Anthony Buckeridge

Author of the Jennings and Darbishire novels

Anthony Malcolm Buckeridge, schoolmaster, actor, writer and broadcaster: born London 20 June 1912; OBE 2003; married 1936 Sylvia Brown (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1962 Eileen Selby (one son); died Barcombe, East Sussex 28 June 2004.

Mention Anthony Buckeridge's name in the right company, and a torrent of remembered comedy rushes around the room - whether in Oslo, provincial China or the Sussex he so relished.

Some deem Jennings Follows a Clue - the second Jennings, published in 1951 - his greatest triumph. Its glorious conclusion has a burglar at the wheel of a laundry van (sports cups in the back), only to be caught by Jennings and his weedy friend Darbishire, who is also filmed as being first in a race when in fact he had been last in the previous one.

Perhaps even finer is the arrival of a school inspector in Thanks to Jennings (1957). He is at first mistaken for a gas inspector and shown the meters, then given a long excuse by a pupil who is under the impression that he is investigating confusion over a bus ticket, all of which is capped by the explosive master Mr Wilkins's arrival on the scene to explain grovellingly to a "police inspector" about wrongly parking his motor car.

Enthusiasts for these novels have all the fervour that the pupils - perennial 11-year-olds - at Linbury Court devote to stamps, wireless parts and jam labels while Mr Carter's quiet demeanour masks a certain bemusement at Jennings's seemingly logical but madcap schemes. Dismayingly, a generation or more of publishers thought these excellent novels old hat, and not only lumbered them with updated references - as if P.G. Wodehouse had interpolated new pence, the Chatterley trial or Concorde - and then allowed them to slide from print, until a happy reappearance in the Eighties, after which Macmillan again let them go, to be taken on by a small firm in 2000.

Astonishingly, Buckeridge had revealed by then, in a review of William Boyd's screenplays, that he concurred with this acerbic view of school life; he held a dim view of boarding schools; moreover, he was aghast when parents told him that these comedies led to children's beseeching them to be allowed to go to such hell-holes. As Angela Gordon commented, this was as if Biggles had said that we were not meant to fly.

Buckeridge's life was certainly different from anything that his young readers may have imagined. Born in 1912, he scarcely knew his banker and poet father, who was killed five years later at Bullecourt, near Arras, when sent needlessly to recapture a village:

After months of forming fours and shooting at cardboard targets, Dad was sent to face the enemy with no cover but flooded shell-holes. His war had lasted half an hour and had achieved nothing; after that, annihilation. No grave, for there was no body to bury. Not even any pieces.

Buckeridge was not told at first, and his cry of wanting daddy put his mother in tears.

My feeling of needing my Daddy brought with it an uneasy awareness of vicarious authority.

They moved from London to Ross-on-Wye, then returned to the capital after the war, to Holly Village in Highgate, that collection of houses built for the workers on the Burdett-Coutts estate. Horse-drawn vehicles went by, some of them hearses heaving up the hill to the cemetery. His mother worked at Banque Belge while he went to a convent school for 18 months. The grandparents then moved up from Ross-on-Wye to help out.

His grandfather brought out a nascent taste for writing, and an aunt that love of theatre which was a route to writing fiction. "Went to the pleadum," he wrote in a diary at 11, a Jenningsesque spelling of Palladium; even more to the point was his choosing to see Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in The Merchant of Venice.

Had his father had been alive, he would not have gone to boarding school. As it was, the Bank Clerks' Orphanage fund despatched him to Seaford College in Sussex, run by the Rev L. Stanley Cowan, whose staff included demobbed army officers who had failed at running a chicken farm. Grim food and misunderstandings were an inspiration for his later work (the staff inadvertently ate all the cake kept for a dorm feast; an inspector, impressed by deep-rooted knowledge, was unaware that it had been instilled the previous day). For lack of anything else, there was a self-tutoring system:

I read and re-read the Shakespeare plays of which we had the texts . . . I absorbed a knowledge of Shakespeare which has stayed in my mind ever since, but I have forgotten most of what I had ever learned of French, Latin, Physics and Maths.

