I recently emerged from a stunning and brave expedition into the furthermost recesses of our capacious loft space clutching a dusty cardboard box bearing the single word ‘Books’ that had lain forgotten there for the past 30 years or more. Excitedly I ripped the box open and found to my delight that it was full of some of my favourite childhood books dating back to the 1950s. Back then, as now, I was an avid reader and books were always high on the want lists that I sent up the chimney every December for the attention of S. Claus Esq. at the North Pole.
Back in the 1950s, working class people were nothing like as well off as they are today; there was very little disposable income left after rent, utilities and food bills had been paid so any little extras that you wanted had to be saved up for or you simply couldn’t have them, a philosophy that has stayed with me and my family to this day. At the end of my grandmother’s street there was a small newsagent’s shop that ran an annual ‘Christmas Book Club’ and every week I’d go to the shop and hand over most of my pocket money, the amount being entered on a card that I retained so I could watch the sum accumulating. Sometime in November I’d place my order for my ‘Christmas books’; the ‘Eagle Annual’ was a particular favourite of mine but best of all I liked school stories. Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings and Darbishire’ stories were always enjoyable but by far my favourite children’s author was ‘Frank Richards’, creator of Billy Bunter, the ‘Fat Owl of the Remove’ at Greyfriars School; Tom Merry and Co. of St. Jim’s and a whole host of less well known characters at other upper crust boarding schools. In Christmas week my mother would collect the books from the shop, wrap them and hide them away until I received my presents on Christmas morning. It was all very exciting and not being allowed to see the books before 25 December added to the thrill.
What memories that box of books brought back of what in hindsight more than sixty years later was an idyllic childhood as part of an extended family albeit in the mean side streets of a small West Riding town. The books transported me to a whole new world of boarding schools where masters with ‘gimlet eyes’ strolled the ancient corridors and quadrangles resplendent in gown and mortar board; where students did ‘prep’ (whatever that was); had feasts in their shared studies; construed Latin verse (eh?) and generally had a spiffing time getting up to all sorts of jolly japes. Playing soccer and cricket for the honour of the school was the schoolboy’s ultimate ambition although certain less reputable boys frequently ‘broke bounds’ to put money on the ‘gee-gees’ via shady intermediaries who frequented local public houses. People knew their place in those days; the locals still knuckled their foreheads or doffed their caps to the ‘young gentlemen’ and happily called them ‘sir’ when they visited the local town on their ‘jiggers’ for tea at the bun shop. Oh how I envied those boys.
Particularly poignant for me was the inscription on the flyleaves of two of the books that read, ‘To Tom from Dad, Bedford 1958.’ Sometime around 1955, my Dad who was an electrician by trade, had joined the Blackburn Aircraft Company and not long afterwards had moved from the Brough factory to the former Bomber Command airfield at Holme-on-Spalding-Moor from where the new Blackburn NA39 low-level strike aircraft, which later became the ‘Buccaneer,’ was flown by the company’s highly revered test pilots. Dad was one of the flight test ground crew and as such often travelled to exotic places ‘down south’ like Boscombe Down, near Amesbury in Wiltshire; the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford and of course Farnborough for the annual International Air Show. As was his wont, Dad always used to bring his then only son (otherwise known as ‘Spoilt Bastard’) a present from each of these trips and the latest Billy Bunter books were always top of my list of requests.
Since discovering this hidden cache of childhood memories, I have enjoyed reading all the Billy Bunter stories again and even after such a long time has elapsed, I still found myself laughing out loud at his antics although I have to admit that Frank Richard’s writing style now seems very dated and is definitely non-PC.
Those of a similar age to me will almost certainly remember the hugely successful BBC television series ‘Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School’ with its theme tune of ‘Portsmouth’ played on a wobbly organ that was broadcast from 1952 to 1961 in seven series totalling 52 episodes. A few of these episodes are still available on YouTube but most were sadly erased and recorded over. Watching them again only serves to confirm that despite the wooden acting of the ‘schoolboys’, the stilted dialogue and static camerawork how brilliantly Gerald Campion was cast as Bunter. Other child actors who appeared in the series as schoolboys and went on to become stars in their own right include Anthony Valentine, Michael Crawford, Melvyn Hayes and Kenneth Cope.
