On January 31st, 1982, the BBC began broadcasting a six-part series based on Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co., a collection of short stories set at an English boarding school and featuring the escapades of three highly intelligent, if morally dubious, boys named Corkran (Stalky), M’Turk (Turkey) and Beetle. The stories covered in these six half-hour episodes are “An Unsavoury Interlude,” “In Ambush,” “Slaves of the Lamp,” “The Moral Reformers,” “A Little Prep” and “The Last Term”. Certain scenes are modified and dialogue is left out, but, overall, I think these are faithful, if somewhat sanitized, adaptations that successfully focus on the crux of each story. I’ll admit that there’s dialogue I miss and a couple of changes that seem unnecessary, but I can’t complain about a series that is able to transport me so easily to the Coll and this world I fell in love with the first time I read Stalky & Co..
There’s a practical reason why these stories were handled the way they were. Unless you’re armed with the Oxford edition of the stories, with its copious notes, you’d be lost trying to follow the original dialogue with all of its literary and biblical allusions, not to mention the Latin quotes. When adapting the stories, Alexander Baron and Terrence Dicks (the script editor) made judicious use of such material, keeping what could be easily explained or clarified in the context of a scene. Of course, this was also Sunday tea-time television that was intended for family viewing. In the early eighties, casual references to such subjects as communism (even humourous ones) might not have been appreciated. I should probably point out that there were critics who condemned the stories when they were originally published because they contained questionable characters in even more questionable situations and didn’t conform in tone or style to other works of schoolboy literature, such as Eric, or Little by Little, which is openly mocked in Stalky & Co.
Whenever you watch a film or series based on a cherished book, you tend to be more critical when it comes to casting choices. I was in an unusual position watching Stalky & Co. because I had always pictured Robert Addie in the title role. I sought out the stories in the first place because I was a Robert Addie fan and knew he had starred in a television series based on the Stalky & Co. stories. At the time (and for several years to follow), it was the closest I would get to seeing this series. I’m happy to say that I quickly grew to love the stories for their own sake, but I still couldn’t help imagining Robert Addie as Stalky. It’s for this reason that I’m probably biased when it comes to evaluating Addie’s performance, especially when I say that I think this is a role he was born to play. Stalky is very much a character with a dual nature – half boy, half general – and Addie seems more than capable of making that quick shift between the mischievous, giggling schoolboy and the cool, seasoned campaigner. He also has the comic flair needed for Stalky, whether it’s through the clever delivery of a line or moments of physical comedy, often expressed through an insolent smile or some other facial expression. Robert Burbage (Turkey) also excels at this form of comedy, providing those looks of lofty contempt and the “Hibernian sneer” King takes exception to in “In Ambush”. Turkey’s artistic temperament and fiery temper are also very much in evidence in Burbage’s performance. Then, of course, there’s David Parfitt as the ever-suffering Beetle. I think this is another exceptional casting choice as Parfitt not only looks the part but is believable as the boy poet who struggles even more than Stalky and Turkey to fit in at the Coll. There’s a sensitivity and vulnerability to Parfitt’s performance, yet Beetle is no weakling. He withstands King’s verbal abuse without caving and is an active participant in all of the exploits of Number Five study. Lastly, I must praise the way the rest of the cast embody their characters – in particular, Rowland Davies as the Padre, a man with a keen sense of humour and the uncanny ability to guide and counsel Number Five study, Frederick Treves as the all-seeing, all-knowing Bates, the school’s headmaster, and John Woodnutt as King, a wonderfully tyrannical housemaster.
As the original stories are set in Devon, it’s great that the series was filmed in the same part of the country – in the neighbouring county of Dorset, near Bournemouth, with Hurn Court School filling in for the College. The series is beautifully shot with some gorgeous glimpses of Dorset’s landscape, particularly the coast. Places such as Colonel Dabney’s house and Mother Yeo’s shop are very much as I imagined them, which is testament to the care that was taken in the choice of locations and set design. While the DVD release of Stalky & Co. can’t provide the same HD sharpness of modern productions, I think the picture and sound quality is good. Actually, I’m amazed that Simply Media was even able to find the series as I’d heard the BBC had destroyed its copy. It seems almost miraculous that the series made it to DVD at all.
