26 February 2005 | Spondonman
You're either an all-out fan of the exploits of schoolboys Billy Bunter, Tom Merry, Jimmy Silver etc from the imagination of Frank Richards (Charles Hamilton) as I am, or you won't hope to understand the attraction at all. This is especially esoteric stuff because it relates to the Greyfriars school stories by characters and events but compared to the Master's writings this is water compared to wine. With the technical limitations of 1950's BBC (or ITV) live TV programmes it's not really surprising, even now when these plays could be handled so much better from an acting and production point of view one's own imagination is always the best place to replay a favourite story. Although the shows were centred on the perfectly cast Gerald Campion in the tour de force role of Billy Bunter, he's (luckily maybe) never intruded upon my imagination when reading any of the original stories.
Charles Hamilton (1876-1961) is in the Guinness Book of Records for having written more words in his lifetime than anyone else - the equivalent of 1000 full length novels. One of his many thousands of literary creations, Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School came to life in the Magnet, a weekly British boys story paper 1908-1940, and lived on in novels published 1947-1965 (although the last were ghosted by a substitute). Although incredibly popular and influential at the time over the years since the '60's his star has waned, partly thanks to the changing times, but mainly due to his non-promotion by indifferent rights owners. With the result that now hardly anyone under 50 years old has even heard of Billy Bunter. The TV shows ran throughout the '50's, a testament to just how popular the stories were. A testament to the modern BBC in their zealous endeavours to bury or alter modern perceptions of the past up until 1970 (in other words, pre-pc) is their continued refusal to even consider releasing any surviving episodes. Why not just have done and burn the tapes then, or is letting them rot in the cans the favoured cheaper option?
"Backing up Bunter" broadcast 9.9.56: Bunter has 200 lines to do for Quelch, but gets The Famous Five to help him write them out with the promise of a car ride later in the day for them all courtesy of his father's male secretary, Tregg. The car doesn't turn up, but what does is that Bunter's father has been robbed of £5000, Tregg has vanished, and a strange surly person has taken moved into a cottage close to the school.... The ancient school porter Gosling, appears in this as very helpful, around 50 years old with (thinning) black hair - not quite how most people would have imagined him! Richards had used variants of this plot from the Magnet story paper of the '10's to a hardback book in the '50's, so at the time both young and old would have been on familiar ground! The earlier series of these shows were performed live twice, once for the kids, then later in the evening for their Dads.
"Bunter on the Warpath" broadcast 7.10.56: A familiar story for devotees updated to include that new fangled invention, the wireless. Bunter given lines by Quelch plots revenge by stealing and temporarily hiding his Masters radio. Nasty pair Skinner and Snoop also given lines to do take revenge on Quelch by stealing and hiding his Beethoven gold medallion. The 2 threads converge into a satisfying denouement. Young Melvyn Hayes played Skinner to the life, and yet it seemed that all of his later roles were nice guys. Liberties of course were taken with the original stories, settings, even characters to fit into a live 30 minute TV play, but it was a job done well enough to get my moderate applause half a century later.
"Billy Bunter's Burglar" broadcast 27.6.1959: A much simplified re-tread of a favourite Magnet tale from 1928, where Bunter is snooping treacle in the middle of the night, in the dark bumps into the Fifth form master Mr. Prout, and punches him on the nose. Prout thinks that his obtuse and sometimes violent pupil, Coker, has committed the dastardly deed and has him marked for expulsion from Greyfriars.... This one has young David Hemmings miscast as a stuttering bespectacled George Potter and young Michael Crawford miscast as an unusually silent Johnny Bull, these two and everyone else revolving like admiring satellites around well cast thirty-something Campion as Bunter.
"Double Bunter" broadcast 3.6.1961: Basically a one-dimensional re-tread of a three-dimensional 1919 Richards story - Billy gets fed up at school and temporarily swaps places with his identical cousin Wally who's been staying nearby. What happens next is obvious to devotees, the character change in Billy amazes the natives. As it was broadcast live on TV, the 4 bits of film inserted into it meant valuable time for re-positioning etc! Campion as both of the Bunters was excellent and believable, even if playing the 15 year old Billy in his 30's. The rest of the "schoolboy" cast were pretty deplorable - they had to be as it was Campion's show from start to finish. John Melford as Mr. Quelch was the only big let down - much too soft and personable! Kynaston Reeves who had previously played him was miles better in the role, although by the end of his tenure in the role was losing interest and fluffing his lines a little. The BBC presented Campion with a 16mm copy of this episode when the shows finally ended in 1961.
To me and maybe about a thousand people around the world, wonderful garbage, to everyone else garbage. Isn't that enough people for the BBC or some company to release an expensive collectors edition DVD of the surviving episodes, as most of us fans would pay an awful lot of money to see these shows properly.