This surfeit of nostalgic self-indulgence got me thinking; who was ‘Frank Richards,’ how had Gerald Campion, an adult actor, been chosen to depict Bunter on screen and furthermore, what was it about the books and the television series that the young me had found so enthralling? I decided to do some digging and find out.
Frank Richards (1876-1961)
Charles Harold St. John Hamilton is generally acknowledged to be the most prolific writer ever in the English language having written an estimated 100 million words in his lifetime, most of which were school stories. He wrote about Greyfriars as ‘Frank Richards’; St Jim’s as ‘Martin Clifford’ and Rookwood as ‘Owen Conquest’. Hamilton was born and raised in a modest household in Ealing where he attended a private school and learned classical Greek among other subjects. He is mostly remembered for his school stories which appeared in ‘The Gem’ from 1907 onward, (St. Jim’s featuring Tom Merry and Co.) and ‘The Magnet’ from 1908 (Greyfriars featuring Billy Bunter and ‘The Famous Five’ who are not to be confused with the Enid Blyton characters of the same collective name).
Hamilton was particularly active during the 1930s but with the closure of The Gem in 1939 and The Magnet in 1940 due to wartime paper shortages, his work dried up. Following an interview in The London Evening Standard, Hamilton who wrote under at least 25 pen names was recognised as the author of the Greyfriars stories but he was prevented from recommencing them as Amalgamated Press would not release the copyright. He was granted permission to write his school stories again in 1946 when he launched into the hardback book market with ‘Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School’ that appeared in September 1947. Hamilton continued writing further Greyfriars, St. Jim’s and Rookwood stories and also wrote all 52 episodes of the BBC television Bunter series until his death in 1961 at the age of 85.
Hamilton though once briefly engaged never married. His principal interests were studying the Latin poets Horace and Virgil (to whose Aeneid he constantly refers in the Greyfriars books,) Greek, and modern languages. He also travelled frequently to Monte Carlo to indulge his passion for gambling in the casinos.
Gerald Theron Campion (1921 – 2002)
On the face of it, Gerald Campion was an unlikely choice for the television role of Billy Bunter, an overweight 14-year old schoolboy, as in 1952 he was not only a 29-year old father of two but also weighed less than 12 stone. It was almost by accident that Campion was chosen when after a series of unsuccessful auditions that had left the programme’s producer Joy Harrington desperate, a friend of hers suggested Campion, an actor who was having difficulty finding work. The friend had seen Campion working behind the bar at ‘The Buckstone’, near the Haymarket Theatre in Suffolk Street, London, a theatrical club of which Campion was joint owner and manager. Harrington later commented that immediately she saw Campion she knew that she had found her Bunter although at first he was reluctant to accept the role for fear of being typecast. Eventually, due to his strained financial circumstances, Campion relented although he was fully aware of the risk he was taking.
Wearing a heavily padded school uniform and trademark round glasses and with a centre parted hairstyle with two curls that often looked like devil’s horns, Campion became an overnight star appearing as Billy Bunter for ten years in what originally were live broadcasts that were repeated (live again) two hours later.
As he had predicted, Campion’s acting career was hampered by Bunter although he did appear in such films as Carry on Sergeant (1958), School for Scoundrels (1960), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Half a Sixpence (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). He also appeared in episodes of Dr Who, Minder, Sherlock Holmes and the Kenny Everett Show.
A successful restaurateur and hotelier, Gerald Campion retired due to ill health in 1991 ending his days in Agen in southwest France in 2002 aged 81.
One of my great regrets is that I never met the man who played Bunter when I had the chance. When I moved to the New Forest as an environmental health officer in 1981 Gerald Campion owned The Pine Trees Hotel in Sway where it would have been easy for me to accompany the district EHO on a routine food hygiene inspection of his kitchens. My colleague cautioned me however that Mr Campion had a reputation for being a bit of an ‘awkward customer’ who resented authority so I decided that I’d rather preserve my memories of him as the superb character actor of my childhood rather than as just another grumpy old hotelier.
The Billy Bunter Books Revisited
So what was it about the Bunter books that had so captivated a typical ten-year old from a two-up two-down terraced house in a Northern back street in the late 1950s? At the time I didn’t give it a moment’s thought; it was simply a case of being accepted into a safe and privileged world with its own distinctive culture, language, rituals and codes of behaviour. It was pure escapism. In this make believe world, 14-15 year old boys lived for the most part autonomously except when under the direct supervision of the masters and prefects, provided of course that they obeyed the school rules and at all times behaved like young gentlemen.
