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8 - BROADCASTING BUNTER
In early 1949, the Yorkshire Evening Post featured a report that a plea had been written to the BBC "for a ‘Radio Yaroo’ programme." The hook, as far as the reporter was probably concerned, was that Mr. and Mrs. W. F. Sawyer, of Seacroft, were both almost blind, and had written the letter in Braille. 50-year-old Mr. Sawyer was still a keen follower of Greyfriars, although he ostensibly bought the new books for his 14-year-old son, Wilfred.
Sawyer has earlier persuaded Charles Hamilton that there was a market for Bunter in Braille – and Hamilton had duly produced some stories a couple of years earlier – but in this instance, Sawyer’s request fell on deaf ears. The BBC replied that they did not contemplate broadcasting old Billy Bunter stories … but all was not lost. The BBC Home Service did broadcast a programme based on E. S. Turner’s Boys Will Be Boys in early April 1949 which included a segment on Bunter – as did the book, published by Michael Joseph in 1948.
But the idea seemed to be planted, and Cavalcade (16 April 1949) announced that a former BBC Drama producer, Felix Felton, was "to adapt for radio schoolboy stories of the Gem, Magnet and Union Jack type. Teen-age readers may not be quite so familiar with the famous characters associated with these stories," the report continued, "but find me a middle-aged man who has never heard of Billy Bunter or D’Arcy and I’ll show you a dull fellow."
Even more startling was the news that Ted Kavanagh – probably best-remembered for his radio comedy scripts for ITMA – was thinking of translating the idea to television.
Whether this was the seed that eventually grew into Bunter on TV or one of many false-starts for transferring Bunter to … well, any size screen. Hamilton had discussed writing Bunter for the cinema more than once, and it seems likely that he had been approached by television producers before.
At last, in May 1951 it was confirmed that Bunter was finally to make his way onto the small screen as part of the BBC’s Children’s Hour. The Daily Mail for 6 June gave fans an even bigger boost when it announced that Frank Richards himself would be writing he script and that a Greyfriars set was being built at Alexandra Palace. Progress was slow, Hamilton complaining in July "There are so many people to be considered and consulted that progress is slow." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 11 July 1951), and indeed it wasn’t until December 3rd that auditions were held for 50 youngsters who had designs on playing the famous fat Owl of the Remove.
This was front page news for the Daily Mirror, with columnist Ian Mackey devoting his ‘diary’ to the event. The Daily Telegraph managed half a column, and Reynolds News a cartoon the following Sunday. "It was apparent that all the news hawks had known their Greyfriars even though Ian Mackey surprisingly made Bunter speak through the mouth of Inky," wrote Herbert Leckenby in Collectors’ Digest (Vol.6 No.61, p14). "They all wrote light-heartedly. looking upon the coming of Bunter to the television screen as a good lark."
The hard-core of Hamiltonians were, however, a little more cautious when discussing the upcoming show, but then, they were used to speaking bluntly and speaking volumes – as Ian Mackey discovered, deluged by letters correcting his mistake: "This bit about Billy Bunter has opened the gates of Acheron and all hell is loose upon me," he noted in a later ‘diary’ entry, promptly bringing down the wrath of Hamiltonia again by talking about Mr. Quelch, headmaster of Greyfriars.
But, as Hamilton noted, "even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea!" and out of the plump hopefuls a young actor was engaged to play the role. But his reign was only brief – he backed out at the last minute before the announcement could be made. Producers of the show quickly recanted on the idea of getting a physically correct actor and instead announced on January 28th, 1952, that Bunter was to be played by 29-year-old, father of two Gerald Campion. But – horror! – Campion was not built in the same dimensions as the famous William George Bunter, pointed out the newspapers. Not to worry, said producer Joy Harington, who considered an underweight Bunter who could act worth two overweight Bunters who couldn’t. Campion’s lack could be put right with the application of a false stomach.
The best news, as far as Old Boys were concerned, was that the show – initially to appear only at 5.25 as part of Children’s Hour – was now to be repeated later in the evening, at eight o’clock when it could be enjoyed by older children, rested from work and with a good dinner under their belts.
What met their eyes was Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, and it left most people with mixed feelings. Reviews published over the next few weeks agreed that Gerald Campion was on the whole a successful choice, lacking only the boisterousness of Bunter; Kynaston Reeves (a long-time character actor usually cast in the role of Sir, Dr., Gen., Judge, or Rev. somebodyorother) came close in most minds to Mr. Quelch, although crueller voices whispered that he was closer to Hacker than Quelch; but the other roles were played without any feeling or colour … Hurree Singh and Bob Cherry were singled out for repeating familiar catch-phrases without the slightest expression.
