I suppose if I had to name my favourite children’s author it would have to be Richmal Crompton and the William stories, followed not far behind by Anthony Buckeridge and Jennings, and Enid Blyton with the adventures of the famous five. There are numerous others, of course, but I enjoyed reading these three the most when I was a child. Buckeridge, who died last year at the age of 92, was the subject of The Archive Hour: Fossilised Fish Hooks! Jennings at the BBC on Radio Four (Saturday), an affectionate tribute as well as an exploration of Buckeridge’s influence on radio comedy.
The presenter Miles Kington said that in returning to Jennings after all these years he was surprised to discover that, although the stories were full of schoolboy jokes and slang, they were very funny and cleverly plotted. The books are still in print, unlike other now-forgotten children’s writers of the past. The playwright Alan Ayckbourn felt that the Jennings stories were sunnier than, say, Billy Bunter and Greyfriars, which he thought contained an unpleasant, darker side. Ayckbourn had drawn some inspiration from Jennings when he was at his own prep school. He’d become fascinated by Jennings’s friend Darbishire, who gets him out of many scrapes, and wanted to play him in his own adaptation of Jennings at School, his first play, but at the last minute he fell ill and couldn’t take part. The novelist Jonathan Coe said that Buckeridge had been heavily influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, and reading them both you could see the stylistic similarities, a view also held by Valentine Cunningham, professor of English at Oxford. Coincidentally, both Wodehouse and Buckeridge went to work in banks after leaving school, only to realise soon that they weren’t bankers.
Denis Norden, a former scriptwriting partner of the late Frank Muir, is an admirer. He explained how when he was at his elementary school he and his friends would lap up public-school stories in the boys’ magazine Magnet, even though they were all from poor homes and their lives didn’t have the remotest connection to boarding schools. He’d always thought Buckeridge’s books were well plotted and the dialogue excellent. It is something of a phenomenon that British boarding school stories are so loved by people who’ve never been near one. Frank Richards knew that when he wrote the Bunter books and he hadn’t been to such a school either. I suspect that deep down most people — except the chippy and the usual class warriors familiar to us all — would love to have boarded themselves and find the whole thing fascinating. That’s why, to digress briefly, I don’t think David Cameron has anything to worry about for having been sent to Eton. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people wished they had, too.
Jennings actually began, of course, as a radio play, Jennings at School. In 1948, while a schoolmaster, Buckeridge sent it off to the BBC’s Children’s Hour on the radio. The producer liked it so much he suggested a series of six, and the Jennings cult began. Later he gave up schoolmastering to write full-time. He’d only been sent to boarding school in the first place — at the age of four — when his father was killed in the first world war, something, the waste particularly, that later in life made him depressed, contrasting as it did with his own success as a writer. According to his second wife Eileen, he came out of his depression when she bound his father’s moving letters home to his family. The bank where his father had worked felt duty-bound to educate the children of employees killed in the war; banks were, in those paternalistic days, nicer and kinder, as Kington put it.
It might have been the death of his father that turned Buckeridge into a life-long socialist, something that came as a surprise to his fans. After all, almost more than anyone else’s, his books promote private education. Two of his fans, the television journalist Michael Crick and his daughter Catherine, now 17, befriended him in later life, collecting Jennings first editions. She even set about analysing the jokes. According to them, Jennings is called Bennett in France and, for some reason, Stomper in Norway; I can’t vouch for the spellings. Crick was curious to know if Jennings was based on somebody, and Buckeridge told him that there was indeed a boy — called Jennings, no less — at his old school Seaford College who was often in trouble. Crick tracked him down to a nursing home in New Zealand and he had no idea that he’d been the inspiration. An enjoyable programme, but irritating at times in that the soundbites were sometimes so short it was difficult to identify who was speaking.