The fictional Greyfriars School founded in the 1540s by Henry VIII is located somewhere in Kent about a mile from the imaginary coastal fishing port of Pegg. The nearest inland towns are Friardale and Courtfield to which the boys often walk or cycle thus providing opportunities for plot developments to occur. It is hard to tell during which decade the stories are meant to be set but according to George Orwell in a brilliant essay largely critical of Frank Richards’ writing that appeared in ‘Horizon’ magazine in 1940,
“The year is 1910, or 1940, it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars. A rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh tailor-made clothes is sitting down to tea in your study on the Remove passage, after an exciting game of football which was won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cosy fire in your study; outside the wind is whistling, the ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stone, the King is on his throne, and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating; but the grim grey battleships of the British Fleet are steaming up the Channel, and at the outposts of Empire the monocled Englishmen are holding the niggers at bay. Lord Mauleverer has just got another fiver and we are settling down to a tremendous tea of sausages, sardines, crumpets, potted meat, jam and doughnuts. After tea, we shall sit round the study fire having a good laugh at Billy Bunter and discussing the team for next week’s match against Rookwood. Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever. That approximately is the atmosphere.”
Source:Boys’ Weeklies 1939
Having said that, ‘Billy Bunter’s Bargain’ written in 1958 involves a character that Richards refers to as a ‘Teddy Boy,’ a decidedly 1950s cultural phenomenon, although nothing else in the story even hints at a contemporary setting.
There are seven forms at Greyfriars but the fourth form around which the stories revolve is strangely divided into three – the Lower 4th under Mr Quelch which is always referred to as ‘The Remove,’ the 4th form itself and ‘The Shell’ or Upper 4th form, masters’ names unknown. Oddly, there is no House system at the school so sporting rivalries tend to be between Greyfriars, St Jim’s, Rookwood and other boarding schools of which there are many in the vicinity. The form masters teach most of their class’s subjects themselves except for French, Mathematics and Sports which are taught by specialist teachers. This is confusing because in the Remove all of their class time seems to be spent studying Latin about which Mr Quelch is passionate.
“Quelch had settled down in his study with a volume of Lucretius to keep him company. T. Lucretius Carus, with the celebrated Lachman’s Latin notes on the same, was the kind of company Quelch enjoyed, in his hours of leisure – a taste that certainly was not shared by a single member of his form!”
(from ‘French Leave’ in Billy Bunter’s Own 1958 Oxenhoath Press.)
There is a suggestion that Mr Quelch might occasionally teach history as Bunter has been known to reply, ‘The Battle of Hastings 1066, Sir’, when suddenly awoken during a Latin lesson by a shout of ‘Bunter!’ (‘Backing up Bunter’ (1956) BBC)
Other academic and non-academic staff who regularly appear or are referred to in the stories are Dr Locke M.A. (Oxon) the Headmaster; M. Charpentier the French master known by the boys as ‘Mossoo’; Mr Prout the 5th form master who, like Mr Quelch is passionate about Latin verse; Gosling the school porter and Trotter the school page. There is little if any reference to a matron, kitchen workers, cleaning staff, school administrators, gardeners or handymen.
There are 14 shared fourth form studies although only those occupied by Remove pupils tend to get a mention. The boys dine communally in hall for breakfast and dinner but when funds are available they prefer to take tea in their studies. When not at lessons pupils spend their time on the sports fields, in the cricket nets, in their studies doing ‘prep’ and in the common room which at Greyfriars is known as the ‘Rag’. They sleep in communal dormitories.
While literally hundreds of characters appeared in the magazines, by the 1940s the Greyfriars stories concentrated on the exploits of ‘The Famous Five.’ The leader of this group is Harry Wharton who, having been orphaned at a young age is being raised by his uncle and guardian Colonel Wharton who is himself an old boy of Greyfriars and one of the school governors. Young Wharton is 4th Form Captain and Form Head Boy and constantly displays leadership potential. Oddly though, many of the plots seem to centre around Wharton, the most unlikely of candidates, being given ‘lines’ or ‘impots’ by Mr Quelch as a punishment for some unspecified infringement of the rules. Wharton’s best friend is Frank Nugent and these two share Study No. 1 with the boisterous and impetuous Bob Cherry. The remaining two members of the group are Johnny Bull, a pragmatic fellow from Yorkshire much given to the use of the expression, ‘I told you so,’ and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipur known to his chums as ‘Inky’ because of his skin colour.