I initially wondered why the series opened with “An Unsavoury Interlude”. In the original chronology, “An Unsavoury Interlude” falls after “In Ambush” and “Slaves of the Lamp”. If you think about it, though, the order makes sense. In “An Unsavoury Interlude,” Stalky & Co. are not only seeking revenge on King’s house for their own sakes but defending the honour of their own house, so the stakes are higher. This story is also a great introduction to Stalky, Turkey and Beetle. We first see them in their study, happily engaged in their own pursuits until Prout, their housemaster, barges into their study and demands to know why they aren’t attending the cricket match. As the boys would rather be doing just about anything else, Prout’s lecture doesn’t move them. These are obviously not your typical schoolboys. They don’t fit in with the other students and, what’s more, they don’t care. When King attempts to humiliate them by questioning their motives for choosing bathing over cricket, Stalky & Co. are further isolated. King’s taunts inspire the boys in his house to take things a step further and they accuse everyone in Prout’s house of being “stinkers”. The way in which Stalky & Co. handle the situation is poetic justice itself. They are able to take this insult and use it against King’s house in a creative and humourous manner.
One of the most obvious changes made to “An Unsavoury Interlude” is in the scene where the poor cat is killed. In the original story, Stalky and Turkey shoot the cat on purpose while hunting rabbits with their saloon-pistols. In the episode, Beetle has joined Stalky and Turkey and shoots the cat by accident when, with his terrible eyesight, he mistakes it for a rabbit. In all other respects, the episode sticks fairly close to the story. The only really noticeable change is the final scene in which Richards discusses his rather grisly discovery with Stalky & Co. rather than Oke, Gumbly and Lena in the basement of the Coll, hinting heavily that that he knows exactly how the dead cat ended up under the floorboards of King’s House and who put it there. Fortunately, Richards feels that this act is justified because their house had been insulted, so we know he’s not going to report them.
I mentioned this earlier, but there are certain lines of dialogue I miss from all of these episodes. In the case of “An Unsavoury Interlude,” I wish the scene with King on the playing fields had been expanded to include this exchange between Stalky, Turkey and Beetle:
“What the deuce did you say anything to him for, Beetle?” said M‘Turk angrily, as they strolled towards the big, open sea-baths.
“’Twasn’t fair—remindin’ one of bein’ a water-funk. My first term, too. Heaps of chaps are—when they can’t swim.”
“Yes, you ass; but he saw he’d fetched you. You ought never to answer King.”
“But it wasn’t fair, Stalky.”
“My Hat! You’ve been here six years, and you expect fairness. Well, you are a dithering idiot.”
With the possible exception of its beautiful shots of the Dorset landscape, one of the strengths of “In Ambush” is in its casting. Denis Carey is an ideal Colonel Dabney. He has the right degree of military bearing, gruffness and preoccupation with poaching, something that’s most apparent in the scene in which he dresses down the school sergeant, Foxy, and puts both King and Prout in their place. The comic elements in this episode are also brought out nicely. As in the original story, Stalky & Co. are doubled over in laughter when King, Prout and Foxy are accused of trespassing, and there’s a fantastic shot from King and Prout’s perspective as they witness Stalky & Co. dancing in the distance as they return to the Coll. We even hear Stalky & Co. perform a proper “Ti-ra-la-la-i-tu” gloat, though this is later shortened to “I gloat!”
There are two aspects of the episode that I wish were different. When Foxy visits Number Five study because he suspects that Stalky & Co. were caught too easily by King and Prout, he storms off in anger when he realizes that he’s been “ambuscaded”. In the original scene, Foxy’s reaction is much funnier, with Foxy panicking and offering to speak to the Head on their behalf. I can understand the second change the writers made as it was probably due to time or budgetary constraints. Instead of waiting “one suffocating week till Prout and King were their royal selves again” to reveal that they had witnessed their humiliation, Stalky & Co. hurl Colonel Dabney’s words back at the housemasters as they’re leaving the Head’s office, the same day the whole misunderstanding took place.
It isn’t until the third episode, “Slaves of the Lamp,” that we learn Beetle’s true identity. In “In Ambush,” we receive a hint when Beetle informs Colonel Dabney that “Beetle” is actually his nickname on account of his gig-lamps (glasses). However, when King berates Beetle in the music-room during that opening scene of “Slaves of the Lamp,” he refers to Beetle as “Master Kipling”. It’s common knowledge that Rudyard Kipling probably based Beetle on himself, but the series’ writers apparently decided that there was no point in being coy – and I think having Kipling himself appear in these adventures has more dramatic impact. I’m glad the writers waited until the third episode to reveal Beetle’s identity as it allows the audience to get to know the characters first. There is an additional aspect of Kipling’s biography that the writers use in the series. In the stories, the school is simply known as the “College” or “Coll”. In the series, a sign for the school reads “United Services College,” which was the name of Kipling’s school.