This was in sharp contrast to the opinion of their creator who thought the first show "remarkably good, and the production was as near perfect as anything could be. Gerald Campion was Bunter to the life, and I half-expected Mr. Quelch to step out of the screen, he was so much alive. I had a very happy half-hour viewing, and am looking forward with much anticipation to the rest of the series." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 21 February 1952)
On February 18th, the day before Bunter’s debut, Charles Hamilton had appeared shortly before close down in a short filmed interview alongside former Magnet artist C. H. Chapman and producer Joy Harington. The film was shot at Rose Lawn and included a view of the outside of the house, although most of the film was taken inside Hamilton’s study, where Hamilton (or Frank Richards, as he was called) related how he had created Bunter by amalgamating three people: a relative who was always waiting for a cheque, a rather round editor at the Amalgamated Press from whom Bunter earned his girth, and a famous (unnamed) Victorian (in later tellings, this latter was replaced by another relative who used to peer through his spectacles like an owl).
Chapman pointed out how each of the boys had different characteristics (it is worth noting that it was Chapman who gave Bunter larger glasses – emphasising the ‘Owl’ – and his famous cheque trousers, two of Bunter’s most notable visual characteristics).
Hamilton himself was as enthusiastic about his own appearance as he was with the Bunter show: "Perhaps you may have seen the classic features of the Oldest Inhabitant on TV last Monday?" he enquired of Herbert Leckenby (Letter, 21 February 1952). "As you know the Bunter plays began on Tuesday; as a sort of preliminary canter, F.R. was put on TV on Monday evening. I sat back in my armchair, watched myself on the screen, and listened to my own dulcet tones, with a pleasure which – I hope – may have been shared by others. This is the first time I have appeared on television, and it was quite a joyous occasion."
The live performance of the shows (at 5.25 and 8.00 pm) means that none of the first series of shows survives, and one must rely on contemporary accounts for opinion on the show – which seems to be that over the period of the six weeks it appeared, the show steadily improved from a shaky start, although Jonah Barrington of the Sunday Chronicle thought Bunter was the greatest TV character since Muffin the Mule (!).
According to Lofts & Adley (p150): "There was, sadly, a certain emptiness about the sets, and it does seem that the plays were produced on a shoestring budget. Apart from the Famous Five, Bunter and one or two other characters, the school seemed completely deserted. A few boy extras would have done wonders to recreate the hustle and bustle of a real school.
"Nevertheless, the TV series was watched by children, for that was its main purpose, and even if adults did cringe it most certainly furthered the claim that Bunter was the world’s most famous schoolboy and Frank Richards the greatest living school writer…
"The second Bunter series on TV was much better than the first. The production team had obviously learned a little from the first six episodes. This time there was a new cast to portray The Famous Five, and Gerald Campion had improved tremendously, and actually looked and acted the part. This was easily the best performance he had given in his acting career until that time."
As well as writing the show, Hamilton received half the copyright money paid by the BBC (the other half going to the Amalgamated Press); in 1952 he used part of the proceeds to buy himself his first television confiding in Jack Wark "It is a wonderful thing – really wonderful – to have football matches brought into one’s own home: I am going to enjoy that thoroughly: and the cricket is coming. To whisper a secret, I am looking forward to this more than to Bunter." (quoted in Cadagan, p218-19).
Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School
Note: a double asterisk after the original broadcast date indicates that the episode no longer exists in the BBC archive. An updated summery of missing episodes can be foundhere.
Produced by Joy Harrington.
Stars: Kynaston Reeves (Mr. Quelch); John Charlesworth (Harry Wharton); Keith Faulkner (Bob Cherry); Barry Macgregor (Johnny Bull); David Spenser (Hurree Jamset Ram Singh); Michael Danvers-Walker (Frank Nugent); John Rutherford (Vernon-Smith); John Quayle (Peter Todd); Cavan Malone [and later Michael Croudson] (Lord Mauleverer); Philip Guard (Skinner); John Osborne (Wingate); Edward Lexy (Mr. Prout); Christopher Hodge (Gosling); John Stuart (Dr. Locke).
The Siege (19 Feb 1952)**
The Report (26 Feb 1952)**
Bunter’s Christmas Party (4 Mar 1952)**
Bunter’s Postal Order (11 Mar 1952)**
Bunter’s Bicycle (18 Mar 1952)**
A Piece of Cake (25 Mar 1952)**
Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School (7 Jul 1953) [Ronald Adam (Quelch); Henry Searle (Wharton)]
Bunter Won’t Go (1 Jul 1954) [Kynaston Reeves (Quelch); Henry Searle (Wharton)]
Stars: Raf de la Torre (Mr. Quelch); John Charlesworth (Harry Wharton).