Singh is an interesting but improbable character. His name suggests that he is of mixed Hindu/Parsi/Sikh lineage while at the same time being a Muslim. ‘Inky’ also has a most peculiar way of mangling the English language with such sentences as, “Let dogs delight in the barkfulness and bitefulness, but the soft answer is the cracked pitcher that goes longest to a bird in the bush, as the English proverb remarks,” and ”The thickfulness was altogether too terrific, but the esteemed and idiotic Wharton will not improve matters by going off at the deep end.” Although Richards has been criticised for racism in his use of this character, Singh is nevertheless treated as an equal and respected member of the Famous Five; he is an accomplished cricketer and enjoys greater popularity in the school than Bunter. Doubtless he was written into the stories in what now seems like a clumsy attempt at humour.
The school captain and head prefect is George Bernard Wingate who epitomises the ideal product of the school’s ethos. He is universally liked and respected and performs his prefect role in a just and fair manner. He is a brilliant footballer and cricketer and always has a kind word of encouragement for junior boys. The ‘villains’ of the school are Gerald Loder a 6th form prefect who is simply a bully and far too ready to use his ‘ash plant’ to administer six to the posterior of anyone who displeases him. Coker of the 5th is a large youth full of his own importance who is constantly looking for Bunter to give him a kicking for taking food from his study. Herbert Vernon-Smith the ‘sportsman’ of the Remove is a bit of a cad; he is from a very wealthy family and because of his habit of ‘breaking bounds’ to put bets on dog and horse races through Joe Banks the bookmaker whom he meets in local pubs, is known as ‘The Bounder’. Despite this, Vernon-Smith is an excellent team player who can be very generous. Like Wharton, he too often displays leadership qualities. The ‘toff’ of the Remove is Lord Herbert Mauleverer of Mauleverer Towers in Hampshire. ‘Mauly,’ a millionaire in his own right, is unaffected by his great wealth and is always willing to help a friend in need. He is a boxer of some distinction.
Surprisingly, considering that most of the stories were written in the inter-war years, there is no mention of a school cadet force or Officer Training Corps despite the public schools being a principal recruiting ground for the officer classes during The Great War. The war had claimed the lives of a fifth of all the public schoolboys who excitedly but naively rushed to ‘do their bit’ in 1914 and mentally scarred both those that survived and the masters who had educated them. The fair sex also play no part in the Bunter stories which is odd considering the testosterone heavy atmosphere of an enclosed community of healthy, pubescent teenage boys. The Famous Five do occasionally cycle over to Cliff House to have tea with Peter Hazeldene’s sister Marjorie on whom they appear to have a collective schoolboy crush, but that’s as far as it goes.
The strangest omission in a series of school stories in an age obsessed with GCSE and A Level results is the complete absence of references to academic success, end of year and national examinations, scholarships, exhibitions, awards and Oxbridge places. However, in his autobiographical ‘Goodbye to All That’ that first appeared in 1929, the poet Robert Graves who had won a scholarship to Charterhouse did recall bitterly that,
“the eleventh man in the football eleven, though he might be a member of the under-fourth form, enjoyed far more prestige than the most brilliant scholar in the sixth”
So perhaps Frank Richards was accurately reflecting what was considered important in a public school environment?
William George ‘Billy’ Bunter
Originally, Bunter was intended only as a minor character first ‘invented’ according to Richards in 1899. He made his initial appearance in print in 1908 in ‘The Gem’. The character quickly became very popular with the readership and soon became the central figure in the Greyfriars stories. William George is the son of an unsuccessful stockbroker who lives at Bunter Villa which Bunter always refers to as ‘Bunter Court’ with its supposed host of servants and imaginary fleet of Rolls Royces and chauffeurs. His sister Bessie resembles him both in looks and stature and is a pupil at nearby Cliff House girls’ school while Bunter’s younger brother Sammy is in the 1st form at Greyfriars but seldom appears in the stories.