A fine, Jenningsesque moment was when, kitted out as cadets and armed with old rifles, the boys decided to go to the next village and apologise to the vicar, who had complained about their talking at the back of the church; he was now startled to open the door and find a bayonet close to his nose.

After Buckeridge's grandfather's death, they moved to the emergent Welwyn Garden City, where his mother had a job first in promoting the place, then welcoming and placating the inhabitants amid the mud and huts as the roads were laid and more houses built to fulfil Ebenezer Howard's dream of rus in urbe -

a little old man in his seventies with a white moustache and a black raincoat, striding around the building sites. His brilliant architect, Louis de Soissons, and his faithful disciple, Frederick Osborn, were never far behind.

An unrecorded fact of cinema history is that Buckeridge had a very small part in Anthony Asquith's Tell England (1931) and other movies. In 1930 he joined the bank at which his father had worked, soon realised that office life was not for him but passed the exams. Sport and Shakespeare were more his life:

During my last year at school I had, in a spirit of misplaced machismo, taken up boxing. The result was that my nose was not exactly broken, but various bones had been chipped and knocked out of shape.

During the operation, the anaesthetic went wrong, septicaemia and mastoiditis set in, and he needed four months' convalescence, time to reflect upon bank life. Although he was left £500 by a friend of his father's to go to St John's College, Oxford (of which his ancestor, Bishop John Buckeridge, had been one of the first fellows), the sum was scuppered by post-war inflation.

He applied to University College London, but repeatedly failed the necessary Latin and taught for a while at a prep school in Rhyl. Here he met Sylvia Brown, niece of Mrs Pankhurst. They drifted, more at Sylvia's behest, into engagement and marriage in 1936 and he got into UCL, where energy was given to socialist and anti-war societies, but his wayward Latin lost him a degree.

Schoolmastering it was to be. During two years in Suffolk he met John Jevons, a former master at Seaford, who told him of another harum-scarum pupil, Diarmaid Jennings:

There was the occasion when Jennings had terrified his fellow students with a so-called poisonous spider which he knew to

be harmless. Another time on a dark winter's night, Jennings, without betraying his presence, joined a search party who were, in fact, searching for him.

Suffolk life was dogged by the Head's terrifying wife, who bawled out one and all (as she did Roald Dahl at school in Weston-super-Mare). Buckeridge could take it no more. Gabbitas and Thring despatched him to one Vernon House in Brondesbury. War duly broke out, and the LCC arranged the schoolchildren's evacuation. Vernon House took over the Parsonage in Little Houghton, Northamptonshire:

A fair number of my boys were orthodox Jews. Without warning, they found themselves precipitated into a rural community with a different standard of values. The village children had never met any Jews before; they had to get used to newcomers who wouldn't eat pork, ham or bacon; prayed with their caps on and didn't go to church. It took a bit of getting used to and sometimes led to embarrassing situations. I can remember an occasion when two Jewish parents came down to visit their son. Rationing was in force and, as we felt obliged to feed them after their journey, we had faute de mieux to give them some sausages. They were too polite to refuse them but, after they had gone, we found the remains of the meal hidden amongst the ashes in the fireplace.

He fully expected to be called up, but was sent to the Fire Service as a Leading Fireman, which took him across the Midlands - and on to the stage, for it had a drama society, as did Northampton itself. He wrote a play about factory workers in the Second World War, Industrial Front, but its production was cancelled when many of the cast were now needed in Europe.

After the war, he went as a nominal senior master to St Lawrence College in Ramsgate, which had begun on such an evangelical basis that drama was forbidden. This he remedied and, exhaustingly, took on a stint in local rep while also writing a farce, Draw the Line Somewhere (1948), which was too topical to reach the West End in time. Buckeridge turned to wireless plays:

In those days, the author would send a play to the BBC drama department, and within a very short space of time would get a reply, and know whether or not his work was accepted.