Bunter on the Run (9 Jul 1955)**
Bunter the Hypnotist (23 Jul 1955)**
Lord Billy Bunter (6 Aug 1955)**
Bunter Forgot (20 Aug 1955**; repeated on 16 Jan 1956)
Bunter Takes the Blame (3 Sep 1955**; repeated on 3 Feb 1956)
Bunter Knows How (17 Sep 1955**; repeated on 20 Jul 1956)
Produced by Shaun Sutton.
Stars: Kynaston Reeves (Mr. Quelch); Anthony Valentine (Harry Wharton).
Backing Up Bunter (9 Sep 1956; repeated as Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, 8 Jun 1957, and as Backing Up Bunter, 13 Jul 1957)
Bunter the Bold (16 Sep 1956; repeated on 15 Jun 1957)
Billy Bunter’s Double (23 Sep 1956; repeated as Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, 21 Jun 1957)
Hunting Bunter (30 Sep 1956)
Bunter on the Warpath (7 Oct 1956; repeated on 29 Jun 1957)
Bunter’s Christmas Box (14 Oct 1956)
Billy Bunter at Large (12 Mar 1957; also broadcast as Bullseye for Bunter)
Produced by Pharic Maclaren.
Stars: Kynaston Reeves (Mr. Quelch); Anthony Valentine (Harry Wharton).
Beastly for Bunter (20 Jul 1957)**
Bunter Does His Best (3 Aug 1957)**
Bad Lad Bunter! (10 Aug 1957)**
Bunter Keeps it Dark (17 Aug 1957)**
Bunter the Ventriloquist (31 Aug 1957; repeated on 29 Apr 1958)**
Produced by David Goddard.
Stars: John Woodnutt (Mr. Quelch); Richard Palmer (Harry Wharton).
Bunter’s Bargain (13 Jun 1959)**
Bunter’s Burglar (27 Jun 1959)
Phoney Bunter (11 Jul 1959)**
Bunter’s Birching (18 Jul 1959)
Bunter Spells Trouble (1 Aug 1959)**
Bunter’s Bulls-eye (15 Aug 1959)**
Treasure Hunter Bunter (29 Aug 1959)**
Bunter’s Bedtime Story (5 Sep 1959)**
Produced by Clive Parkhurst.
Stars: Jack Melford (Mr. Quelch); Julian Yardley (Harry Wharton); Peter Greenspan (Bob Cherry); Jonathan Margetts (Frank Nugent); Melvyn Baker (Johnny Bull); Brian Tipping (Hurree Jamset Ram Singh).
Bunter the Hypnotist (16 Jul 1960)
Brainy Bunter (30 Jul 1960)**
Lord Billy Bunter (13 Aug 1960)
Bunter’s Bicycle (27 Aug 1960)
Toffee-Hunter Bunter (10 Sep 1960)**
Bunter Won’t Go (17 Sep 1960)
Bunter’s Party (24 Sep 1960)**
Produced by Clive Parkhurst.
Stars: Jack Melford (Mr. Quelch); Julian Yardley (Harry Wharton).
Backing Up Bunter (20 May 1961)**
Bold Bunter (27 May 1961)**
Double Bunter (3 Jun 1961)**
Hunter Bunter (10 Jun1961)**
Stowaway Bunter (17 Jun 1961)**
Bunter Goes to Cairo (24 Jun 1961)**
Bunter Goes to Venice (1 Jul 1961)**
Bunter Goes to Naples (15 Jul 1961)**
Bunter Goes to Nice (22 Jul 1961)**
Bunter on Radio & Audio Books
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2 between July 13 and August 17, 1993. This series reunited the Goodies with Bill Oddie playing Bunter and Graham Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor in various roles.
Bunter the Hero (13 JUL 1993)
Billy Bunter Afloat (20 JUL 1993)
Billy Bunter on Trial (27 JUL 1993)
Billy Bunter in Brazil (3 AUG 1993)
Bunter’s Night Out (10 AUG 1993)
Chunkley’s Stories (17 AUG 1993)
Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School (CSA Telltapes, ISBN: 1873859570, 2 tapes, approx. 180 mins)
Billy Bunter’s Postal Order (CSA Telltapes, ISBN: 1901768112, 2 tapes, approx. 180 mins)
Read by Martin Jarvis. Both stories are approx. 3 hours apiece and were also released as a double pack containing the pair on 4 tapes. Published byCSA Telltapes. Reviewed by the Guardian thus: "Martin Jarvis gorges himself on the vocal opportunities and the gloriously un-PC beatings and fat-ism. Yaroo!"