Philip Hensher explores the art of the gloriously eccentric Molesworth books. Nigel Molesworth is one of the immortal characters of British literature - a 1950s prep-school boy, the 'goriller of 3B' and the 'curse of st custard's'.
Molesworth's diaries, written by Geoffrey Willans, first appeared in Punch and were later developed into four books, Down with Skool! (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956) and Back in the Jug Agane (1959). Illustrated by Ronald Searle as a boy's school sequel to Searle's St Trinian's drawings, they are still in print today.
The books are a kind of satire of 1950s Britain as, after the war, the upper middle classes faced the onslaught of irreverence, the Welfare State and a new generation that didn't see why authority should be respected. Molesworth's cynical yet naive outlook on life made him popular with young and old readers in the post-war world. He was a very long way from the clean-cut school fantasies which had entertained the British before the advent of the atomic bomb.
The author Geoffrey Willans had worked as a schoolmaster and understood the cheerful cynicism of boys, while Ronald Searle's illustrative style was dark, Gothic and seething with half-hidden obsessions. Searle had spent much of the war in a Japanese concentration camp where he documented the horrors he encountered, and elaborate psychological points come through with concise and economic observation in his drawings.
Produced by Melissa FitzGerald
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.