Nothing’s That Funny

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When I was younger, so much younger than today (that sounds familiar…), I discovered the immortal Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St Custards, as any fule kno (chiz, chiz, chiz).
There were two books that I bought, published by Armada, Down with Skool and Whizz for Atomms, and I took a third book, How to be Topp away with me on holiday one year in the Lakes. It was a library book: in the week before a holiday I would be taken down the Library to select seven books, which I would read, one a night, whilst we relaxed at Low Bleansley, in the lounge.
Molesworth was the creation of schoolmaster and comic genius Geoffrey Willans, who died tragically young, having written four Molesworth books, the last of which (Back in the Jug Agane) was published posthumously. But Willans’ books were the joint work with another genius, cartoonist Ronald Searle, already famous for his St Trinians’ cartoons, without whom half the fun of the books would vanish instantly.
I remember sitting at the table, silently reading How to be Topp whilst the adults conversed. Or rather, not so silently reading, because every page was make me convulse in laughter, shrieking, howling laughter, to the point where Dad demanded I read some of this out, because nothing could be that funny. I tried to read the sentence that had sent me pealing away again, but of course he didn’t get it, and not only because I was having so much difficulty in trying to repeat the words on the page without laughing hysterically again.
Willans’ Molesworth books are related by Nigel Molesworth, the self-styled Curse of St Custards, a (very) minor public school. Regular characters include Grimes, the Headmaster, Head Boy Grabber Ma (short for Major, indicating that he has a younger brother also at St Custards), (Timothy) Peason, Molesworth’s great chum, Basil Fotherington-Thomas, a wet and a weed and a fairy-headed boy skipping around chanting ‘Hello Sky, Hello Trees’ etc, and Molesworth II, aka Nigel’s younger brother, player of the atomic bells and explosions version of the piano tune ‘Fairy Bells’.
Willans constructs a wonderfully jaundiced, schoolboy imagination oriented portrait of school and England in the early New Elizabethan era (Our Own Dear Queen ascended the throne in 1953, the year of the first Molesworth book), full of galloping imagination, slang, cynicism and sheer appalling spelling (but you’d guessed that last bit already, hadn’t you?).
By the time I discovered St Custards in the mid-Sixties, the books and the humour were a decade out of date but, like the Goons, it still exploded on sight, the first genuinely subversive humour I’d been exposed to, subversive and absurd yet completely in tune with my near-teenage mind. It was rebel humour, a rejection of the things my parents stood for, and it was gloriously, hilariously silly.
None of the books have any story in them: they are the equivalent of a sketch show, moving from moment to moment, at one point Molesworth daydreaming, at another pages of cartoons with the glorious Searle pinning down types of masters, parents, adults with economy and flair. I don’t know whether the captions to these gem-like portrayals were his or Willans’, but they are works of genius (even better if you understand the Latin tags!).
Recently, I discovered that comic writer Simon Brett had written two books in the late Eighties, updating Nigel’s story into his adult life, beginning with Molesworth Rites Again (his spelling hasn’t improved by all that much). Since it was available cheap, I ordered this to see how well, or otherwise, the highly skilled Mr Brett had managed to capture the flavour of the boy now he is a man, married to a GURL and with two children of his own.
When the book arrived, with illustrations from the late Willie Rushton replacing those of Ronald Searle, I had an immediate deja vu. I was sure I’d seen the book before, if I hadn’t read it. And reading the book, I found it familiar without actually remembering anything from it, which is unusual for me if I have read a book before.
Unfortunately, despite Mr Brett’s proven skills as a pastischeur, the book’s a complete bust, without a single funny line. Brett apes the Molesworth style admirably enough, without ever once making it work in its updated context, that of the Eighties, but in choosing to set the Curse of St Custard loose on the with it subjects de-nos-jours, he spectacularly misses the point behind Willans’ creation.
As pastiche’s go, Molesworth Rites Again suffers from the same underlying flaw of all pastiches: that they’re pastiches. Every single one of them is, by definition, the attempt by one writer to ape the style and thought of another writer, to the extent that they are near to indistinguishable from the original. Everybody wants ‘just one more’ Sherlock Holmes story, Philip Marlowe story, Flashman story. But the pasticheur is not Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler or George McDonald Fraser, nor is he Geoffrey Willans.
