[10 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Books Editor
William Brown, leader of The Outlaws, exists in an England that never was and never could be. It is the England of (some people’s) recollections of childhoods as they would like them to be. Uncomplicated, eternal summers that were awash with picnics and outings, plentiful gracious adults to rely on when knees were scraped; bountiful, untroubled nature, and servants (for heaven’s sake!).
Richmal Crompton, a clergyman’s daughter from Lancashire in the North West of England, began her Just William stories after the end of the First World War, serialised in comics and magazines. There was the need for escapism and a return to childhood, or a version of childhood that distracted from the memory of the war. Universally, popular culture enjoyed a blossoming after 1918 and a diversification with the creation of multiple new genres in literature and film. Children’s literature of the variety produced by Crompton (and others such as AA Milne, Enid Blyton, et al) provided a false but satisfactory memory of assumed childhood experiences and was, for the next five decades or so of her career, a suitable fictional outlet to help entertain and distract from successively: economic depression, wartime, and post-war shortages.
Simon Nye, adapting some of the stories for this first series shown on the Children’s BBC strand in 2010, has opted for the ‘50s post-war setting to demonstrate a time of nostalgia and benign social distinctions. William, and his friends in The Outlaws: Douglas, Henry, and Ginger, sit in regimented rows in their school form and have a teacher who is readily exasperated by small boys and who tries to teach them about the ‘birds and bees’ by discussing – the birds and the bees. William’s elder brother attempts to be a rebel after seeing Brando in The Wild One at the local picture house. When asked by his mother ‘Robert, remind me what are you rebelling against?’ he even tries the line: ‘What have you got?’ Mr Brown reminds his sons, ‘Never trust a man named Marlon.’
Nye, who is the creator of the successful and long-running sitcom on British TV Men Behaving Badly (1992-1998), is unafraid to brandish wit and humour that can appeal to the adult in the audience alongside their children. This is an accomplished and utterly charming adaptation. It operates both as a period piece and a gentle social satire whilst having many innocent attractions for its target audience. Daniel Roche is very good as William. The risk with child actors is that they are sometimes very conscious of their cuteness, which can be misplaced. However, with this young cast there is an appropriate naturalism and lack of conscious ‘acting’; credit to the director Paul Seed.
This does not apply in the case of the character Violet-Elizabeth Bott (Isabella Blake-Thomas) who must be played with a conscious cuteness that is wholly misplaced. Exactly the right note of annoying, cloying attention seeking is found in her performance, especially when dressed as a fairy or Bo-Peep. When William leads her astray it is all the more amusing because the bubble of perfection has been burst. She, with Mr and Mrs Bott (Warren Clarke and Caroline Quentin) provide the perfect contrast to William and his family. The former are all vulgarity and nouveau-riche aspirations, the latter all domesticity and charm.
Aside from some of the more obvious difficulties with gender and class stereotyping (which Nye has toned down from the original texts) there is nevertheless an approachability about these short episodes that, thanks to excellent performances and visually appealing period detail and settings, helps to make them entertaining and engaging. They also offer the archetypes that still persist in renditions of childhood in popular culture. Notably the tousled headed catapult toting young ruffian, scourge of a neighbourhood and bane of his teacher’s life: see also Dennis the Menace (in comic book form from DC Thompson) and of course Bart Simpson.
Matt Groening has mentioned his indebtedness to Dennis, but William was the original before the ‘Beano’ writers got their hands on the character. If Dennis supplies the British with the rascal schoolboy from the ‘50s onwards, and Bart fills that role in an American satirical animated form, then their elder brother has to be ‘just’ William Brown.