Saturday, 10 December 2016

Missing Believed Wiped 2016: Whack-O! 7.5 - Jim's Better Self

Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O!
The first in a series of observations from Missing Believed Wiped 2016, held at BFI Southbank on Sunday 4 December 2016.

I’ve never understood entirely the ascendancy of Frank Muir and Denis Norden as comedy gurus in British broadcasting in the 1950s and 1960s, though it’s doubtful that I’ve really heard or seen enough of their work to judge it. This recently recovered penultimate episode of the original run of Whack-O! broadcast on 20 December 1960 at first seemed that it wouldn’t really help. The first half of the episode was ho-hum. Jimmy Edwards stars as a development of a schoolmaster persona he developed as a student performer in the Cambridge Footlights. It’s surprising to someone who watched him as a prematurely aged figure in the 1970s and 1980s to see Edwards (aged forty in 1960) with dark moustache and unlined face and with a more vital performance to match.

In this episode, ‘Jim’s Better Self’, Professor James Edwards, headmaster of Chiselbury School, finds his plan to spend the Christmas holiday abroad skiing frustrated by an outbreak of measles forcing him and his fellow schoolmasters – principally his cringing sidekick Pettigrew, an audience-eyeing Arthur Howard – to remain at Chiselbury for the Christmas holiday looking after the confined boarders. Edwards refuses to spend his holiday fund – the proceeds of his rigged one-armed bandit, to which he has successfully addicted and used to subject teachers and boys alike – to pay for the boys’ Christmas dinner, and banishes Pettigrew for the suggestion that he might have a ‘better self’. Come night-time, the better self appears as a ghost of Christmas or at least careers past, played in on film as an Edwards attired in a white version of his mortarboarded headmaster costume, and mixed with nightshirted Jimmy Edwards as live in the studio. The ghost reminds Edwards of the origins of his association with Pettigrew. The audience learns that one Wing-Commander Pettigrew, running the RAF’s education division a few months after the end of the Second World War, forgave a deserter – one Aircraftman Edwards, with Jimmy looking even weightier than usual probably because he was wearing the RAF uniform over part of his night costume. Pettigrew entrusted a letter to Edwards to post, only for Edwards to open the letter, copy the job application within, and duly become headmaster of Chiselbury School himself. He then appointed the well-meaning but humiliated Pettigrew boilerman and so began the cycle of appeasement and exploitation which results in the sapping of Pettigrew’s strength and decency and in the abusively co-dependent relationship at the centre of this episode at least of Whack-O!

The above summary might make the episode seem more profound than it is. It was pointed out to me that the writers were probably more pleased with a structure which built up to the scene of a dejected Pettigrew in the snow, with Howard declaiming theatrically that his tiny hamster was frozen as a pun for Puccini lovers, than they were bothered with exploring the Edwards-Pettigrew nexus. There is, though, a lot about the expectations Muir and Norden had of their audience’s taste which makes ‘Jim’s Better Self’ a period piece worth some consideration. Whack-O!’s title implies corporal punishment and a satisfaction taken in doling it out. A film version was even called Bottoms Up! The staff (we see little indeed of the boys in this episode) are irresponsible, impoverished but reconciled to their dependency on the monstrous Jim who lives off them as much as he does the parents who send him their sons for education. This was after all comedy for an institutionalized world, where the school with its hierarchies and petty disciplines and (lest we forget) single sex environment perhaps resembled many people’s workplaces and (as the episode as good as makes explicit) the peculiar security of wartime service in the armed forces. Pettigrew’s unexpected former persona as a wing-commander is something of an in-joke given that (though of a lower rank than the exalted wartime Pettigrew) Arthur Howard had been Frank Muir’s superior in the RAF during the war, while far from being a deserter Jimmy Edwards had been awarded the DFC for an act of life-saving heroism as a pilot at Arnhem. The schoolteachers are all of an age to have served (elderly Mr Dinwiddie perhaps in the Great War) and all cling to Chiselbury out of evident desperation. Conventions were comforts in a world that might not forgive if you offended. These included Edwards’s barrack-room insistence that he was going skiing to enjoy the company of women; one doesn’t have to import awareness of the sexuality of actors Edwards and Howard to remark that the character Edwards seems more anxious to ensure that Pettigrew comes with him on holiday to continue to act as dogsbody and willing dupe. Likewise, it’s taken for granted that a private boarding school, however run down and venal its regime, will have parents willing to send their sons there and help Edwards inflate his begowned academic pretensions.

‘Jim’s Better Self’ ends with Pettigrew finding the Christmas pudding sixpence and Edwards confiscating it for his slot machine, only for the machine to get into the Christmas spirit and pay out. Even though this wasn’t the final episode – there was one more episode of the original run before, according to Muir’s A Kentish Lad, I gather, Arthur Howard’s arrest and imprisonment for importuning in a public toilet in 1961 ended the series – it might have made a satisfying end, with harmony restored in the interest of all the characters and Edwards losing his monopoly on wealth and power in his closed world for the time being. Comparisons have been made between Professor Edwards and Sergeant Bilko, and while Edwards does owe something to Bilko he seems much less charming and much more brutal in his willingness to exploit everybody else with little or no reward for his closest associates. He’s a reminder that for all the nostalgia for social solidarity in the Britain of the 1950s, what solidarity there was rested on tolerance for a good deal of institutional and individual cruelty and acceptance of petty injustices; and that to no doubt varying degrees Frank Muir and Denis Norden and their viewers knew this and laughed with and at their own accommodations with a flawed world.

Edited 11 December 2016 to resolve the author's confusion of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop and Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's libretto to Puccini's La bohème.