So when Brett attempts to write something in the Willans’ style, he cannot do so naturally. He must intellectually conceive of things that Geoffrey Willans might have said, whilst bending Willans’ natural ability to a setting the original writer never conceived of. There is an artificiality to the process that applies to every pastiche, no matter how brilliantly disguised.
Brett sets his book in Wimbledon, a good quarter century after the original books. Nigel is a fully-grown adult, married with children, employed (fruitlessly). St Custards is gone, not just metaphysically but literally: the School has ceased to exist. Everyone has grown up whilst being exactly as they were.
Take Basil Fotherington-Thomas. He is still a wet and a weed, but he’s a very successful one, a Solicitor, and making good money from it in accordance with the stereotype. He’s married, to a wet and a weed who is almost identical to his wet and weedy sister, and they all enthuse over natural foods, materials, homemade wines.
Grabber continues to be rich and own everything, and do nothing because he’s permanently on holiday. He has no personality whatsoever.
Molesworth 2, or Steve as we now must call him, is something disgusting in the music business, an out-and-out sleazeball. He has no personality whatsoever, either, and like Basil, he’s a walking cliché.
Nigel is married to Louise, in one of those stereotypical marriages where her determination to make him into something is in continual conflict with his urge to do bugger all except watch the TV and have a pint. It’s a set-up that blithely ignores the fact that, outside of two-dimensional fiction, there is not the slightest sign of any believable reason why Louise would have looked at him even once, let alone married him (as for having sex with him…)
Molesworth is a nobody without a real job, suffering from a Departmental Head who’s an openly acknowledged copy of former Headmaster Giles. It’s another satirical cliche of a job, with a big-titted dim-witted secretary with an Essex girl name wandering around so that Molesworth can leer unrealistically at her.
And Timothy Peason is still Nigel’s best mate. He’s the Molesworth who’s got it licked in the way Molesworth dreams of: young, big-titted, barely-clad wife, lots of sex, lets him do whatever he wants. It’s a male chauvinist dream: the marriage is perfect because Sharon Peason wants only the lowest common denominator things Peason (and Molesworth) want.
And do you know why it none of it works? It’s not because it’s totally lacking in any imagination, sparkle or originality (it’s very much like an Eric Chappell sitcom in that respect), though it suffers from every single one of those failings. It’s because Simon Brett has completely lost sight of what underpinned the original Molesworth books.
Nigel Molesworth was a recalcitrant, lazy, disruptive, but cynically perceptive schoolboy in the Fifties. In a time that was still expected to be moulded upon the lines of pre-War social structure and stricture. He went to a prep school and a public school, was taught Latin and Greek. He was being brought up to take his place in  a stratified world where people knew their place. And he broke it. The Molesworth books were deeply subversive. They took all manner of things that were established, and they sneered at them, mocked them, rejected them,described thesirdidness that lay underneath them.
Like the Goon Show, the Molesworth books were a challenge to authority, a refusal to admit to it, a dismissal of it. They gave me licence to laugh at things that were meant to be taken seriously. They were absurd, illogical, nonsensical, shapeless and mocking.
Not only does Brett clothe his updated versions in a contemporary world that could have no resemblance to what St Custards was supposed to inculcate, his mockery is directed at all the wrong targets. He makes fun of the anti-establishment, of the changes to the world that were part of the breaking down of that rigid, constrained, hide- and rule-bound world of the Fifties. This Molesworth is a drone, seeking refuge inside the system he mocked as hollow, shallow and purposelessly restrictive.
The update doesn’t work because all Brett does is take the surface and use it to paint pictures of what he, speaking from a position of superiority, deems worthy of mockery. It’s awful, and it lacks any generosity of heart or spirit, or warmth or life.
The book is illustrated, nothing like as profusely as the originals. The worst that can be said of Willie Rushton is that he is not Ronald Searle, an accusation common to many. He can hardly be blamed for not being that good, because nobody else was, either.
Back to the Compleat Molesworth, then.

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