. The New Elizabethans were quite a thing for a while, and much was expected of them.
At this point, the wonderfully rococo, spidery artist Ronald Searle teamed up with the writer Geoffrey Willans to produce a story about New Elizabethans. Searle had already drawn the St Trinians’ girls, of course, but this was something new.
Willans’ collaboration with the artist was to propel him into the blazer pocket of every British schoolboy. Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St Custard’s, rocketed to fame in four lunatic children’s (or what we’d now call YA) books, starting with Down With Skool! With chapters on how to avoid lessons and how to torture parents, it caused instant outrage because of its deliberately awful spelling, much of which is phonetic and very funny. It was soon regarded as a bad example to set before children. Naturally, this cemented its success. St Custard’s is ruled with an iron fist by Headmaster Grimes (BA, Stoke-On-Trent), who is constantly in search of dosh to supplement his income and has a part-time business running a whelk stall. Other masters include Sigismund Arbuthnot, the mad maths master. The skool was ‘built by a madman in 1836’.
The second diary, How To Be Topp, scales the heights of the surreal. A new term begins; ‘No more dolies of William the bear to cuddle and hug, no more fairy stories at nanny’s knee it is all aboard the fairy bus for the dungeons’. New boy Eustace is trussed to a chair and gagged with socks. His mother rings up and is reassured. ‘Eustace mater ring off very relieved cheers cheers and telephone all the other lades about it. An owl hoot and Eustace is insensible. St Custards hav begun another term.’ The roster of pupils includes the ghastly Fotherington-Thomas, ‘skipping like a girlie’ and ‘uterly wet’, and Grabber, ‘skool captane and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. The peculiar cadences of academic lassitude are perfectly nailed, so that a recital of ‘The Burial Of Sir John Moore At Corunna’ becomes a bored litany trotted out by an ADD-afflicted child;
‘Notadrumwasheardnotafuneralnote shut up peason larffing as his corse as his corse what is a corse sir? gosh is it to the rampart we carried’.
Two more volumes followed; ‘Whizz For Atomms’ and ‘Back In The Jug Agane’. The charming crime author Simon Brett attempted to keep this going in the 1980s by writing a pair of rather trying sequels about Nigel in middle age.
There’s currently a plan to animate the books by a wonderful artist at Uli Meyer Studios who has brought the St Trinians’ drawings to life. That labour of love stalled, (and I’m guessing here, but it seems likely to me) because Ealing Studios now hold the rights to the characters. Searle was animated before, not terribly well, but it’s still a rather charming film that uses songs by Gilbert & Sullivan (who had then just come out of copyright) called ‘Dick Deadeye’. It’s totally unavailable anywhere in the world, as far as I can see, but it’s on YouTube in a terrible copy. There’s an album and a book, too.
Willans’ catchphrases like ‘chiz’, ‘enuff said’ and ‘as any fule kno’ have passed into adult English language, but the books were meant to be enjoyed by generations of kids rather than preserved as classics. The very parents who railed against the volumes became the biggest fans in later life, as any fule kno.