Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Ronald Searle and Molesworth

I return to the sad news that the great Ronald Searle has passed away at the age of 91. The artist had an eventful life. A working-class boy from Cambridge, he was captured by the Japanese during the second World …

Wed, Jan 4, 2012, 22:20


I return to the sad news that the great Ronald Searle has passed away at the age of 91. The artist had an eventful life. A working-class boy from Cambridge, he was captured by the Japanese during the second World War and, despite dramatic loss of weight and any number of diseases, continued to draw while under detention. The images are among the most powerful to emerge from the Asian war. The Japanese guards are rendered in clear strokes that come together in the style of cartoon. Most unusual.

After the war, he was involved with the creation of two much-loved, almost certainly immortal comic entities. The first was, of course St Trinians. Searle’s cartoons depicted the school as the nightmarishly comic home of junior terrorists, apprentice bully-girls and lazy-eyed, laconic girls whose blouses were already beginning to strain beneath mature pressure. The cartoons eventually became a series of films which — though of declining quality — always offered great supporting performances. Hats off to Joyce Grenfell, George Cole and Alistair Sim. (Hats remain on when mention is made of Russell Brand in the awful updated version.)

My hero.

Searle’s greatest co-creation, was, however, the peerless, mighty, endlessly hilarious Nigel Molesworth. The near-illiterate student of St Custard’s School — who narrates his own stories in garbled, wretchedly misspelled  near-prose — is an iconoclast of the highest order. Despite an appalling record at school, he has somehow accumulated a breadth of knowledge about all matters of cultural importance.  He understands the hypocrisy of adulthood. He knows the teachers drink and play around. Credited to Searle and writer Geoffrey Willlans, the first Molesworth book, Down With Skool!, arrived in 1953. Look Back in Anger was still three years away, but Nigel already has a fairly firm grasp on the continuing decline of sleepy England. “History started badly and hav been geting steadily worse,” he wisely remarked.

I suppose we should probably think of St Custard’s as a metaphor for England itself. Headmaster Grimes is every bit as hopeless as Anthony Eden, the UK’s most hapless prime minister. All life buzzes about: spivs, thugs, intellectuals, homosexuals. Well, I say “homosexuals”, but the great Basil Fotherington-Thomas may just be more polite than the oafs around him. “He reads chaterbox chiz and we suspeckt that he keeps dollies at home,” Molesworth writes. “When i sa he hav a face like a tomato he repli i forgive you molesworth for those uncouth words.” (In an aside, doesn’t the prose, written by a child remember, look depressingly like the stuff you encounter on the internet daily?)

L to R: Searle and Willans, Moore and O’Neill

Alan Moore certainly thought Basil gay and depicted him as such in an episode of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen set in the 1960s. The comic did remind one of an arresting point. Trapped among ink pots and fierce gerunds, Molesworth and his pals were among the generation that would create the 1960s. I don’t suppose Nigel would have become a rock star. After all, very few people did. But I hope that his cynicism was eventually directed in a creative direction.

At any rate, as any fule kno, the Molesworth books are all available in a handy omnibus edition with an introduction by the admirable Philip Hensher. The volume is published by (hem, hem) Penguin Modern Classics. Quite right too. I’d rather read Molesworth any day than some fool such as that fraud Jack Kerouac or filthy D H Lawrence.  To paraphrase Nigel on Colin Wilson, the Molesworth books are ”Advanced, forthright, signifficant.” And they’re bloody funny.

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