With “Slaves of the Lamp,” I was thrilled to see part of the pantomime being performed, not to mention finally hearing the tune for Arrah, Patsy after wondering for years what the song sounded like. In fact, I’m delighted by all the music that is woven into the episodes because Stalky & Co. do sing in the stories. While I wish the BBC could have adapted “The Impressionists,” it’s great that the writers lifted some of the dialogue from the Common-room scene in that story and added it to the Common-room scene in “Slaves of the Lamp”. Considering the unfair way in which King verbally attacks Beetle in the music-room, this line from “The Impressionists” is particularly apt: “I pulverise the egregious Beetle daily for his soul’s good; and the others with him”. I also appreciate the inclusion of these lines as they say so much about Stalky & Co. and how Number Five study operates:
“They use the editorial ‘we,’” said King irrelevantly. “It annoys me. ‘Where’s your prose, Corkran?’ ‘Well, sir, we haven’t quite done it yet. We’ll bring it in a minute,’ and so on.”
Saying that, I’d gladly sacrifice the dialogue from “The Impressionists” if it meant a more complete version of the scene with the study brew.
In the episode, there is no mention in the script that Stalky paid for the sumptuous brew in their study by pawning Beetle’s watch. It’s a hilarious discussion and the reason why this is one of my favourite scenes in the entire Stalky & Co. collection:
“My Hat!” said he, throwing himself upon the banquet. “Who stumped up for this, Stalky?” It was within a month of term end, and blank starvation had reigned in the studies for weeks.
“You,” said Stalky serenely.
“Confound you! You haven’t been popping my Sunday bags, then?”
“Keep your hair on. It’s only your watch.”
“Watch! I lost it—weeks ago. Out on the Burrows, when we tried to shoot the old ram—the day our pistol burst.”
“It dropped out of your pocket (you’re so beastly careless, Beetle), and M’Turk and I kept it for you. I’ve been wearing it for a week, and you never noticed. ’Took it into Bideford after dinner to-day. ’Got thirteen and sevenpence. Here’s the ticket.”
“Well, that’s pretty average cool,” said Abanazar behind a slab of cream and jam, as Beetle, reassured upon the safety of his Sunday trousers, showed not even surprise, much less resentment. Indeed, it was M’Turk who grew angry, saying:
“You gave him the ticket, Stalky? You pawned it? You unmitigated beast! Why, last month you and Beetle sold mine! ’Never got a sniff of any ticket.”
“Ah, that was because you locked your trunk and we wasted half the afternoon hammering it open. We might have pawned it if you’d behaved like a Christian, Turkey.”
“My Aunt!” said Abanazar, “you chaps are communists. Vote of thanks to Beetle, though.”
As much as I miss this dialogue, I can see why the BBC felt that it might not make appropriate family viewing, especially as it does seem to condone theft – with or without a ticket. Speaking of inappropriate behaviour, the drunken carrier, Rabbit-Eggs, has his name changed to “Roberts”. I assume the writers made this change in order to avoid having to explain the origin of the carrier’s name – not that there’s an explanation in the original story beyond what might appear in an annotated version, such as the Oxford edition.
In “The Moral Reformers,” the writers don’t pull their punches – literally. This is a story that deals with bullying, and we aren’t shielded from any of it. At the beginning of the episode, we are introduced to Clewer, a student who is being viciously bullied by two older boys. We see the school through his eyes. As Clewer hides in an empty classroom writing a desperate letter home to his mother, we realize that the Coll can be a hostile and very lonely place. In the original story, we really only hear about Clewer, so I think it’s good that the audience gains this additional perspective.
With this episode, there’s an added sense of jeopardy that is absent from the story. Stalky is wary of Campbell and Sefton even before he learns that they’re the school bullies, preventing both Turkey and Beetle from rising to their taunts and telling them that they shouldn’t engage in a fight they can’t win. The tension increases when Stalky sends Beetle to track Clewer, and the Padre (who enlisted their help in the first place) causes Beetle to lose Clewer when he stops him in the hallway. After that, Stalky & Co. rush to find Clewer, hoping to discover the identity of the bullies and stop them from inflicting further pain and torment on Clewer. It’s a bit disturbing when Stalky & Co., after finding Campbell and Sefton’s lair, stand outside the door listening to the bullying in progress. Turkey becomes so upset by what he hears that Stalky has to hold him back when he attempts to burst into the room. As with that first meeting with Campbell and Sefton, Stalky knows that they shouldn’t take on this duo until they have the advantage.
