Many years ago, I inherited a few books from my brother. They were Spike Milligan’s war diaries (which included, within the first ten pages, my first sight of the ‘C’ word) and a couple of the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. I was hooked instantly, despite not really understanding the setting, a public (i.e. fee-paying and therefore effectively private) and pretty grotty boarding school. I come from an area of the UK, and from a generation, that don’t remember grammar schools or comprehensives, and private boarding schools were financially, academically, and (I can now claim) politically out of my reach.
Despite this, I immediately fell for the mispellings, bizarre imaginative inventions, dark humour, and descriptions of Nigel Molesworth’s fellow schoolboys (Peason, Fotherington-Thomas, and who could forget Grabber, the “head of the skool, captane of everything and winner of the mrs joyful prize for raffia work”) and the masters. Geoffrey Willans’ hilarious and subtle writing (in the first person from the perspective of our hero Nigel) coupled with Ronald Searle’s scratchily detailed drawings of sullen boys, crows, the school dog and the assemblage of crooks and thugs that run the school, made sure I tracked down the books I didn’t have.
The books (now available in a single volume) are understandably popular with many BBC, governmentÂ and literary types, and they may be accused of being over-praised in some quarters. Thomas Jones in the London Review Of Books thinks so – but that is more a criticism of the foreword writers than the books themselves.
The BBC connection goes deeper. Radio 4 did a dramatisation, or some kind of radio adapation, of the books a few years ago, and I can’t really remember much about it, apart fom the fact they got the voice of Nigel Molesworth completely wrong. They gave him a breathlessly naÃ¯ve voice, while everyone knows he would have had a wry cynical tone. I’m surprised they didn’t get Geoffrey McGivern to play him with a lisp.
There is another famous fictional boarding school with bizarre goings on, described in a series of popular books. It was only a matter of time before somebody wrote some Harry Potter/Nigel Moleworth Fan Fiction.