He fell into children's drama by discovering that the promise of a story could get pupils into the dormitory. He soon exhausted those that he knew, and Diarmaid Jennings came back to mind. His mishaps held the room spellbound:

Merely by keeping my eyes and ears open as I walked round the school and noted what was happening, I gathered a store of material which I could shape to suit the personality of my characters. Much of the comedy came from noting the different way in which a situation would be viewed from the adult and the youthful point of view. For example, boys will explode with hilarity at some fatuous joke which leaves Mr Wilkins baffled.

He wrote a one-off play about Jennings, and sent it to the BBC, where it reached the Children's Hour department, which asked him to visit. He walked into the office and - as if the very incarnation of Mr Wilkins - promptly knocked over a pile of gramophone records. The upshot was that they wanted six plays forthwith, the series to be entitled Jennings at School; and he eventually supplied 62. Particularly fine was Wilfred Babbage as Mr Wilkins, whose cry of "d'oh!" anticipates Homer Simpson and goes back to Laurel and Hardy.

The BBC duly wiped the broadcast tapes but the scripts, eight to a volume, began to appear in 2000. Such was the broadcasts' success that in 1950 Buckeridge resigned from the school to write full-time. One play became a book, Jennings Goes to School (1950) and - thank heavens - a Collins rep, William Hartstone, saw that it was disgraceful of Collins to fob off Buckeridge with a flat fee of £150 and got him a royalty. The firm was rewarded with a series which sold up to 100,000 copies a year in hardback.

There were magazine versions, annuals, television plays and a dozen, surprisingly diverse foreign sales (including China). There was a particular fondness in Norway for the exploits of the middle-class English pupils and staff of Linbury Court - so much so that several Jennings movies were made there, something which, on the face of it, sounds as likely as the Dutch enterprise which not only made a movie of Virginia Woolf's The Waves but transposed it to contemporary Holland.

One would not infer from the novels that Buckeridge was a member of CND and that for a long time, since the Second World War, the comedies had been a refuge from a troubled marriage, one which continued for the sake of their two children and which came to an end after 26 years, when he met Eileen Selby in 1962 - "the most wonderful person I have ever met and we fell deeply in love, a love that has grown deeper and more wonderful over the 36 years we have been together", he said in a 1998 interview. "Without Eileen I should have succumbed to a life that was no more than an existence."

They moved to Sandgate, then Dulwich, before settling, with a child, at Barcombe, outside Lewes. Buckeridge wrote continually, but one television series was left in development until Frank Muir found that the books were banned at his son's school because the headmaster's name was also Jennings. Muir read the books - and promptly got the series under way.

Buckeridge always found an outlet for acting, and perhaps as unexpected as the Norwegian success is his long period on the stage at Glyndebourne - not in any singing roles (that would be akin to gargling competitions in the Linbury Court dorm), but small, acting ones. Buckeridge's passion for the stage was part of an essential modesty: he was a quiet comedian, who continued to work - if slowly - despite the loss of an eye in old age.

Always good-humoured, never bitter at the fate of his work at the hands of publishers, he was graceful when asked to comment upon the all-eclipsing success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, whose success in inspiring children to reading continues a tradition set by Buckeridge: without exaggeration, there is something to be written about his influence upon post-war comedy. Stephen Fry is but one to have relished these dextrous farces.

They transcend such petty objections of including pounds, shilling and pence. From kindly Matron to remote Head (Martin Pemberton-Oakes), they all seem as real as ever, chaos resulting from one small event's colliding with another - and a rare adult life does not include some of that. Buckeridge set equal store by his novels about Rex Mulligan. High time, then, to catch up with these. One owes it to Buckeridge's spirit.

No clodpoll, he produced supersonic, lobsterous work which, if it had been aimed at adults, would have had him acclaimed as somewhere between Ben Hecht and Ben Travers.

After J.K. Rowling was honoured in 2000, Anthony Buckeridge was quoted as saying, "A children's author getting an OBE is way over the top." In the 2003 New Year's Honours List, however, at the age of 90, he too was appointed OBE. "It's very surprising," he said.

Christopher Hawtree

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