The scene in which Stalky & Co. teach the bullies about bullying plays out differently in the series. Campbell and Sefton are lured into Stalky’s trap in much the same way, but boxing replaces the more creative forms of torture, such as Head-knuckles, Brush-drill, the Key, Corkscrew and Ag Ag. As I’m not sure if there was anyone still alive who knew the secrets behind such bullying techniques (if such techniques ever existed outside Kipling’s imagination), it may have been impossible to film such a sequence. It’s most likely that it would have been deemed too violent as well. The boxing matches are less graphic, but still effective. Stalky and Turkey take on the bullies one at a time, making this an unfair match and forcing Campbell and Sefton to experience the same fear and helplessness that their victims have had to endure. Between rounds, there are shots of Victorian prints featuring boxers, which is a nice touch of dark humour. Unfortunately, I think the writers took too much artistic licence when, instead of reaching a gentleman’s agreement with Campbell and Sefton, Stalky & Co. publically humiliate them, making them sing in front of a group of fags (first-year students) with their mustaches half-shaved and Clewer acting as the conductor. While I believe that bullies should be exposed, this just isn’t Stalky & Co.’s style. They prefer to remain invisible and work carefully to ensure that there’s no evidence that might lead back to them.
I can’t conclude this discussion of “The Moral Reformers” without mentioning the reference to “The United Idolators”. We see Stalky & Co. playing with a tortoise in their first scene of the episode. They inform Campbell and Sefton that they’ve named the tortoise Brer Terrapin after the character in Uncle Remus. I think this allusion is the closest the writers dared to get to either “The United Idolators” or Uncle Remus.
In “A Little Prep,” Stalky suffers a brief fall from grace when he talks Turkey and Beetle into smoking out of bounds and they’re caught by the Head. It’s a funny scene that is handled well in the episode, though I wish we had heard everything Turkey and Beetle said when they were rebuking Stalky:
“Look here,” M‘Turk began with cold venom, “we aren’t going to row you about this business, because it’s too bad for a row; but we want you to understand you’re jolly well excommunicated, Stalky. You’re a plain ass.”
“How was I to know that the Head ’ud collar us? What was he doin’ in those ghastly clothes, too?”
“Don’t try to raise a side-issue,” Beetle grunted severely.
“Well, it was all Stettson major’s fault. If he hadn’t gone an’ got diphtheria ’twouldn’t have happened. But don’t you think it rather rummy—the Head droppin’ on us that way?”
“Shut up! You’re dead!” said Beetle. “We’ve chopped your spurs off your beastly heels. We’ve cocked your shield upside down, and—and I don’t think you ought to be allowed to brew for a month.”
“Oh, stop jawin’ at me. I want——”
“Stop? Why—why, we’re gated for a week.” M‘Turk almost howled as the agony of the situation overcame him. “A lickin’ from King, five hundred lines, and a gating. D’you expect us to kiss you, Stalky, you beast?”
As this is Stalky & Co., Stalky naturally vows revenge against the Head, though I think it’s Stalky who learns a lesson. This story is very much about the true nature of heroism – not just in battle but in the face of issues closer to home.
This episode doesn’t flinch from the brutality of war. It impacts everyone, even a school full of boys. The scene with Foxy at the notice-board is preserved, and the students are suitably subdued when they read the newspaper article about “Fat-Sow” Duncan’s death, especially as he is the ninth graduate of the Coll to be killed. Of course, the boys forget that war isn’t glorious when “Toffee” Crandall, an old student and recent war hero, visits the school. All of the boys, including Stalky, suffer from a bad case of hero worship. Simon Shepherd gives a beautifully understated performance as Crandall, who only came to the Coll to participate in the Old Boys’ match and be reunited with the Head and his friends. When Crandall bunks in his old dorm, he seems genuinely surprised by the boys’ reverence. When he gives into the boys’ pleas and tells the story of how he recovered Duncan’s body, he’s completely matter-of-fact about the whole event. He doesn’t consider himself a hero. He just believes he was doing what was right at the time and what any other soldier should have done. When Crandall concludes his story, he lies back on his pillow and stares up at the ceiling with an almost haunted expression on his face.