Bunter, who is generally referred to as ‘the fat owl of the Remove’ on account of the large round glasses through which he blinks constantly, has few redeeming features and is an unlikely ‘hero’ for a series of school stories. He is idle, self-centred, delusional and above all greedy. He also steals other boys’ ‘tuck’ whenever they are foolish enough to leave it lying around in their unoccupied studies. This is never referred to as theft only as ‘snooping tuck’ and the worst that happens is for Bunter to receive a kick up his ample backside upon receipt of which he invariably runs around shouting, ‘Yarooooh! Gerroff, you beast!’ But while Bunter makes free with other people’s food without giving it a second thought he would never take money or personal property and on the rare occasions that he does find himself in funds he can be very generous. Strangely, while every other boy in the school wears grey flannel trousers and an ordinary necktie, Bunter, for some unknown reason is always depicted wearing extravagantly chequered trousers and a bow tie. His main redeeming feature is his genuine love for his mother.
Lack of funds is a recurring theme in Bunter’s existence. He is perpetually expecting a postal order from his pater that never materialises and against which he tries to extract loans from his form mates, usually without success. He is adept at turning up unexpectedly whenever a group of boys is planning a feast in their study usually with the catchphrase introductory remark, ‘I say you fellows…..’ Gerald Campion was later to comment that he was haunted by the phrase along with Bunter’s cry of ‘Yarooooh’ which passers-by would shout at him in the street long after the television series had ended.
The Greyfriars Stories
In the stories Bunter always saves the day in some unexpected way, be it winning a crucial cricket match against a rival school by swiping out blindly at the last ball of the final over and scoring an improbable boundary, or accidentally solving a crime for Inspector Grimes of the local constabulary. He has a remarkable talent for mimicry, which Richards wrongly and persistently refers to as ventriloquism and the plots often involve him imitating Mr Quelch or Colonel Wharton’s voice with the inevitable confusion that results.
Other comedic devices include conversations between Bunter and his study mate Tom Dutton who is profoundly deaf and invariably misunderstands what is being said to him. Bunter also has a habit of implicating himself in misdemeanours when being questioned on an entirely unrelated matter. This takes the form of, ‘It wasn’t me, Sir. I never went near Coker’s study and when I was there I didn’t know that there was a bag of doughnuts in his cupboard and anyway if I did, I didn’t take them and eat them in the Quad, Sir. Oh Crikey!’
The stories are full of what today would be referred to as ‘fat-shaming’ with Bunter always being referred to by his form mates as ‘old fat man’, ‘you fat freak’, ‘you fat, frabjous, footling porpoise’ and so on. The worst Bunter ever calls anyone even after receiving a whopping from him is an emphatic ‘Beast!’
A typical story involves much misunderstanding and some chance encounter that leads to the unexpected righting of a wrong by Bunter. In ‘Billy Bunter’s Brainwave’ for example, Bunter innocently for once overhears a conversation regarding a rotten trick planned to remove Wingate from the school temporarily in order to prevent him from playing in an upcoming football match so paving the way for the plotter (Loder) to take his place. The problem is that on past form, no one will believe Bunter or give him a chance to explain believing him to have been eavesdropping which contravenes the school’s code of acceptable behaviour. His brainwave is to write it all down and have Harry Wharton witness the contents and date before sealing the letter and having him lock it away in a drawer. Bunter explains that when the misleading telephone call arrives, Wharton is to give the sealed letter to Wingate. This saves the day, the match is won and good old Bunter is rewarded with a cake by a grateful Wingate.
So far as I am aware, only four episodes of the television programme have survived and are available on YouTube. Fortunately ‘Double Bunter’ is one of them. This was the episode of which Gerald Campion was most proud as it allowed him to demonstrate his acting talents by playing not only his usual role but that of Bunter’s ‘twin cousin’ Wally who is a scholar and despite having a physique identical to Bunter’s is an all-round athlete of some prowess. The quality of the recording is not good but it is watchable and really brings back those happy childhood memories of a time when our world seemed much less complicated and so full of promise. If you fancy half an hour’s gentle escapism, here’s a link to Mr Campion’s own favourite episode.
Now, what did I do with that other box of books?
© text & images except where indicated Tom Pudding 2020