Monday, February 5, 2007

Billy Bunter Of Greyfriars School (BBC) 9th September 1956

Well, interesting stuff keeps coming out the archives and one cannot get a more violent contrast between the "Star Test" show from 1989 and what we feature today from September 1956... an episode of "Billy Bunter Of Greyfriars School".

Billy Bunter was the creation of Frank Richards aka Charles Hamilton. Richards wrote Bunter stories prolifically for a few "boys magazines" between 1926 up till his death in 1961. Basically about the life and goings on in a public school, Bunter was a classic comedy creation. An overweight buffoon, overfond of food, Bunter was forever getting into and scheming his way out of trouble.

In 1953, the BBC decided to make a television serial of Bunter. Frank Richards himself wrote all the scripts and the series ran until his death in 1961. Seven series were made in all alongside 3 specials. Of course, these were all broadcast live. What's more, it was so popular with both children and adults, it would be shown twice in the same day. Again, these "repeats" would most certainly had been live. I am unsure of the archive status of the show... I cannot imagine very much was ever recorded in the first place, but there appears to be a handful of episodes in existence.

Entitled "Backing Up Bunter" we have a lengthy bit of scene setting where one by one we are introduced to Bunters chums in class struggling with Latin. Now... its worth noting that none of these schoolboys were actually played by children... some look noticeably old! Gerald Campion the man playing Bunter was 31 when this episode was broadcast! I mention this because there was a lot of criticism levelled at "Please Sir!" for the fact the children were played by notable adults, but it seems to have been tradition.

We see Bunter fast asleep, suddenly waking up and fibbing that he was in fact concentrating very hard. Its the first lie of many Bunter tells here and its immediately apparent that Bunter is a terrible liar.

Bunter is summoned to the headmasters office to take a phone call from his father who explains that his secretary will be in the area and would be dropping by the school to give Bunter and chums a ride in his car. Bunter weasels his chums into completing his 200 lines he's due to give the headmaster in exchange for a ride. But, the car fails to show so Bunter is given the bumps.

A few days later, Bunter receives a letter from his father informing him that his secretary had vanished with not just the car but also £5000 of his savings. Meanwhile, Bunter is again summoned to the headmaster who has also had a letter from Bunter's father informing him that he will no longer be able to afford his tuition fees, so Bunter is told he will have to sit a bunch of final exams and Bunter freaks out at the thought of leaving and having to get a real job.

The headmaster informs Bunter that he must revise or at least help his father to find the stolen money or else... From this point on till almost the end of the show, Bunter whinges and whines away to himself, forever proclaiming "Oh 'Lor!"... now you know where that phrase probably originated!

Bunter explains the situation to his chums who decide to back him up and try and help find the thief. They recall seeing a strange man at a nearby cottage who had abusingly turned them all away, so in revenge, one of them decides to return to the cottage to squirt the guy with ink! Now there's a real sign of the times! Nowadays, they'd gang up and smash the cottage and the guys head to pieces so the thought of getting revenge by squirting ink is very antiquated but cute in its own funny way.

Bunter tries to revise for Latin but dozes off and his chums return to the cottage. The owner gets squirted and as he wipes off the ink, its revealed he is wearing a wig and fake beard and lo and behold, its Bunters' fathers' secretary! He is held down whilst one of the lads goes off to fetch the police.

Back at Greyfriars, Bunter wakes up and gets very shirty as his chums attempt to tell him what had happened. Eventually Bunter listens and realising he can now stay at the school, the exams are not necessary and in celebration, the test papers are tossed about like confetti and the show ends.

As is becoming evident, closing titles have a tendency to throw up surprises. Evidently, Melvyn Hayes is somewhere in the episode but then comes the real surprise...

Yes, the one and only Tony Hart some 20 years before the "Take Hart" show I featured recently! Its weird to think 20 years earlier he was drawing cartoons for shows like this!

For a production that's over 50 years old, it is naturally a bit on the slow side and rather dialogue heavy, but it does retain its capacity to amuse. Gerald Campion was forever typecast as Bunter and played a sinister version in 1966 for the final episode of Doctor Whos' "The Celestial Toymaker". He is very funny in the part... very exaggerated but he really did bring Bunter to life brilliantly.

The screen captures here are actually better than the source material. Its not a good copy and has a horrible green tinge throughout but I was able to filter out all colour and see it in its native black and white. Telerecordings were still in their infancy at this time but considering, I'd guess the original film looks fairly good. Pity about the time code thats present throughout but its still a rare chance to actually see an early piece of TV history. This show has gone down in BBC history as one of the earliest children's shows and it remains fondly remembered to this day. Surely a DVD release of all the existing episodes is in order but whether we'll ever see it or not remains to be seen since I would guess the market for such a release today would be rather small, but hey... its historical TV and it deserves to be given its rightful place in history.

For more on the history, life and times of Frank Richards and Billy Bunter check out this excellent page.

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