What I find wonderful about the revenge plot in “A Little Prep” is that Stalky doesn’t take his own feelings into account. He can’t help feeling a bit awed when Crandall tells him that using a tube to save a diphtheria patient’s life is just about the bravest thing a man can do. When Stalky, Turkey and Beetle reveal the Head’s secret to all the students during prep., they seem to forget that they’re trying to get back at Bates because they get caught up in the excitement themselves. It’s sweet that the Head, like Crandall, doesn’t think of his actions as being heroic. Even outside the school walls, the Head still considered Stettson his responsibility and felt it was his duty to protect him, even though he had to put his own life in danger to do so. The Head is embarrassed and moved when he discovers that the students weren’t being facetious when they were cheering but simply acknowledging their headmaster’s bravery. It’s amusing in the episode when the Head realizes that he won’t be able to stop all the cheering, no matter what he does, so he says, “I surrender”. Then he gets this shocked expression on his face when Stalky, of all people, leads a round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” another addition the writers make to this episode. I have to admit that I’m quite fond of this ending because it shows the degree of affection that even Stalky & Co. have for their headmaster, the one teacher at the school (with the possible exception of the Padre) who understands them best.
With “The Last Term,” we have a scene that we can only imagine when reading the original story. Beetle and the Head have a discussion about books, and we see the Head gently suggest to Beetle that he broaden his reading to include some non-fiction works as well. I think that Frederick Treves, as the Head, really shines. He regards Beetle with a kind of paternal pride throughout the scene and gets this dreamy, faraway look in his eyes when he reminisces about some of the books he’s read. It’s so nice to actually see this bond that has developed between Beetle and the Head, especially when we learn that the Head has been coaching Beetle for some time and has managed to secure him a job on a newspaper in India.
Before ending their last term, Stalky & Co. decide to go to Mother Yeo’s to settle their debts and say goodbye. While the scene with Tulke on the Bideford road seems to lose some of its humour, the scene in Mother Yeo’s shop doesn’t disappoint. The shop comes very close to matching my mental image of it, as do Stalky & Co.’s interaction with Mother Yeo and Mary. Robert Addie as Stalky is completely charming and seemingly guileless. He not only stands there with an arm around Mother Yeo’s shoulders, but he leans down to kiss her cheek and practically embraces her at one point. Although Mary Yeo has transformed from a blonde to a redhead, she still gives as good as she gets, slapping Turkey and Beetle when they try to kiss her and boldly ambushing Tulke in the street. The moment when Mary plants a huge kiss on Tulke’s lips is pure gold.
The crowning glory of “The Last Term” is the prefects’ meeting. Thinking they have the upper hand for once, the Sixth start to lecture Stalky & Co. on the manner in which they treated Tulke on the Bideford road. Stalky & Co. criticize the Sixth for failing to follow the proper protocol when calling a prefects’ meeting and accuse Tulke of trying to prevent them from interfering with his “amours”. The dialogue in this scene is fabulous, and David Parfitt (Beetle) and Paul Wilce (Tulke) deserve praise for their performances. I was happy to see much of these scenes preserved, with the writers providing the scope this last jape deserves. Of course, I shouldn’t neglect the Latin exam, which I consider to be more of a farewell gift to King than a prank. In this episode, Stalky and Turkey are sitting the exam as well as Beetle, so all three boys are able to witness King’s panic and fury when he realizes that the exam paper is full of mistakes (due to Stalky & Co.’s handiwork).
Near the end of this episode, there’s a shot of Beetle standing at the door of their empty study with a rather sad and wistful expression on his face. Although he’s eagerly anticipating his job in India, he knows he’s going to miss the Coll and that his schooldays are truly over. We see a humourous take on this transition from boyhood to adulthood when Stalky, decked out in a top hat and other accoutrements, tells Tulke that he should address him as “Mister Corkran”. In the final shot of the episode, as the carriage drives away from the school, we see Stalky & Co. stand up and break into song. Somehow, this seems like a fitting end to the series.
That Ever I Should Live to See This Day! (Review of Stalky and Co dvd) – Part 1
That Ever I Should Live to See This Day! (Review of Stalky and Co dvd) – Part 2
Stuart McLean (myreviewer.com) Review
Critics Associated Review
Archive Television Review
Crossposted at http://rusty-armour.dreamwidth.org/148172.html